An Opportunity for Diversity

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s inauguration concluded with the singing of “America the Beautiful.” On the same day, Friday, July 1, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor retired.

These two events – a continent apart – hold great significance for Hispanics and for the nation.

Villaraigosa, as is often pointed out, is the “first Latino mayor of Los Angeles in more than a century.” His “up from the barrio” appeal and the broad coalition that elected him testify vividly to an emerging demographic, political and economic landscape. They testify to the reality that the United States has the potential to become truly beautiful _ a kaleidoscope of increasingly diverse people accepting each other’s differences and working together to find better ways.

Hispanics have long regarded one of our own on the Supreme Court as one of the last milestones representing full acceptance as a welcome, contributing and responsible part of this land. Each successive president has bested his predecessor by appointing Latinos to senior positions, not merely in social services agencies but also those shaping national policy. Alberto Gonzales’ appointment as Attorney General is the most recent.

Filling the Court vacancy with a Hispanic, furthermore, would:

_ Add a voice to the decision-making process that the court has never had; ideology aside, ethnicity and gender make a difference.

_ Make the court look like America; with all the hoopla about Hispanics comprising 14 percent of the population, it is time.

_ Send a signal to federal agencies whose scorecard on Hispanic hiring is abysmal; yes, there are “qualified” Hispanics out there.

Tell America _ and the world _ that Hispanics have arrived, finally, as full-fledged citizens who deserve and have more than earned respect.

Now, some xenophobes are probably a bit more restless than usually these days. First they had the census numbers showing a surge in the Hispanic population. What a shocker! Why, my neighbor could be a Hispanic!

Second, they see and hear more and more people speaking Spanish! Horrors!

Third, most of America _ and this is the beautiful part about it _ embraces a new socio-political and cultural model that welcomes the “Hispanicization” of America. People hardly notice anymore when they hear our nation’s second language spoken in public. And they know that countless public services would not exist without the hard work and sacrifice of Latino workers.

Antonio Villaraigosa has to succeed at making the mosaic of Los Angeles work. Other big city Latino mayors (Denver, Miami, San Antonio) succeeded, but did not confront his challenges. The spotlight will be riveted on him. His success will send signals across United States.

Even if a Hispanic is not named to the Supreme Court, that some were considered also sends signals across America. This is another “first” that will happen sooner or later. And when it happens, “first this” and “first that” will fall by the wayside as we get used to and welcome Hispanics into every walk of life in our country. It would help, too, if Hollywood and television stopped stereotyping Latinos.

Yes, Villaraigosa got it right. “America the Beautiful” can resonate powerfully, not only in Los Angeles, but also throughout the land when Americans of all kinds are no longer called the first this and the first that. We have a way to go, but “poco a poco . . .”