Fear of a Brown Planet

Cruz Bustamante, along with many other California Latino politicians, belonged to a Chicano student organization in college. And conservatives are livid.

Pedroza is right, which is why the MEChA card easily jumped from the far-right fringe to the mainstream. Take the case of Los Angeles city council member Antonio Villaraigosa. Most pundits figured the former Assembly speaker was certain to become Los Angeles' first Latino mayor in over a century during the 2001 mayoral race. Villaraigosa had secured the backing of various unions, progressive activists, Westside millionaires and other community leaders, and was favored by a majority-Latino city aching for one of its own to assume the mayor's seat.

But to the surprise of many, Villaraigosa lost. A host of reasons factored in the result—a vicious campaign by Jim Hahn supporters associating Villaraigosa with a former crack dealer and the overwhelming African American support for Hahn were two crucial aspects. But perhaps just as critical was the media's focus on Villaraigosa's MEChA past. The media followed the lead of anti-immigrant activist Hal Netkin, who devoted an entire website (www.mayorno.com) to depicting Villaraigosa as anti-American and even conducted an automated voter campaign to thousands of Valley residents telling voters of Villaraigosa's MEChA past.

"Those guys did an all-out attack against me," said Villaraigosa, who headed the UCLA MEChA chapter during the 1970s. "They tried to take out a giant ad in the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Daily News painting me as a rabid Chicano activist, and then sued both papers when each refused to run it. They would show up at mayoral debates and say that I was the leader of the reconquista while passing out info about MEChA and Aztlán. It was ridiculous."

But it worked. The 2001 election results showed that Villaraigosa lost thanks to an unlikely coalition of conservative white San Fernando Valley voters and otherwise-liberal African Americans voters. The only other time such a coalition occurred was in 1994, when each constituency overwhelmingly voted for Prop. 187. Not coincidentally, this is also the last time MEChA received such prominent coverage in the press.

Villaraigosa isn't the only politician to suffer from the MEChA paintbrush. Former Santa Ana school board member Nativo Lopez was reviled by his opponents because of his close MEChA ties, and similar accusations now plague Arizona freshman congressman Raúl Grijalva. Now, it's Bustamante's turn.

"It's reprehensible what they're doing to Bustamante and other Latino candidates," Villaraigosa said. "I think these people that attempt to portray Latino candidates as out of the mainstream are doing so for the purpose of injecting race or ethnicity in a campaign where it's clearly not relevant."

Apodaca says accusing Latinos of subversive leanings because of their MEChA links is like Herbert Hoover's supporters speculating that 1928 Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith, a Catholic, would take orders from the pope.

"Smith's Catholicism really functioned as anti-immigrant rhetoric," he said. "Politics is all about the code talk. Anti-MEChA statements are simple code for anti-Mexican sentiments by resentful whites."

And resentment grows as Latinos, already the largest minority group in the United States, gain increasing political clout. Pedroza—the man who purposefully used the MEChA smear against Bustamante because he knew it would turn Registerreaders against the candidate—believes it's useless to think something so effective will ever go away.

"Until these [Latino politicians] disavow the more disturbing portions of MEChA, until they put the fire out, it's going to keep on smoldering," Pedroza said. "And a bit of gas will set it off."

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