Peter Skerry
Peter Skerry
Mexican-Americans:  The Ambivalent Minority
ISBN: 0674572629
Mexican-Americans: The Ambivalent Minority
Mr. Skerry discussed his book and said that the significance of his subtitle, "the ambivalent majority," is that no one is quite sure of the political direction of this newly emerging group in the next decade. He stated that the ambivalence is political and not psychological, and believes that Mexican-Americans will be the next "test case" of how America integrates its ethnic minorities.
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TRANSCRIPT
Mexican-Americans: The Ambivalent Minority
Program Air Date: October 3, 1993

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Peter Skerry, your book, "Mexican Americans," has a subtitle, "The Ambivalent Minority." Why did you put that subtitle on this book?
PETER SKERRY, AUTHOR, "MEXICAN AMERICANS Well, I put it on because I think it describes the central question that faces Mexican-Americans as well as the rest of us, about what political direction this newly emergent group is going to be taking in American society in the next decade or more. There's basically, as I see it and argue in the book, two choices or two paths here for Mexican-Americans to follow.

One is the traditional, rather familiar immigrant ethnic group pattern -- groups who come here willingly to the United States, know that they came here of their own volition, and choose to become part of American society and make great advances in doing so socially, economically and politically. The other pattern is what I call a racial minority pattern, which is probably most typified by the politics that black Americans have pursued in the last 20 years. That is a pattern where the group claims basically to have been historically discriminated against by American society. Often they did not come here of their own free will. They're not immigrants. And to achieve success in America they argue that they need special compensation -- affirmative action, the Voting Rights Act -- to get ahead.

I see Mexican-Americans falling somewhere between these two polar extremes and trying to make a choice between them hence, the word ambivalent. I don't mean ambivalent, by the way, in any kind of psychological sense. I often tell people that my Mexican-American friends seldom like the title of my book. When I got that response from them, I asked them to come up with a better one for me. They couldn't; I couldn't. But they often think I mean that this is some sort of confusion of a psychological nature on their part. They don't know where or who they are. Far from that. I'm talking about a set of political choices that the group as a whole is facing. And that's what I mean by ambivalent.
LAMB: What is a Mexican-American?
SKERRY: Well, in some ways, I think a difficult question. It's a question of where we draw the line. And it's a question I faced when I was trying to write this book, because I think in some way an illegal immigrant from Mexico who has come across that border and lived here for a few years and begun raising a family, perhaps, whose children are undoubtedly American citizens because they were born here, is for all intents and purposes a Mexican-American. They're not going back to Mexico, probably, and certainly their children aren't. So I take a rather broad and small-key -- small Catholic view of who a Mexican-American is and define it in those very broad and general terms.
LAMB: What's the difference between somebody that was born in El Salvador, speaks Spanish, comes up to this country the same way and melds into a Spanish-speaking community?
SKERRY: Well, I think the first big difference would obviously be that the El Salvadoran came up here as a political refugee, or at least as somebody who was fleeing a civil strife and civil war in their home country, probably intends to go back at some point, and most of all, doesn't have a long history as Mexican-Americans do, or Mexican immigrants, of moving back and forth across that border between the United States and Mexico. Most Mexicans who have come here, particularly recently, aren't fleeing civil strife. Some did at the turn of the century, during the Mexican revolution. But I think it's that long-standing historical tie with the Southwest, the fact that California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona used to be part of Mexico, which is something Mexicans never forget, and certainly, Mexican-Americans don't forget that.
LAMB: How many Mexican-Americans are there?
SKERRY: Oh, let's see, there's 22 million Hispanics overall in the United States these days, and about 60 percent of those are Mexican-Americans. So that's about 17 million or so.
LAMB: Where do they live?
SKERRY: Well, they're concentrated most heavily in California and Texas, which each of them will have about 25 percent of their statewide population as Mexican-American. But Mexican-Americans are scattered all over the United States. There's a large Mexican-American community in Chicago. There's certainly many Mexican-Americans in Colorado, in Denver -- about 17 percent of Denver's population. New Mexico, of course, has an old population of people who don't always call themselves Mexican-American, and who call themselves Hispano and trace their origins back more to Spain than to Mexico. But in some way they fit into this picture, too, but mostly in the Southwest.
LAMB: Is there a human being that you've known that you would say is your best friend -- not personal best friend, but who's the Mexican-American you know the best?
SKERRY: Well, I suppose the Mexican-American I know the best is a man named Richard Martinez, who is somebody I met when I first began my research in San Antonio. He began his political life as a young activist -- a Chicano activist, in his native Los Angeles, where he was involved in a famous episode where the young Catholic activist Chicanos, Polarasa, were demonstrating against Cardinal McIntyre, the arch-conservative cardinal of Los Angeles at the time. This was in the late '60s.

