Some years ago, I shared cocktails along San Antonio's River Walk with Richard Estrada, the legendary columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Estrada would trace the nuances of the Mexican-American experience while framing it in the long sweep of American history.
I recall saying that U.S.-born Latinos didn't seem so much a racial minority to me as just another ethnic group. He responded with a definitive "yes."
Estrada died in 1999, and I try to imagine his take on the New Haven firefighters' case -- mainly the matter of Ben Vargas, the firefighter of Puerto Rican heritage who joined 17 white firefighters in suing the city. They opposed New Haven's decision to discard a test for promotions because too few minorities passed. Vargas had finished sixth.
Days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the white firefighters' favor, Vargas went out drinking with co-workers to celebrate an impending marriage. When he visited a restroom, someone punched him bloody. He ended up in the hospital. Vargas assumes the attack was retaliation for having joined the suit opposing an affirmative action policy.
A newspaper article shows Vargas sitting over coffee in his suburban Connecticut house. Beside him are his wife and their 3-year-old son Joshua. Out the window you see a deck and lawn leading to woods.
The home could have belonged to any of his firefighting colleagues, be they of Italian, Irish or other ethnicity. The same went for the conversation.
Vargas explained his lifelong ambition to be a firefighter. He spoke of his love for the culture that nurtured him -- "our rice and beans, our salsa music, our language" -- and also gratitude for the opportunity the United States had afforded him. It was boilerplate for the American story.
But late last century, Latinos were included in affirmative action programs. Like African-Americans, they tended to be poor. And they were considered racially different -- that is, "brown" -- even though many are black and some are blond. Their bloodlines may be Indian, European or both. With a different last name, Vargas could have passed for Italian, Jewish or Greek.
Had Latinos been left out and put at a hiring disadvantage to blacks, there would have been no affirmative action programs. And the more groups covered in them, the more support. Vargas' offense was breaking the solidarity that holds together a de facto quota system that most Americans dislike, including many of its "beneficiaries."
The whole concept seems dated in the age of Obama. But to the extent that affirmative action made sense, it did so only for American blacks. African-Americans had suffered a unique trauma of slavery and Jim Crow. No other group came to this country in chains.
Sure, Latinos can talk of discrimination and nasty remarks, but their experience has been largely an immigrant one. Every group that comes here gets beaten up.
Novelist Willa Cather urged greater respect for the Danish women who did laundry and cooked meals on the Nebraska frontier in the 19th century. A hundred years ago, Cajun children were punished for speaking French in Louisiana schools.
As the American generations move away from their foreign origins, the old culture tends to rest more in recipes and less in the sense of being different from co-workers who root for the same football team. That combo platter of identity, rather than race, is what makes Latinos seem ethnic -- and many middle-class blacks, as well.
For Ben Vargas, an affirmative action program added only stress and social discomfort. He is an ethnic in the station house, alongside other ethnics for whom heritage is a footnote to identity, not the headline.