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LA Weekly - Mexican American Princes: ¡Mas Suave! - The Essential Online Resource for Los Angeles

04/14/2007 07:58 PM

LA Weekly - Mexican American Princes: ¡Mas Suave! - The Essential Online Resource for Los Angeles
Online Resource for Los Angeles 04/14/2007 07:58 PM FEATURES MEXICAN AMERICAN PRINCES: ¡MAS SUAVE! They’re



They’re handsome, charming and so good to their mothers. They’re Mexican American Princes, and they rule Los Angeles BY DANIEL HERNANDEZ

Wednesday, April 11, 2007 - 3:00 pm

BY DANIEL HERNANDEZ Wednesday, April 11, 2007 - 3:00 pm Photo by Gregory Bojorquez “Youngsters got

Photo by Gregory Bojorquez

“Youngsters got to learn, got to recognize, that the cold heart of Hispanic ambition can leave your soul as dry as the Owens Valley.”

—Norte/Sur, in the play Water & Power

On March 13, with the firing squad of the Washington press corps standing before him, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales opened a practically suicidal news conference by invoking his “core principles” as the nation’s chief law-enforcement officer: independence, accountability and, in his case, “obstacles.”

“Let me just say one thing,” Gonzales said, visibly shaken by the furor over the politically motivated dismissals of eight of his deputy attorneys. “I’ve overcome a lot of obstacles in my life to become attorney general. I am here not because I give up.”

That’s about when I felt a sudden urge to slap my forehead with the nearest hardback. Not out of disbelief, but out of shame.

Let me explain. Gonzales is from Texas, the grandson of Mexican immigrants. He attended public schools in Houston, then spent two years in the Air Force before heading off to Rice University and Harvard Law School. Later, he served as a Texas Supreme Court justice and, once his friend George W. Bush reached the White House, as counsel to the president. In 2005, after the resignation of John Ashcroft, Bush named Gonzales attorney general, the first Latino and first Mexican-American in the post. Were it not for the company he keeps and his utter disdain for habeas corpus, Gonzales should make me feel proud because he’s Mexican like me. At least, that’s how the thinking goes.

But when Gonzales referred to “obstacles in my life” in that press conference, it was pretty clear to me what he was doing. He was playing to the latent liberal guilt lurking inside everyone in that room. He was reminding them all that he was an accomplished Mexican-American, an ascendant, shiny brown thing, and therefore, he hoped they’d see, essentially good.

That curious leap in thinking, and how it was abused, is what made me cringe.Yet part of me understood that he was also feeling the weight of being a Mexican-American trailblazer, an up-by-his-bootstraps minority success. The Washington reporters weren’t going to write stories saying that he might have abused his power because of his ethnicity, but it was clear that he felt some internal pressure to defend not only himself but other ambitious Mexican-Americans. No one would expect such self- inflicted distress from Scooter Libby.

You’d think I’d be used to it by now, though. Where we live, there are

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LA Weekly - Mexican American Princes: ¡Mas Suave! - The Essential Online Resource for Los Angeles

04/14/2007 07:58 PM

dozens like Alberto Gonzales getting elected and appointed to the highest and most influential political offices. These guys are mostly new-labor Democrats — you won’t find many Republican tejanos in Los Angeles —but with the staggering demographic shifts our state has seen in the last 20 years, you can bet more are on the way. Republican or Democrat, their backstories are almost exactly alike. In fact, their tales of obstacles overcome are part of the secret behind their success. From Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to Congressman Xavier Becerra, they are a fascinating new breed of political and cultural icon, and their influence is expanding as California’s does. They’re living large and they’re in charge. I call them the Mexican American Princes.

in charge. I call them the Mexican American Princes. All Over the Map From politics to
in charge. I call them the Mexican American Princes. All Over the Map From politics to

All Over the Map From politics to pop culture, a Mexican American Prince Who’s Who

Sharp, articulate, clean-cut and well- mannered, the Mexican American Prince is proud to be Latino, extremely ambitious and coming to a position of power and influence near you. He loves the Dodgers, lowrider cars, the United Farm Workers and his mother. He collects Chicano art. He knows how to dance to cumbia, and no one ever taught it to him. He always looks his best. He’s really friendly. He’s probably already your friend.

He’s really friendly. He’s probably already your friend. Milestones in MAP History From Edward Roybal to

Milestones in MAP History From Edward Roybal to Alberto Gonzales

Prince or Troll? Where do L.A.’s most prominent MAPs land on the troll-o-meter?