There was a famous demonstration at the cathedral there, where they were demanding certain prerogatives for Chicanos within the Catholic church and wound up getting arrested. And it was quite a brouhaha in the midst of Christmas -- Midnight Mass, Christmas of 1969. I later met Richard just after he had finished working as a community organizer in various kinds of Saul Olinksy-oriented community organizations in Los Angeles and in San Antonio. And he had just left that position and was a field organizer for a gentleman by the name of Willie Velasquez, whose Southwest Voter Registration Education Project is one of the major Mexican-American organizations in the Southwest today. And Richard is still working for them now back in Los Angeles, his hometown.
LAMB: You mention early in your book Willie Velasquez and you say he's dead of cancer at age 44.
SKERRY: Yes.
LAMB: Who was he?
SKERRY: Well, Willie is, in many ways, the person who got me first -- I won't say first interested, but certainly got me drawn into things having to do with Mexican-Americans. He was a Chicano activist in San Antonio, where he was born and raised; went to many of the same schools, the same Catholic high school -- Central Catholic High School, where Henry Cisneros went; where another important Mexican-American, Ernie Cortez, whom I write about in the book, also came out of Central Catholic.

Willie did, too. He came from a strong union-oriented family, got involved in Chicano activist causes in the '60s, when he was a student at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, and was involved in the Laras Unita party efforts in the '60s in Texas, but moved beyond those at some point, as many young Chicano activists did, and became involved in a major voter registration effort that eventuated in the Southwest Voters Registration Education Project.

And essentially, Willie was the prime moving force behind an effort that encompassed the entire Southwest, parts of Chicago as well, where there were Mexican-Americans, as I said, trying to get Mexican-Americans involved in the political process through registration efforts, primarily. And I met him when he was back in Cambridge -- back in Boston, my own hometown. He was giving a course at the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government. And I sat in on his course, and got more and more intrigued about Mexican-Americans, this newly emerging group -- at least to my awareness -- that was emerging in the Southwest. And one thing led to another. He urged me to come down to San Antonio and find out more, and I did, and that was really the genesis of the book.
LAMB: When did he die?
SKERRY: He died in 1988, rather tragically and prematurely, as I indicate in my introduction, of cancer, at the age of 44, and left behind a big void for lots of Mexican-Americans. He was he was a genuinely and impressively community-oriented individual. I think that's a word that gets overused many times. The word grass-roots gets overused many times. But Willie Velasquez had a genuine and strong relationship to Mexican-Americans all over the Southwest, especially in in his native south Texas, and he was a very impressive leader that way.
LAMB: Where was his family from?
SKERRY: His family was -- I'm not sure I know the answer to that. I know that his family, as I recall, was raised in San Antonio. His family weren't immigrants. Further back than that, I'm not sure. Obviously, they came from Mexico at some point.
LAMB: What kind of a person was he?
SKERRY: He was a very decisive kind of guy. He was very much in the good sense of the phrase, I think, a man of the streets, by which I mean to say he was very street-smart and had a certain, what I found, pleasing edge to his behavior. He knew what he wanted. He was straightforward, honest and decent about what he wanted, but he didn't beat around the bush. And he had a forthrightness about him that I think people sensed, and that had great appeal to people.
LAMB: How close did you get to him?
SKERRY: I got pretty close. I think part of being that kind of person, and particularly in a political context, there are some ways in which you never let your guard down. And I think I got through some of the guards that Willie would put up, being a political person. But I wouldn't pretend to have gotten to the inner being of Willie Velasquez. But I felt like I got to know him better than most people -- spent time in his home, with his family and his wife and three children, who were tragically left behind by his death; met his brother, so I feel like I got to know him pretty well, but I wouldn't pretend to have been a close personal friend.
LAMB: If he saw your book today, what do you think he'd tell you?
SKERRY: Well, I think he'd have mixed reactions. He'd probably say something like, "Gee, Pete, why did you say this?" Or, "This is right, but why did you say this?" I think he'd agree with the central question that I try to get at, about whether or not it makes sense to think of Mexican-Americans in terms of a typical immigrant ethnic group. That's a question that he was interested in, and it's a case he often made, that Mexicans are no different than any other immigrant group in America. And I think he would find that aspect of the book very appealing and, I hope, on target.

But he would clearly disagree with the other part of my argument, where I'm critical of the racial minority model, if you will, that Mexican-American leaders have adopted in many ways. And Willie did, too, when it suited his purposes. And I don't mean that in any kind of cynical sense. But when he found it useful or necessary to present that facet of the Mexican-American experience, that he felt entitled them to the special prerogative, say, of the Voting Rights Act, because Mexican-Americans had experienced, in his view, racial discriminations such that they couldn't advance without the benefit of such a program as the Voting Rights Act or affirmative action, he would make that argument forcefully.

