Editorial Feature

Xavier Becerra on Celebrating the Contributions of U.S. Latinos

The California Attorney General opens up about his role models, his family, and the importance of preserving Latino heritage

U.S. Latino history is U.S. history. From the early Mesoamericans who explored North America, to the civil rights movement, to becoming the largest minority group in the U.S., Latinos have been a part of the political, social and cultural life of the United States for centuries. There is much to be learned from this rich history, especially in recognizing Latino leaders who have made significant historical, political and cultural contributions. Xavier Becerra, the current Attorney General of the State of California who previously served 12 terms in Congress in the U.S. House of Representatives, is one of those leaders. Throughout his legal and political career, Becerra has become something of a trailblazer for Latinos in government, becoming the first Latino to become Attorney General in California’s history. The son of Mexican immigrants, he’s also become a vocal advocate for an American Latino Museum and works to champion the contributions of Latinos in U.S. history.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra

Google Arts & Culture: Why do you feel the preservation of U.S. Latino history is so important?

Xavier Becerra: From the founding days of our nation, Latinos have strengthened and shaped American values and culture. But most Americans aren't familiar with our long and complex history in the U.S. And I mean long! Latinos have been a force in North America for more than 500 years, and if we are to have a full picture of U.S. history, it must reflect the contributions of Latinos. I want all young Americans, including my three daughters, to understand the richness of our country’s heritage. Looking back will help them look forward, to see that the “sky’s the limit” for them and their communities.

As one of the original champions for an American Latino Museum, why do you think cultural institutions and collections like this are so important to American society?

There are roughly 57 million Latinos living in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, yet most Americans know little about Latinos’ history in and contributions to our nation. There is no significant or permanent physical representation of Latinos even in our nation's capital. An American Latino Museum, as part of the Smithsonian institutions, would change this. With more than 28 million visits to the Smithsonian institutions in 2015, these museums have a tremendous power to engage and inspire Americans at scale. We can’t tell the American story and experience and render a full picture without including the voice and image of Latinos.

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (From the collection of Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History)
Photo of Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture at Dusk, View from Constitution Avenue, by Alan Karchmer, 2016 (From the collection of Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture)

How has your heritage helped shape and define you and your path?

I often tell people, if you want to know where I’ll take you as California’s 33rd Attorney General, know where I’ve come from. As a son of immigrants, optimism runs in my DNA. My parents, like so many other hardworking immigrants, were drawn to this country because they believed a brighter future was within their reach if they worked hard enough. That’s the same faith and focus that I have brought to policy-making and leadership—that we can always do better if we work hard and work together. My rule of thumb is, if I’m helping people like my parents, then I’m doing a good job. It’s uncanny how each year I seem to act more like my parents. On occasion, that will cause some head-shaking, but on my road to make a difference for my country, that’s been an unmitigated blessing.

Who were your biggest role models or figures who inspired you when you were starting out and throughout your career?

I’ve had the privilege of knowing many great leaders—Ted Kennedy, César Chávez, Nancy Pelosi—but my parents will always be my greatest role models. My mother was a clerical worker who came to America at the age of eighteen with her new husband and little more. My father was a construction laborer who never made it past the sixth grade. But thanks to their hard work and sacrifice, they achieved the American Dream: they bought their own home, sent their kids to college and, today, enjoy a dignified retirement. I will always be inspired by Maria Teresa and Manuel Becerra and motivated to make sure that the clerical worker and construction laborer of today can earn their piece of the American Dream, too.

Grape Pickers Strike In Delano - California, Portrait of United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez, by Arthur Schatz, 1968 (From LIFE Photo Collection)

You grew up in, and represented in Congress, communities with sizable Latino communities. What makes those communities unique?

Every day I can remember, my father rose with the sun to work construction jobs in Sacramento. It was my earliest lesson that immigrants literally built this country. My mother was the anchor and hub of our family. Every family needs someone who will bring you to the table for dinner, make you do your homework, teach you respect, and offer you comfort and attention at just the right moment. I’ve gone on to meet so many other men and women like my parents who came to America humble, eager, and with no agenda other than working hard, giving their kids a better chance, and contributing to society. We are a stronger and more prosperous nation because we welcome people like them and give them a chance to share their gifts and talents with us.

Mexican Farm Workers Who have been Accepted for Farm Labor in the U.S. through the Braceros Program, by National Archives and Records Administration, 1942/1945 (From the collection of U.S. National Archives)
Mexican Laborers, by National Archives and Records Administration (From the collection of U.S. National Archives)
Words by Leonie Shinn-Morris
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