Are You a Map? Top 10 signs you are a budding Mexican American Prince

And why not? The Mexican American Prince — let’s call him MAP for short — projects himself as the happy merging of generally contradictory stereotypes:

earnest lefty and appearance-obsessed metrosexual. He wears his social consciousness, barrio street cred and “activism” on one well-pressed sleeve, and glamour, fortune and power on the other. His persona is the antithesis of the “lazy Mexican” stereotype, which has lingered in the American imagination for decades. The Mexican American Prince is anything but lazy. Like the “model minority” Asian, the “Black American Princess” (see Condoleezza Rice), and other stretchy concepts of a cultural type, the MAP works tirelessly in the pursuit of achievement. He’s a modern “rico suave” with a stash of achievement certificates going back to kindergarten.

No one embodies this persona more completely in Los Angeles than Antonio Villaraigosa. It’s a major source of his popularity. You see it all the time whenever the mayor is in public. He is mobbed by gawkers, supporters and fans. Cameras are magnetically drawn to him. When Villaraigosa spoke at the National Latino Congreso at the downtown Sheraton last September, otherwise professional ladies in austere business suits let out desperate shouts of “Sexy! Sexy!”

Villaraigosa demurred, but only because that’s what you’re supposed to do. Cracking a joke, he referred to himself as an “abuelo,” a “grandpa,” and then coyly added, “Pero todavia se puede,” to a roar of laughter and cheers. “For those of you who don’t speak [Spanish], no translation for that one,” he snickered. More laughter, even from the English-only audience members who instinctively knew he was basically saying, “But I still got it in me.”

Villaraigosa rode his charismatic MAP persona to the top of City Hall by artfully combining “I’m from the barrio” with “I will be a mayor for all of Los Angeles.” The media portrayed the night of his 2005 victory as if people all over the city had let down their hair and joined an impromptu civic block party. (There actually was one great party, at Villaraigosa’s election-night gala, with a concert-style stage and lighting, food and alcohol, and a series of outdoor performances featuring music from L.A.’s kaleidoscope of cultures.) It was a jubilant night. It felt like some kind of cosmic equilibrium had been fulfilled. Villaraigosa became L.A.’s first Mexican mayor in more than 130 years. But he was also seen as an all-inclusive heir to the original coalition builder, Tom Bradley, the city’s first African-American mayor. It was more or less the same politics but in a different package, singing with the strains of redemption and triumph.

During the campaign, his life story was everywhere — in stump speeches and brochures, in debates and commercials. Villaraigosa incessantly repeats the tale of his perpetual struggles and how he majestically transcended them. Hollywood could not have written it any better. Raised by a working-class Mexican-American mother who worked multiple jobs to care for her children and was abused at the hands of his father, he navigates the tough streets of the Eastside (classic MAP stomping

LA Weekly - Mexican American Princes: ¡Mas Suave! - The Essential Online Resource for Los Angeles

04/14/2007 07:58 PM

grounds), falls in with the wrong crowd, is kicked out of Cathedral High School, gets a “second chance” when a benevolent teacher at Roosevelt High, Herman Katz, encourages young Tony Villar to take the SAT and go to college. He finds his way to UCLA, where he goes through a Chicano activist period. Then he graduates to union organizing, the state Assembly, the L.A. City Council, and the rest is history, recorded on the covers of national magazines. He wins so much in politics because he has perfected the story line.

In Villaraigosa’s case, somewhere along the way the Mexican American Prince story crossed from reality into myth. In an exhaustive takedown last year of the mayor’s self-made image by Daily News reporter Tony Castro, Villaraigosa’s estranged biological father defended his reputation against his son’s public slammings, saying he never abused alcohol or the future mayor’s mother. Castro’s story also noted that retired teacher Herman Katz had publicly declared he was growing “weary” of being pimped in Villaraigosa’s Garfield High School redemption narrative. “It wasn’t a ‘this-kid-could-be-mayor-one-day’ type of thing,” Katz had told The Jewish Journal.

Villaraigosa shot back at the story and defended his recollection of his childhood. After all, it wasn't just his rep at stake, it was the future of the city, if you think about it. Because there are still scores of us who are dropping out of school and falling into gangs, drugs, dead-end jobs or prison, Mexican American Princes see their success inextricably linked to the livelihood of millions of young strangers. I saw this first-hand as a reporter on the 2005 campaign trail.

It was the Monday morning before Election Day, at the corner of Soto Street and Cesar E. Chavez Avenue. Candidate Villaraigosa, the front-runner, was scheduled to greet pedestrians at that intersection starting at 7 a.m. My L.A. Times editors at the time told me to follow him around and call in a few scenes and quotes throughout the day. I was the only reporter around at that hour. As soon as Villaraigosa arrived, I made a point to approach him and introduce myself. I remember saying something like: “My name is Daniel. I’m a reporter with the L.A. Times. I’m going to be following you around today.”