On other occasions he'd make the other argument, that Mexican-Americans were no different than anyone else. And I think in many ways Willie embodied the kind of political ambivalence I'm trying to talk about in the book. So I think he would disagree with some of it and I think he would accept other parts of it.
LAMB: All right. Have you ever been active politically?
SKERRY: Yes. In maybe not quite the way you mean the question. I come from an Irish-Catholic political family back in Boston and from a very early age was involved in local politics. I had uncles and cousins who were running for local offices and state offices. And some of my earliest memories are Election Day, passing out leaflets at the polling booths. I got away from that kind of politics as I got older and quite disaffected from it, actually, in many ways, and was involved in sort of student-oriented kind of politics when I was in college. But I then worked on Capitol Hill for a short time for Senator Moynihan. But I hardly have led the life of a political activist. I've sort of been dipping in and out of it over the course of my life.
LAMB: Do you consider yourself a liberal or a conservative?
SKERRY: Well, I was afraid you'd ask me that question. I suppose, looking from the outside, many observers might classify me as what is called a neo-conservative, a person who has, at one point defined themselves as a liberal or even a leftist, which I certainly would have in college, defined myself as a radical, as we said in those days, but became disaffected with that view of the world and become much -- particularly over race issues -- the war in Vietnam and so forth -- and become much more sympathetic to Republican world views, although, I don't feel totally comfortable with much of what's on the Republican agenda, either, so that I don't feel comfortable with lots of these labels. But I suppose the fairest one is some sort of neo-conservative, maybe a dissident neo-conservative who ...
LAMB: I may have missed it. Where did you go to college?
SKERRY: I did my undergraduate work at Tufts in my hometown of Medford, Massachusetts, and did my graduate work and my Ph.D. in political science at Harvard.
LAMB: And what was your Ph.D. in?
SKERRY: In political science.
LAMB: I mean, was there a specialty?
SKERRY: Well, American politics and social policy issues, actually.
LAMB: After school where'd you go?
SKERRY: I came down here to Washington, and first I worked at the Brookings Institution, a think tank here in Washington; left there to go work for Senator Moynihan for a short time; and then I went to work at the American Enterprise Institute, which is a more conservative-oriented think tank here in Washington, also. Being at those two places sort of maybe reflects my own ambivalence, if you will.
LAMB: Have you taught?
SKERRY: Yes. That's what I do now. I teach political science at UCLA, but I do so here in Washington. I'm the director of something called the Center for American Politics and Public Policy, which is a program that's been started in the last three years. And we bring out UCLA students and faculty who want to do their own research, especially students we're focused on. It's a teaching program, primarily. Students come out here, take courses with me or other UCLA faculty or other people from around town -- from Brookings or AEI, who want to do adjunct teaching. And the core of it is that the students come and do what we call a field placement -- other people call them internships -- at various agencies, organizations around town and write a research paper about it.
LAMB: Why should anyone care about Mexican-Americans and read this book? I mean, what's the reason for it, the need for this?
SKERRY: Well, I think that in many ways Mexican-Americans are the next test case, if you will, of how we're going to deal with our ethnic and racial business in America. I think they're clearly part of the group -- the Hispanic group of -- that is soon going to outnumber black Americans just in sheer numbers. And I think that the size of the group as well as the temptation to follow the racial minority politics that I try to get at in my book, that Mexican-American leaders in particular are certainly following, is a potentially divisive and extremely unfortunate direction that we're going in. And I think it points to the legacy, really, of the '60s in a way that we maybe don't often think about it.

I think Mexican-Americans have really been formed by the post-civil rights era, as I put it in my book. They were struggling to get attention and political acceptance in the '60s, many of them, when they saw the civil rights movement coming along -- the black civil rights movement -- and were very impressed by the political rewards that black leaders were able to obtain through that strategy, and basically became convinced that that's the way they had to go, too.

I think that that's an unfortunate choice for Mexican-Americans. I think it's an unfortunate choice for the rest of us. Given what they have to work with, I understand why Mexican-American leaders have gone that route. If I were in their shoes, I might conceivably go that route, too. But I'm not; and my job is obviously to describe it, and, I think, criticize it from the outside.

But I think the fact that they're going that way tells us about our political institutions today, and how we encourage disadvantaged groups to make their grievances and claims on the rest of American society. And I think it's a very divisive and unfortunate path that we've opened up for them.
LAMB: You start off by saying that this book was basically hatched in a lunchtime chat at Nathan Glazer's kitchen table. Who is Nathan Glazer and where's his kitchen table?
SKERRY: Nathan Glazer was a professor of mine, and probably one of the most important influences on my intellectual development that I can think of. He's a professor of sociology at Harvard University. I'm not a sociologist; I'm a political scientist, but I started out as a sociologist, and Nat Glazer has been a mentor, and now a good friend for many years. He is probably one of the most visible neo-conservative intellectuals in the country, although he himself would not feel very comfortable with that label. And he lives at 12 Scott Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And I was having lunch one day with him, one summer back in the early '80s and trying to think of what a good project for me to get my teeth into would be, and I guess I mentioned something about Mexican-Americans, and he got me thinking about comparing California and Texas, which wind up being sort of the heart of my analysis. And I owe a lot to him for that idea and many others.
LAMB: You also mention, early, James Q. Wilson, who has just had a book of his own. Who is he?
SKERRY: James Q. Wilson used to be a Harvard professor -- that's where I got to know him -- in the government department at Harvard. He's since left there and now a colleague of mine at UCLA. He's a recently retired president of the American Political Science Association, a man who has spent a good part of his life researching and writing about crime issues and public policy on crime. He also began his career writing a book about black Americans, at a time in the late '50s that maybe in some ways is analogous to today, the Mexican-Americans. And that was on my mind when I began this book.
LAMB: What impact did he have? Did you talk to him about this book?
SKERRY: Oh, an enormous impact, sure. He played a really formative influence on helping me guide the research, helping me raise some of the money for the research. He has an abiding interest in these issues, too, because he's from Los Angeles. He grew up in Long Beach and he's written about this very eloquently. And what's going on in California today is of intense importance to him.
LAMB: Take the name Henry Cisneros...
SKERRY: Yes.
LAMB: ...former mayor of San Antonio, current secretary of Housing and Urban Development -- what does he symbolize?
SKERRY: Well...
LAMB: Is he a Mexican-American?
SKERRY: Oh, he's most definitely a Mexican-American. And he comes from one of the leading Mexican-American families of San Antonio, where he became mayor in the '80s, during much of the time that I was writing the book. He is clearly one of the leading, if not the leading Mexican-American politician today. He speaks with an authority and a force and a presence and an intelligence, I think, that clearly establishes him in the first rank of Mexican-American public figures.
LAMB: Which side does he come down on, though, in your theory?
SKERRY: Well, that's a good question, because he began, I would argue, in a different place than where he is today. Henry Cisneros comes from a family that in some ways I got to know well when I was in San Antonio. I got to know his uncle, an extremely interesting man by the name of Reuben Mongija, who was a printer -- who still is a printer, very much in the sort of the classic Ben Franklin tradition, if you will -- a printer who engages in printing as much out of political interest as anything else.

