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Dependence

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Manny, the Dominican, is up to bat in Monday's Dodgers game. What song blasts as he walks up? "El Rey" the classic, I'm-down-but-not-out, you'll-miss-me-when-I'm-gone song and which next to the Mexican national anthem stirs up the strongest emotions in Mexicans. That's how my Mexican Independence week started.

So does this mean the Mexican is now universal? In L.A. the embrace of the Mexican has been a rollercoaster ride. The minority Eastern seaboard immigrants who arrived in the mid 1800s loved Mexican culture, so they told their rich, future father in-laws. It kind of went downhill from there for Mexicans. In the mid 1900s "Spanish" food restaurants with sleepy, sombrero and serape wearing Mexicans symbolized the safe Mexican image. At around the same time, some giants of political and cultural thought spent time in the area, like Ricardo Flores-Magon and Octavio Paz.

There are so many layers of Mexican identity to peel back here, right? The 1932 anti-capitalism "American Tropical" mural - whitewashed after it was painted by Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros - rises slowly. Mexican immigrants and the children of immigrants, like Antonio Villaraigosa and Antonia Hernandez, rise to the prominence of the offspring of L.A.'s other immigrants.

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These accomplishments exist at the same time that city leaders in nearby municipalities attempt to enact ordinances keep Mexican immigrants from living whithin their city boundaries.

One night, in mid-September of 2002, driving north to my place in Arcadia, I made that soft turn on the northbound I-5 near Santa Fe Springs that reveals the downtown L.A. skyline. The Library Towers, the tallest building west of Chicago, had its top lights in green, white, and red. I took it as a welcoming beacon.

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Immigration researcher Roberto Suro at USC tells me the current recession is bound to change what constitutes Mexican identity in Los Angeles. The extent of the change depends on the length of the downturn. Fewer jobs mean less Mexican immigration. The influx of Mexican immigrants won't stop, though. Once the economy picks up again, the immigration will pick back up again. In L.A. that leads to a complex mix of Mexican identity, with people with strong Mexican-American identity whose ancestors arrived a century ago. And recent immigrants puzzled that the dark-skinned man in a suit who looks like him, doesn't speak Spanish.

Loyola Marymount University's David Ayon remembers it was a mystery to him as a boy growing up in El Paso how crossing a bridge leads you to a place that's supposed to be different, with different rules. OK, so now he's an expert on cross-border politics but he says there's something to the idea that neighbors often have more in common and should spend less time building fences than working out how they're going to live happily next to each other.

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