“Good,” the mayor puffed, apparently without thinking. “You tell them to hire more Mexicans!”

And he marched off to start shaking hands.

I was stunned. He had a point — of course the Times should hire more Mexicans — but I had just identified myself as a reporter, not as a Mexican.

Villaraigosa didn’t pay much attention to me once other journalists arrived on the scene. But later that same afternoon, when all the other reporters had peeled away, Villaraigosa was reading from a picture book to a group of elementary school kids at a Para Los Niños campus near Skid Row. I was standing in the back of the room, hanging out with some of his campaign aides, when Villaraigosa pointed in my direction and told the schoolchildren something to the effect of, “See him? He was once like you. His parents are immigrants. But he worked hard, got good grades and he went to the University of California, Berkeley. And now he’s working for the newspaper. You too can achieve like him.”

How the hell did he know that? An aide admitted that they’d done some research on me during the lunch break. Unnerving. But not nearly as unnerving as realizing that Villaraigosa wasn’t trying to inspire those kids as much as he was trying to ensure himself some good coverage.

It was as if he was trying to establish some sort of kinship between us because American Prince too.

well because the truth is, I am a Mexican

Prince too. well because the truth is, I am a Mexican Yes, I must confess, I

Yes, I must confess, I bear all the tell-tale markers. A barrio upbringing, the necessary degree (four-year university, Pac-10 preferred), an inclination toward using charm and charisma to strategic advantage. Like all MAPs, I grew up loving Cesar Chavez, Saturday- night boxing and my mother. Although I don’t always display it, I have a soft spot for lowriders, Chicano rock & roll and Olde English letters. I know and use all the MAP slang terms, name brands and handshakes. (There’s the clasp-and-shoulder-bump, the clasp-and- finger-snap, the clasp-and-fist-bump, and the manhug, a MAP favorite.) I speak Spanglish, unavoidably.

Like most other princes, I did not come from privilege, but from California’s “upper-lower middle class.” We MAPs are proud to note that we are (usually) the sons of immigrants, and can often boast that we are the first in our families to attend college. This gives us invaluable social capital when we are at a swanky cocktail hour or networking event. Because nothing is cooler than an up-and-comer.

LA Weekly - Mexican American Princes: ¡Mas Suave! - The Essential Online Resource for Los Angeles

04/14/2007 07:58 PM

As Villaraigosa noted the day we met, I went to UC Berkeley, where I busied myself with attending lots of scholarship teas wearing blue-and-gold Cal ties. I owned a UC Berkeley baseball cap, prefrayed, and dutifully wore my New Balance sneakers and tan Gap cargo pants. I thought that’s just what you were supposed to do, a Mexican American Prince at university. Be the bright-eyed Latino in campus diversity brochures, wear cargo pants, show up on time for tea. I got a fat scholarshipafter writing in my college entrance essay about my “struggles” growing up in the hood, never mind the fact that my parents once experimented with actually paying us for good grades: $5 for As, $4 for Bs, and so on. And that was just in middle school.

But along the way, I deviated from the main path of the Mexican American Prince. I took an Y Tu Mamá También–style trip to Mexico and came back more scornful of “The Man” than any gourmet-eating hippie in a Berkeley co-op.

The tribe of MAPs needn’t miss me. There are young guys with sparkling teeth and résumés coming your way from all over. And

of course there are bright Mexican-American women, princesses you might say, who are popping up in elected office as well.

Look at Cindy Montañez in the San Fernando Valley, who was elected to the state Assembly when she was just 28 years old. But it’s the men, the princes, who have formed their own growing subculture. They’ve already conquered the cities of Southeast L.A. County, where Mexican American Princes and other Latino royalty of various generations have gotten themselves elected to power from Carson to Commerce. These cities have also recently become synonymous with crime and corruption. With all the scandals happening under MAPs and other Latinos in power, most noticeably in Cudahy (see Jeffrey Anderson’s “The Town the Law Forgot,” Feb. 23-March 1), Southeast L.A. County has left the rest of us Mexican American Princes frowning and a little embarrassed. Deep down, we feel those troubled little cities reflect poorly on us, whether we’re living up the street or hundreds of miles away.

Defiant yet still dutiful MAP that I am, I became determined to find a “good guy” in the Southeast, a face of the future. So I called up Jose Solache, the 26-year-old president of the Lynwood Unified School Board, and told him I’m looking to interview rising Latino leaders in L.A.