People would come and bring printing to Reuben Mongija in San Antonio in the '50s and '60s, not necessarily because they wanted handbills printed for political contests, but because they wanted political advice. He was, in effect, an early consultant. He's also a writer himself, who has published many of his own thoughts on various issues at his own printing presses.

And it's at Reuben Mongija's printing shop, right around the corner from where Henry Cisneros grew up, that Henry Cisneros learned many of his first lessons about politics. And the reason I'm talking about Reuben Mongija is that those origins are important -- obviously important to Henry Cisneros, but I think it's fair to describe Reuben Mongija -- I don't think he would be too angry at me -- if you are, Reuben, please forgive me, but I think it would be fair to describe him as a kind of moderate or even conservative Democrat -- certainly a DLC kind of Democrat, a Democratic Leadership Council Democrat.

I've also met Henry Cisneros' uncle, Romula Mongija, who ran for the Texas Senate as a Republican. My point is that this is a relatively conservative family, and I just don't mean conservative in a social sense, but I mean a conservative family that has Republican ties. And when Henry Cisneros began his political career, for example, he was a White House fellow under the the Nixon administration, and he worked with Elliot Richardson, who was at the time, I think, secretary of HEW.

Many years later, when Henry Cisneros became much more visible, and, in fact, when he was appointed to the Kissinger commission on Central America in the early '80s, there was an interesting quote from Elliot Richardson that I mention in my book. He said, "I didn't know Henry was a Democrat. That was the first time I realized that Henry Cisneros was a Democrat. Up to then I thought he was a Republican."

Many people in Texas thought he was a Republican, partly because local politics in Texas is non-partisan and you don't have to declare your partisan affiliations, but also partly because Henry Cisneros was an astute politician, who was a fiscal conservative in many ways, focused on economic development issues very astutely in San Antonio, and came across like he could be a Republican. These days he doesn't quite sound that way.

I've noticed that whenever he seems to talk about what's going on in the cities, he immediately seems to reduce the whole question of our urban policy to one of race. And when he means race, he seems to be talking about some amorphous category that includes Hispanics, Latinos, blacks, in this sort of boundless lump, which I find rather disturbing because he's doing exactly what I criticize in the book -- that he's treating Latinos as though they are a racial minority group equivalent to blacks. And I think they're not. Their problems are very different. They're an immigrant group. Blacks are not, quite obviously. But Henry Cisneros is obviously, I think, pursuing a different strategy today, because he's obviously playing a leading role in a Democratic administration where the dynamics have changed rather drastically.
LAMB: Someone that our viewers who watch C-SPAN regularly recognize would be Henry B. Gonzalez.
SKERRY: Yes.
LAMB: Now how does he fit into all this?
SKERRY: Well, Henry B. Gonzalez is probably a case unto himself, I think.
LAMB: Former mayor of San Antonio.
SKERRY: No, he was never mayor.
LAMB: Never mayor?
SKERRY: No. He was a state senator. And Henry Cisneros was the first Mexican-American mayor of San Antonio in modern times.
LAMB: I think what throws me off is when you go to San Antonio there's the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, and ...
SKERRY: You sure do see that pretty prominently. But that doesn't reflect his having been mayor. I think it just reflects his longevity in Mexican American Texas politics, never mind Mexican-American circles, and the esteem in which he's held. I mean, he's been there a long time and revered by many people. But he's very much of a loner, and not the kind of person, I think, to his detriment, who has devoted much time to bringing other young Mexican-American politicians along. He hasn't done that, and in fact, he's notorious for not having done that.

