Ruben Navarrette: Mexican Americans are not seeking reparations. That doesn't mean it is no deserved, too

From the commentary: So California, if you're planning to settle up with other groups, you should at least acknowledge that Mexican Americans also have a claim — even if we don't pursue it.

Huntington Beach, California
A surfer paddles out at Huntington Beach.
Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/TNS

SAN DIEGO — Dear California, my beautiful and resilient home state. Even with your wildfires, droughts and floods, I wouldn't live anywhere else.

Ruben Navarrete column logo
Ruben Navarrete column logo
Kit Grode / Tribune graphic
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Yet, as a Mexican American, I'm not blind to history. For more than 150 years, my tribe has lived in "occupied" territory. Mexican Americans were never enslaved or sold as property. But we have been subjected — like our Native American cousins — to the indignity of being treated like second-class citizens in our ancestral homeland.

For Mexican Americans, that homeland isn't Mexico. It's the Southwest, which the United States stole from Mexico in 1848 and repurposed as eight U.S. states.

The mistreatment of Mexican Americans who were left behind began almost immediately.

In 1855, the California Legislature enacted what became known as the "Greaser Law," which allowed for the arrest of anyone thought to be a vagrant. The law used the word "Greaser" to refer to those with "Spanish and Indian blood."


In the 1940s, in rural California towns, signs in restaurants blared: "No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed." Mexican Americans had to sit in the balconies of theaters, couldn't get haircuts in some barber shops and could use public swimming pools only on the day before they were scheduled to be cleaned.

In the early 1950s, the city of Los Angeles forcefully removed about 300 families — most of them Mexican American — who were living in Chavez Ravine. The city then sold the land to Dodgers baseball owner Walter O'Malley, who used the site to build Dodger Stadium after he moved the team to Los Angeles.

The stories go on forever. I have the receipts.

Yet, my philosophy is that it's best to not think of yourself as a victim — even if you were victimized. Of course, you have to be careful not to be too eager to excuse wrongdoing. The only thing worse than a victim is a fool.

Even so, I'm not for sale. California, I don't want your filthy blood money. Not that the state is offering any.

Reparations may soon be on the agenda in California. On July 1, a first-in-the-nation task force is supposed to conclude a review process that lasted more than a year and file its final report to the legislature.

The backstory can be traced to the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 by a Minneapolis police officer, which brought civil unrest to dozens of U.S. cities. California lawmakers passed a bill — which was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in September 2020 — that created a task force to study reparations, hear from experts, and suggest ideas for how the state could atone for years of cruel, unfair and discriminatory policies aimed at Black Californians.

Earlier this year, the task force limited reparations to descendants of Black people who were in the United States as of the 19th century, whether they were freed or enslaved.


The task force is focused on alleged harm done to African Americans in the form of property seized by the government, devaluation of Black-owned businesses, housing discrimination, homelessness, health issues, mass incarceration and "over-policing" — all issues that Mexican Americans have faced as well.

Some of that makes sense. Some of it doesn't.

In those cases where the state of California unlawfully usurped private property, a cash payment is in order. State officials should apologize and send a check to the family.

Last year, the legislature returned Bruce's Beach, a beachfront property in Southern California, to descendants of the Black residents who owned it until it was taken by the state through eminent domain in the 20th century. The family recently announced that it was going to sell the parcel to Los Angeles County for $20 million.

But how do we measure "over-policing?" When police focus attention on a Black neighborhood, is that good or bad? Law enforcement gets criticized for allegedly failing to protect Black people, but also for allegedly harassing Black folks.

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As I suspect is true with most Mexican Americans, I'd be offended if California tried to buy us off to get us to shut up.

Yet, oddly, I'm more offended that state officials — including Newsom and legislators — don't seem to think the state owes Mexican Americans a nickel.

So California, if you're planning to settle up with other groups, you should at least acknowledge that Mexican Americans also have a claim — even if we don't pursue it. The first debt incurred by the Golden State was to those who lived here long before the territory became a state and before gold was ever discovered. We are your original sin.


This commentary is Ruben Navarrette's opinion. He can be reached at

© 2022, The Washington Post Writers Group


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