“I’m very excited for your story,” he tells me over the phone. “I’m excited to get in on it, get a piece of it.”

We meet at a Starbucks near Solache’s house in Lynwood. Two cell phones adorn the table. He tells me his parents are from Guanajuato, that he attended Lynwood public schools and then Cal State Dominguez Hills, where he served two terms as student body president (“Which is very rare,” he says). Upon graduating, he ran for an at-large seat on the local school board.

He was the second-highest vote-getter in his field. Solache says his professional goals once included law school and a career as

a lawyer, but now he says he wants to be a teacher. He loves visiting schools and meeting young people, and getting invited

over by their parents for chile relleno dinners. Solache also hopes for a career as an elected official, of course. He loves public

service. Really, really loves it. Really.

“Hey, Yeseña,” Solache calls to someone behind me at one point.

“My classmate from high school,” he winks in my direction. “I love this part, because you’re at Starbucks and you see the community. Quick side commercial: I love that. I love the fact that I could be a role model to my community. I love the fact that I could be down-to-earth to them.”

He inhales and exhales, exuberantly pleased with himself. As cheesy as Solache comes off, it’s impossible not to like him. Here’s a guy who’s making it, I think to myself, listening to him go on and on about his love for his community. His parents are immigrants. Dad is a truck driver, Mom is a housewife and Avon lady. He seems to get it. Achieve for yourself, he tells young people, no one else. I am momentarily seduced. I want to vote for him already. So I ask, does he want higher office?

Solache pauses, clasps his hands together, and sighs. “You know what I tell the parents? I tell them, ‘Well, someone has to be the assembly member, someone has to be the council member, why not someone that you lo — that you trust — I don’t want to say love, that’s too much — someone that you trust and believe in to be your council member, to be your mayor, to be your assembly member, to be your whatever-higher-office-you-can-think-of? Why not?

“I mean, when people go into a business, they plan to move on,” he continues. “Give me credit that I want to move on with my

life, that I want to make an impact. And trust me, Daniel, as I’m sure you know, public office is not easy at all. It’s hard.”

I ask Solache about his role models.

“I love Villaraigosa. I’m motivated by him. He brings that hope,” Solache says in rapid-fire fragments. “When Villaraigosa speaks,

I love the way he speaks

— and I’m a religious person, so it’s God too. So we all have someone to be accountable to. I know that my conscience has to

be clean.”

I think the spirit Villaraigosa brings, that hope

We all have a boss in life, my boss is the community

LA Weekly - Mexican American Princes: ¡Mas Suave! - The Essential Online Resource for Los Angeles

Solache raises a distressing question. After generations of mostly white leaders, are we to expect anything different from MAP politicians than the guys who came before them? What makes them automatically worth our adulation, beyond the sexy Spanish surnames? Veteran political consultant James Acevedo says not much else.

“There were days when I used to say, ‘It’s us versus the greater society.’ Today it’s Latinos running against Latinos. Now it isn’t as much about ethnicity as what you stand for,” says Acevedo. “I think people are finding our politics are just as mainstream as anyone else’s.”

And yet, says L.A. City Councilman José Huizar, things have progressed so smoothly that Latino politicians and voters can get complacent about bigotry toward Mexicans in elections or in daily life.

04/14/2007 07:58 PM

Mexicans in elections or in daily life. 04/14/2007 07:58 PM “I think that we’re far from

“I think that we’re far from achieving the type of power we think we have,” Huizar insists. “It’s like, ‘Si se puede, y ya lo hicimos’ (Yes we can, we already did it). But we haven’t even gotten there.”

I’m sitting with Huizar at another Starbucks, this one on the ground floor of the New Otani Hotel in Little Tokyo, near City Hall. Huizar is the most recent Mexican American Prince to reign in Council District 14, following Mayor Villaraigosa. He was born and raised in Boyle Heights and has returned to live there as an adult. He got his planning degree at Princeton, his law degree at UCLA, and his undergraduate degree at Berkeley, where he was active in student government.

“We did some research, and I am the first Latino immigrant on the City Council,” says Huizar, who was born in Zacatecas. “It encapsulates the growing Latino population in L.A. that someone like me” — his eyes flutter a bit — “can come to this country, and because of the educational opportunities, represent the community. It’s huge.”