And that points to one of the problems that's not just unique to Henry B. Gonzalez, but it's a problem in San Antonio politics, where there's a kind of yeastiness and a feistiness about politics there that's true of Texas, generally. But it's kind of anarchic, and in that kind of environment there aren't a lot of mechanisms for the established politicians to bring young people along, because they're never sure of themselves long enough, that you never know who's going to come along and do you in, and you don't want to be cultivating youngsters who might do that.
LAMB: If you jump to your other city -- you spent a lot of time in Los Angeles -- you have Ed Torres, who is not there anymore.
SKERRY: Right.
LAMB: His daughter's there -- but Esteban Torres -- is he a Mexican-American?
SKERRY: He most certainly is.
LAMB: And what about Edward Roybal? And what's the difference between being a Los Angeles politician ... Mexican-American vs. San Antonio?
SKERRY: Well, to answer the first question, Ed Roybal is a Mexican-American also. He was born in New Mexico. He calls himself a " manito," as those from New Mexico do. It's a familiar term for Mexican-Americans or Hispanos from New Mexico. It's a diminutive of "hermanito," or my little brother. And he and Los Angeles politicians are different in many ways, and that's one of the things I spend a lot of time looking at in my book.

I'm not sure it's a question specifically of personalities or individuals, although it is true that most of the major Mexican-American officials that one can think of are public figures -- Henry B. Gonzalez, Henry Cisneros, Willie Velasquez, Ernie Cortez -- somebody else I talk about -- or organizations that they founded, all tend to come from San Antonio or south Texas. And I think that speaks to the more general point that Mexican-Americans in San Antonio have been much, much more successful at politics than their counterparts in Los Angeles, even though most people would think that Los Angeles and California, being much more liberal environments, much less oppressive, both of which are true, would have been more conducive to Mexican-Americans making their way politically. Yet, in fact, it's been quite the opposite.

So I would point -- when you mention Ed Roybal or Esteban Torres, I would think of political leaders who are -- certainly, you know, I have no quarrel with them. They're fine, decent public servants, but they're not -- they represent a cadre of Mexican-American politicians who have not had the kind of success and do not have the kind of stature that one finds among Mexican-Americans in San Antonio and south Texas.
LAMB: By the way, do you speak Spanish?
SKERRY: Well, I speak some Spanish. I'm always a little embarrassed by that. I speak some Spanish. I can get by -- not as well as I'd like. And part of the reason for that is that I brushed up on my Spanish before I went out to the Southwest. I have an ear for languages. I speak probably better French than I do Spanish. I speak quite good French, and assumed I was going to do better with my Spanish as I spent time in the Southwest, talking to people. But it turns out that certainly many of the political activists and leaders that I talked to don't speak Spanish typically among themselves often. Many of them can't speak Spanish. They assimilate very quickly and lose Spanish. Some of those who can speak Spanish now do so because they went back and purposely tried to learn it, again to -- for obvious, well, political reasons, which I certainly don't fault. So I can muddle along, but my Spanish isn't as good as I'd like it to be.
LAMB: How close did you get to people in San Antonio and in Los Angeles, people in the Mexican-American community?
SKERRY: Well...
LAMB: How much time did you spend there...
SKERRY: ...a lot of...
LAMB: ...and when did you start all this?
SKERRY: This goes back to the early '80s, and I spent a lot of time there. I spent about eight months overall my first long visit in San Antonio, probably much longer than anyone thought I needed to certainly, longer than some of my friends back East thought I needed to. But I got into and really liked San Antonio a lot. It got to the point where I couldn't go anywhere where I didn't know people any hour of the day or night. And I sort of liked that feeling. And I wound up spending about the same amount of time in Los Angeles -- about eight months -- and then went back on several occasions for three- or four-month stints in either place, and then went back for a short weeklong visits, subsequently.
LAMB: But as you did your research, what did you wear, where did you live, how did you gather the research? You say here you gave everybody that you interviewed anonymity.
SKERRY: Right. Well, how I mean, I was in a lot of different contexts, OK, as I mention in the book. I talked to politicians and officials in their offices, in which case I dressed pretty much like I did now, maybe the same old suit. But I also spent a lot of time just sort of hanging out as anthropologists or sociologists might say -- going to community meetings, trying to get to meet community organizers in San Antonio and Los Angeles, who weren't always eager to meet me because they didn't really know me or trust me real well. And I obviously dressed very casually, and did my best to sort of blend into the background as best one could do who came from the outside, although I have to say that often I was mistaken for a Mexican ...
LAMB: Did you have the beard then?
SKERRY: Yeah, I did. And ...
LAMB: Are most Mexicans Catholic?
SKERRY: Most Mexicans are Catholic. About eighty...
LAMB: Most Mexican-Americans?
SKERRY: Most Mexican-Americans are Catholic -- about 85 percent. There's this really strong evangelical and fundamentalist movement going on among Mexican-Americans today that have the Catholic bishops very worried. But clearly, the biggest majority is still Catholic.
LAMB: The reason I ask is that you did have that in common. You're an Irish Catholic.
SKERRY: Yeah. I did have that in common, and I feel that. I'm reluctant to press that too hard, as though that gives me some extraordinary insight into Mexican-Americans. But I do think it gave me some handles to grab on to, that there was some familiar territory here that I could try to make sense of. Although, I must admit, when particularly in San Antonio, I became very aware, very quickly, that the kind of Irish-Catholicism that I grew up in Boston in the 1950s is so different than the kind of Catholicism that Mexican-Americans practice today. And for all I know, it's different from what they practiced in the 1950s. There's a warmth and a kind of openness, I think, about Mexican-American Catholicism that I would not identify with my own Irish-Catholic background, unfortunately.
LAMB: What other personal things would you say about Mexican-Americans? How would you define them?
SKERRY: Well, I guess I'd define them much as they define themselves to me. The first think I find that Mexican-Americans say to me when I sit down and talk to them, and still do, is they inevitably talk about their family values and their strong family values. It's very much on their minds. It's a self-conscious part of their culture. I remember over a couple of beers when I first got to San Antonio, talking to some political consultant, a Mexican-American who was emphasizing this to me, and I got a little testy with him. I'd heard this one too many times, as though somehow I didn't know what a family was, or other people didn't have families. So I said to him, "Hey, pal," I said. "You know, back in Boston it isn't one big kibbutz, you know. We have families, too. I think I know what you're talking about." That was after a few beers, like I said. I try to be a bit more discreet, generally.

