LOS ANGELES -- Just about 30 years ago, I wrote a "Reporter at Large" article for The New Yorker magazine about Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living, illegally and legally, in Southern California. The Mexican and Chicano population of Los Angeles was the second-largest Mexican city in the world, behind only Mexico City itself.
For a New Yorker, a stranger in a strange land, the reporting launched fireworks of new ideas and revelations. The first and most astounding thing to me was that white Angelenos were the only middle-class Americans I had seen who had servants -- maids, nannies, gardeners, nurses and handymen -- all Mexicans, some naturalized or second- and third-generation American citizens.
Whatever their immigration status, they were great workers and good people, usually raising their children as English-speaking, Americanized young people. Spanish accents were fading then. Now, most of my Mexican-American students at the University of Southern California sound just like any boys and girls from the San Fernando Valley and other points Angeleno. I haven't seen their papers or documents, but they are as American as me or you.
Obviously, the people hiring for about half-price compared with other American workers loved them, even if they grumbled now and then about "foreigners" and "wetbacks," a word used back then. The other thing that I learned, and something that has enormous political importance now, is that the "legals" and the "illegals," the "documented" and the "undocumented" were related. They were family.
Mexican-Americans did not vote much then, but they were extremely sensitive to any political or governmental moves that denied American rights to the undocumented, their parents, uncles, brothers and sisters. They do vote now, as Republican candidates learned last year. Despite socially conservative views about everything from marriage to work, they are voting Democratic by large margins. And that is one reason Barack Obama won a second term as president and Antonio Villaraigosa has been the mayor of Los Angeles for the past eight years. They think Republicans hate them and hate any liberal governance aimed at helping working people or poor people. Perhaps this will change when there are Chicano hedge funds.
In sifting through the election returns of last year, some of the clueless Republicans and conservatives did get some clues. Losing focused their minds for a bit.
Last week, one of the stars of the "soft" right, David Brooks of The New York Times, wrote a wake-up column with implications for readers who not only do not much like dark-skinned immigration, but are also hostile to such kindling issues as gay marriage and abortion. They seem incapable of understanding, once more, that these are family issues. Gays and women who choose abortion are our relatives. They are in our families. We love them -- even Republican senators with gay children love them -- and we don't like seeing them pushed around by our government. The Republicans like to talk about "family values," but they certainly don't appreciate some of them.
What Brooks wrote to his clueless friends included this:
"Immigration opponents are effectively trying to restrict the flow of conservatives into this country. In survey after survey, immigrants are found to have more traditional ideas about family structure and community than comparable Americans. They have lower incarceration rates. They place higher emphasis on career success. They have stronger work ethics. Immigrants go into poor neighborhoods and infuse them with traditional values....
"Immigration opponents are trying to restrict assimilation. The evidence about this is clear, too. Current immigrants enter this country because they want to realize the same dreams that inspired past waves. Study after study shows current Hispanic immigrants are picking up English at an impressive clip, roughly as quickly as earlier immigrant groups. They are making steady gains in homeownership rates, job status and social identity. By second generation, according to a Pew Research Center study released earlier this year, 61 percent of immigrants think of themselves as 'typical Americans.'"
Soon they may be more typical than Republicans.