It’s also “huge,” he says, that he sits on the Princeton Board of Trustees, the first and only Latino to do so. He frequently points this out. He also admits that many of his achievements in L.A. politics have been due to his close relationship with Mayor Villaraigosa. Then, without being asked about the topic, Huizar brings up the possibility that he could one day succeed his mentor. “People say, ‘Oh you want to be mayor,’ but I’m happy doing what I do now. I’m very happy being a City Council member,” Huizar insists. “I’ve been dreaming about this since I was a kid. I used to ask myself, why can’t Boyle Heights have the parks, all the infrastructure. Now I can do something about that.”

The whole time, Huizar is fiddling with his cell phone, tearing up a napkin, looking down. Even he seems to hardly believe himself.

In their self-mythologizing, in their unabiding sense of entitlement and, as we’ve seen in Villaraigosa’s leadership style at City Hall, in their intolerance for dissent, MAPs in politics offer a stark lesson. It doesn’t matter what ethnic group politicians belong to, they’re still politicians, working, however nobly, in an inherently corrupt infrastructure built on media manipulation, corporate and private servitude, and the cracklike addiction to power and self-preservation. In Los Angeles, all that has changed are the surnames, the skin color and a few details in the story line. Carnitas instead of cannoli.

Looking for a reason to keep the faith, I decide to look for MAPs outside of politics. After all, they are everywhere these days — on our movie screens and our favorite teams, in boardrooms, cop cars, fire trucks and Humvee convoys. They even sell us real estate.

On a tip, I hear about Juan Jose “J.J.” Lopez of Realty Masters in Montebello, and call him up to ask for an interview.

“I’d be more than interested in telling you my feel-good story,” Lopez says when I tell him I want to meet him. “As long as it’s not an article to try to get me to buy a subscription.”


Realty Masters is a two-story stucco building on a hill overlooking the 60 freeway. Lopez greets me in his long executive office. He’s tall and handsome. He wears a nice watch, and his shoes are spotless. A MAP, no doubt.

“I was brought to this country at the age of 6 and raised in East L.A.,” Lopez says almost right away.

LA Weekly - Mexican American Princes: ¡Mas Suave! - The Essential Online Resource for Los Angeles

04/14/2007 07:58 PM

He was born in Jalisco and raised in a two-bedroom, one-bath house near the Ramona Gardens housing project in East L.A., the youngest of 11 siblings. That’s 13 people in a two-bedroom house. “It was not fun waiting for the restroom,” Lopez recalls.

His mother taught him “every time you make a dollar, put half of it away,” a habit that came in handy when Lopez, at age 18, bought his first home, “a hole in the wall” in East L.A. With a $5,000 down payment from his many part-time jobs, Lopez joined the ranks of homeowners right out of high school. Within three years, that $25,000 house sold for $85,000.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute, this is it.’”

Lopez enrolled at Cal State L.A. but never completed a degree. He didn’t have to. In a short time, after being told at a few franchise realty offices that he “didn’t fit the mold” to be an agent (code, he says, for “You’re too Mexican”), J.J. Lopez decided to become his own mogul. He founded Realty Masters in 1996. For six of the last 10 years, his has been the top-selling office among members of the Montebello Board of Realtors. Lopez now runs a staff of 63 associates, an especially noteworthy accomplishment for a nonfranchise operation.

Now Lopez, 42, never has to wait for the bathroom. He owns his own eight-bedroom, 10-bath house in Hacienda Heights.

Ten bathrooms?

“People ask me, ‘Why do you need so many bathrooms?’ Because I come from a two-bedroom, one-bath house. My goal,” Lopez says, “was to have as many bathrooms as I wanted.”

How did he do it? Like all other Mexican American Princes who achieve such things. By working hard, setting goals and listening to his mother. Even with a mansion in Hacienda Heights, Lopez hasn’t forgotten the secret brew cooked in cramped Mexican- American homes up and down California. He’s raising two daughters bilingually because a bilingual person, he insists, “makes more money than a single-language individual.”

Thinking beyond his family, he’s also traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for loosened regulations for first-time, immigrant home buyers.

“No matter where you go,” Lopez says, “you have to remember where you came from.”

Listening, I’m beginning to really believe. Really.

“I’m very much excited for the future. California is all minorities now,” Lopez continues. “Latinos, now that Mr. Villaraigosa is in control of the city, we really are in control of the future, I feel. That’s why those in leadership, those who can be mentors, should take that and run with it, and help out the community.”

I’m seduced again. If J.J. Lopez can do it, why can’t others? Why not every young Mexican kid out there. Heck, all Latinos, too, never mind all those mean intra-Latino biases. Everyone! Just listen to your mother, comb your hair and get good grades.

As I get up to leave Realty Masters, Lopez adds, pointing to the carpet beneath us, “This building. I own this building.”

And I’m wondering to myself, when do I get to vote for him?