But I think that points to something that's really important to Mexican-Americans. And also, I think, points to some of their problems, too. I mean, they tend to think of their strong family values as a real strength and virtue. And I think part of this is the picking up on the rhetoric of the Reagan years, when family values first got a good name, as it were.

And I'm certainly not critical of family values, but I also can see some ways in which strong family ties can be a hindrance to individual Mexican-Americans. If your family is very protective and holds on to you, it can inhibit your individual mobility in lots of ways. You might be less inclined, and I think if you're Mexican-American, you are less inclined to go off to a distant university where you might be offered a fellowship. I hear that story over and over again and I see evidence of it in the research literature. You don't want to get that far from home. You don't want to get that far from family.

So you don't go for the brass ring quite that way. Also, talking to Mexican-American school officials and truant officers in San Antonio, I was impressed with how strong family values sometimes can lead to the dynamic whereby you have young women in the family who, say, are going to junior high school, but you're kind of fearful of what's going on in the public schools -- with good reason, given what's going on these days, part, but particularly culturally, so you might be inclined to sort of hold on a little tight and not encourage your young daughter, perhaps, to go to school, particularly if she has siblings who need babysitting, for example.

And analogously, if you have a young man who -- working class, lower middle class, probably doesn't want to go to school, anyway, that's nothing new in our history. Italian-Americans had the same problem. But if you are hard-pressed economically and the young individual wants to go out and work, well, maybe you're liable to let him go out and work, earn some money, maybe not go to school when he's 15 or 16 like he would better advised to do. But that contributes to the family pot. And there's a sense of the family keeping together, supporting one another, but these individual avenues of mobility maybe aren't explored as much as they should be.
LAMB: Seventeen million Mexican-Americans -- I know a lot of them are kids, but what's the percentage that are Republicans and what's the percentage that are Democrats?
SKERRY: Well, the numbers on that vary. Certainly, in presidential elections, Ronald Reagan got something like 40 percent of the Mexican-American vote; Bush had something more like 30 percent. I think -- opinion surveys that we have suggest that something like 15 or 20 percent of Mexican-Americans would identify themselves as Republicans. Whatever the numbers are, it's clear that there's a tendency for Mexican-Americans to be Republicans and to vote Republican more than black Americans do, for sure. Although I am skeptical that Republicans are going to make bigger inroads among Mexican-Americans in the near future. I think there's some gains to be made there for Republicans, but I think basically Mexican-Americans are a working, lower middle-class constituency that still sees their interests very much with the Democrats. And they're not as seduced by the social issues as Republican elites back here seem to think they are.
LAMB: Chicano, Latino, Mexicano, what terms do people like that are of Spanish-speaking origin?
SKERRY: OK. Well, it depends greatly on who you talk to among Mexican-Americans, which is one of the interesting things about the group. This is a group that's very diverse, and that can be very advantageous in many ways, but it also can be problematic if you're trying to hold a group together. And the battle over the name, as it's called, I think, is symbolic of that.

I think the least controversial -- the safest and most widely accepted name for Mexican-Americans is Mexican-American. That's why I chose it for the title of my book. You might get an argument from younger Mexican-Americans, particularly those that are at universities or colleges, who see themselves as political activists and -- particularly focusing on cultural issues -- bilingual education and such. They're more likely to call themselves Chicanos, whereas their parents might very well reject that label quite vehemently.

The other terms, Latino or Hispanic, obviously refer to the broader group that would include Mexican-Americans but also Puerto Ricans, Cubans -- that whole panoply of groups that have emerged in America now, who share Spanish language, but probably not a whole lot more than that -- Spanish language and some cultural traits, but are very divergent in other ways. And there it seems as though Latino, as opposed to Hispanic, is winning. It's certainly much more popular in Southern California these days. And I think that's probably because Latino is a word that declines like Spanish words do. There's a Latino and a Latina. There's that feminization that can be done with that word. And that, I think, is more comfortable for many Latinos.
LAMB: Anybody ticked off at you because you wrote this book?
SKERRY: Sure. Many of my Mexican-American friends and the people I talk to don't accept parts of what I argue, as I mentioned before with Willie Velasquez. I argue in the book that the Voting Rights Act is not prudent public policy when applied to Mexican-Americans. And the fact of the matter is that most Mexican-Americans don't accept that view. They see this as the need to make political progress. And they don't accept my interpretation of the evidence at all on that score.
LAMB: How would their life be different if they didn't have the Voting Rights Act?
SKERRY: Well, I think it's...
LAMB: Or how is it better because they have it?
SKERRY: Well, they clearly gained many political offices, or some political offices directly from the Voting Rights Act. There's a Mexican-American supervisor sitting on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors right now, Gloria Molina, who wouldn't be there if it weren't for the Voting Rights Act and the recent efforts of the Justice Department court suit to make sure that there was a Hispanic district that was drawn. So there are clear victories like that.
LAMB: Does she acknowledge that, by the way?
SKERRY: Oh, she certainly does. And she makes no bones about that, that the Voting Rights Act was important to her political success. But I think in many ways those kinds of successes are more apparent than real. The basic demographic facts for Mexican-Americans can't be gotten around, that this a group that's very young -- that is to say, below the age of 18 -- such that people don't vote in large numbers. You can't vote if you're less than 18.

It's a group that's made up of large numbers of non-citizens, large numbers of people who aren't even here legally, never mind citizens. And while Los Angeles County is close to 40 percent Mexican-American now, only 10 percent of the electorate is Mexican-American, and that's because of those factors I just mentioned. There's only so much you can do with those numbers, and carving out Hispanic districts where Mexican-American leaders get elected because the districts are gerrymandered so that that happens, gets an elected official sitting in a seat.

But those numbers are such that that elected official can't deliver very many votes to anyone else because they don't have very many voters in their districts. They have large numbers of non-citizens in their districts. So when Willie Brown, the speaker of the California Assembly, wants votes for his candidates statewide, one can see very readily that he doesn't typically turn to Mexican-American politicians because they don't have very many votes to deliver. So I think in that sense it's illusory.
LAMB: You have -- by the way, the 17 million Mexican-Americans that's a rough figure that you came up with. How many of those are illegal?
SKERRY: I would say somewhere between 40 and 50 percent...
LAMB: Are illegal?
SKERRY: Yes. The numbers we have on illegals are not good and I wouldn't want to be held to that, but that's a rough approximation.
LAMB: And you predict at what year the Mexican-American or Spanish-speaking minority in this country will be larger than the African-American minority?
SKERRY: I don't predict that specifically, but I think that the predictions I've seen are sometime around the year of 2020, if not sooner.
LAMB: What do you say to the harshest critic of immigrants to this country from Mexico? Looking ahead, what kind of people -- I mean, are they and what will the impact be on this country when they are the largest minority?
SKERRY: Well, I don't really accept the question on its face, OK? When we say that they're going to be the largest minority, I'm not sure what people mean by that. I think they mean that this is another group like black Americans, who are going to be somehow problematic to the American social and political scene. I immediately point out, for example, when people talk about California being a majority minority state in a very short time -- I point out to them, well, that's interesting, but more than half of Mexican-Americans, if you look at the evidence, tell the Census Bureau that they're white.

The other large chunk, 40 percent or so, say that they belong to some other race, which is sort of ill-defined, which is part of what I talk about in the book. But here's a group that defines itself as white, who has aspirations, I think, that are very similar to what other immigrant groups have had, that are showing, socially and economically, through inter-marriage figures economic advances, residential patterns, that they're making progress like other immigrants have.

So I don't think that those are the things we should worry about. I think what we should worry about, to people who are upset about immigration, are the political questions that I try to focus on. I think while there's enormous evidence of Mexican-Americans assimilating in the ways that most people think of that term -- learning English and making social and economic advances, I think that those things are happening in a strange way, kind of independently of the way that politics is unraveling.

And the way that politics is unraveling is that this group has aspirations for political achievement and visibility like any group does, and I think those are perfectly legitimate. But the avenues that we've left open for them to make those political gains are the avenues of the racial minority path that have been laid down by blacks in this post-civil rights era. So the way those political aspirations get articulated and the way the problems that Mexican-Americans have -- because while I point to progress, there's undeniable problems for any large immigrant group. One should avoid glorifying the immigration experience as though it's one, you know, wonderful experience toward becoming an American. There's lots of obstacles and hardships that immigrants experience.

And the problem I have with our politics today is that it seems to me the only way we have of talking about disadvantage in these kind of obstacles -- the only way Mexican-Americans have is by putting it in terms of being a racial minority group that's been discriminated against historically, and that needs the special help of affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act. I think we need to find a different language for that, one that's more akin to what earlier immigrant groups had, along with different institutions, by the way, which earlier immigrant groups had, which Mexican-Americans don't have. So I think that political assimilation, as I talk about in my book, is the problem, not the kind of social and economic assimilation that most people seem to have in mind when they express anxieties about this group.
LAMB: You dedicate this book, "To the memory of my father, who taught me how to talk to strangers." What do you mean?
SKERRY: Well, I mean a couple of things. I mean it quite literally, that my father was the person from whom I learned to talk to and deal with people that I didn't know. My father was the kind of guy who would sit down on a bus and wind up talking to all sorts of people that he had very little in common with in any other context. But he was a very social kind of animal.

But I also mean, by the emphasis on strangers, that my dad was an Irish Catholic from Boston with some of the burden that that meant. Irish Catholics from Boston, I think, tend to be a very, very parochial people for whom there are many strangers in the world -- too many strangers. And I've had to learn to negotiate that particular gap on my own. And in his own way my father defined a world that was too small for me, but also showed me the way to get out of it.
LAMB: How long has he been dead?
SKERRY: He died about three years ago.
LAMB: And what did he do for a living?
SKERRY: He was a clerk in state government in Massachusetts. Basically it was a political appointment that he had got through one of his brothers, who was a successful politician -- basically kind of machine political position.
LAMB: The last line of your acknowledgement says, "Finally, I'd like to thank my wife, Martha, without whom nothing would be possible."
SKERRY: That's quite literally true. My wife Martha Baillis, is the person who's given meaning, purpose and joy to my life. Before I met her, at the age of 23, I was a very confused and unhappy young man. And meeting her and spending the last 20 years with her has made all the difference.
LAMB: The same Martha Baillis we used to read in The Wall Street Journal?
SKERRY: Yes. The same Martha Baillis who has her own book coming out from the Free Press in January.
LAMB: On what subject?
SKERRY: On what's wrong with and what's right with American popular music. It's, as I told my friends, it's a thinking man's critique of rock music, a thinking man's version of Alan Bloom's book on rock music.
LAMB: Do you have children?
SKERRY: No, we don't.
LAMB: And some other names in the acknowledgements. You say here that some of your early money was an initial grant from the Russell Sage Foundation. Who was Russell Sage and how do you get money from a foundation like that?
SKERRY: Well, Russell Sage was a financier and an associate of Rockefeller, I believe, and apparently a rather unsavory character, who died and his wife amassed his fortune and placed it in the Russell Sage Foundation at the turn of the century. And it's one of the oldest foundations focused on social welfare problems since 1908 or thereabouts. And in the mid-'70s I had the good fortune to work there on their staff and got to know some people there. And they continued to have an interest in my work and gave me basically a start-up grant, particularly the president of the Russell Sage Foundation was very helpful in the beginning stages of this research.
LAMB: You also say that you wanted to thank AEI, where your work was supported by the Lynn and Harry Bradley Foundation.How does that work? And who are they and why would they support you at AEI?
SKERRY: Well, the Bradley Foundation is a foundation based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And Michael Joyce is the president of the foundation. And they have a longstanding relationship with the American Enterprise Institute. They've supported lots of efforts that are perceived and known to be of this neo-conservative stripe that I mentioned to you earlier. And I suppose they supported my research at AEI because I managed to persuade them that this was a group that was worth paying attention to. And I assume, based on my other writings and so forth, they thought that I would pursue a perspective and be a fair-minded observer that they could feel comfortable with.
LAMB: You wanted to thank Linda Chavez for her friendship, loyalty and grit?
SKERRY: What do I mean by that?
LAMB: Yes, sir.
SKERRY: Well, in the first instance, Linda's is a good friend, somebody whom I met in the course of her writing her book on Hispanics. And we've had some ups and downs over the course of our relationship, a little bit of professional rivalry now and again -- probably more from my part than for her part. But in countless ways, in going through personal traumas and as well as professional challenges, Linda's shown herself to be a loyal friend. And I admire her single-mindedness and her outspokenness, when it's obviously not always been to her political advantage, in my view.
LAMB: By the way, is there anything special about this cover? Are these people you know, or did you have anything to do with this picture?
SKERRY: Yeah, I had a lot to do with selecting those pictures. The top picture is a community organization in Texas called Valley Interfaith, that's part of a group of organizations called the Industrial Areas Foundation that I spent a considerable amount of time in the book writing about. And to me that picture depicts one side of this ambivalence, if you will -- Mexican-Americans taking an oath -- I think they're being registered here as voter registrars, but one could easily see them taking the oath of citizenship. And they're obviously becoming part of the system. At the bottom of the cover is a scene from Pico Rivera, a demonstration in a working-class suburb of Los Angeles, heavily Mexican-American. Obviously much younger individuals, who are obviously not very happy and protesting, showing a very different side of the Mexican-American experience.
LAMB: In the short time we have remaining, what's the Alamo mean to Mexican-Americans?
SKERRY: Well, I think it's not a very happy symbol. It's a symbol, for Mexican-Americans, of they're having been defeated as a people by the Anglos in Texas, even though there were some Mexican-Americans who died defending the Alamo. But I think even more forcefully it's seen as the symbol that was wielded by the Anglo establishment in Texas for a long time to subjugate Mexican-Americans there and remind them that they were a beaten race.

And those feelings are very, very strong in Texas today, much stronger than they are in California. And as I explore in my book, that's one reason why Mexican-Americans cannot easily be crammed into this classic immigrant model, even though sometimes myself, I tend in that direction. But in some fundamental way it's not the same to be a Mexican in San Antonio as it is, say, to be a Pole in Chicago. There's a sense of turf and a sense of history there that's undeniable, and that the Alamo symbolizes for Mexican-Americans.
LAMB: Got another book in you?
SKERRY: I hope so. I'm planning to work on one on immigration policy.
LAMB: When's it going to be out?
SKERRY: When I get it written, which is I don't know yet, a couple of years.
LAMB: Peter Skerry is the author. This what the book looks like. It's called "Mexican Americans: The Ambivalent Minority." Thank you very much.
SKERRY: Thank you, Brian.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1993. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.