Latino Numbers Are Up; Why Isn't Their Clout?
Latinos in the United States have been betting on the numbers – their numbers.
In the last three decades, I've heard politicos, academics, activists and others boast that a swelling population would eventually bring the Latino community power and respect.
They include President Barack Obama, who just last month told a group of Latino online journalists gathered at the White House that he was confident that he'd see a competitive Hispanic candidate running for president during his lifetime.
"Just look at the demographics," Obama said. "With numbers comes political power."
Not necessarily, Mr. President.
The assumption has been that, at some point, the Latino population would become so large and its influence on everything from business to sports to food to pop culture would be so profound that it would be impossible to ignore.
However, Latinos have learned that – given a continued scarcity in law, business, media, academia, publishing, entertainment and other professions – nothing is impossible. If someone wants to ignore you, they will. And in a country that still defines racial and ethnic relations in terms of black and white, those who fit into neither category are often ignored.
In the case of Latinos, this is no easy trick. The 2010 census revealed that there are 50 million Latinos living in the United States, spread throughout all 50 states. They constitute 16 percent of the U.S. population and account for more than half of the growth of the country's total population over the last 10 years.
Their percentage of the U.S. electorate is not as high, owing to the fact that it is a young population and one that includes a large number of legal residents who are not U.S. citizens. According to the Pew Research Center, of the 131 million people who voted in 2008, about 7.4 percent were Hispanic.
In a state like California, the figure is a lot higher; in 2010, Latinos made up about 16 percent of the electorate.
Latinos are everywhere – except in the corridors of power. True, there have now been four Latino speakers of the California Assembly. Yet it's been nearly impossible for Latino candidates to be elected statewide; there are years when, depending on what anti-immigrant measure is on the ballot, it may be a liability to be named Gonzales or Martinez or Rodriguez.
It's also difficult for Latinos to ascend to Congress. Those who set their sights on Washington often find themselves with an impossible choice: try to get elected in a largely white, mostly Republican district or try to represent a largely Latino one that is held by a white Democrat who isn't interested in moving on.
Breakthroughs in the 1980s
This can't be what Henry Cisneros had in mind when, in the 1980s, the then-mayor of San Antonio helped convene a gathering of Latino leaders drawn from the worlds of business, politics, and nonprofit organizations. The assembled baptized the 1980s "The Decade of the Hispanic."
Mind you, Hispanic servicemen had already racked up scores of medals in World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam. There had already been a Hernandez v. Texas, the 1954 landmark Supreme Court case that recognized that the 14th Amendment extended to Mexican Americans. There had already been a United Farm Workers union, a Cesar Chavez and a Chicano Civil Rights Movement.
Those victories provided some of the bricks that laid the foundation for major breakthroughs in the 1980s.
Cisneros was elected mayor of San Antonio in 1981, Federico Peña was elected mayor of Denver in 1983 and Xavier Suarez was elected mayor of Miami in 1985. Lauro Cavazos became the first Latino Cabinet member when President Ronald Reagan appointed him education secretary in 1988.
Today, the notion of a Hispanic decade seems almost quaint. What's a measly 10 years? With Latinos expected to account for as much as 30 percent of the U.S. population by 2050, it's time to think in terms of the Century of the Hispanic.
Roller coaster ride ahead
In the decades to come, Hispanics will likely experience a roller coaster mixture of obstacles and opportunities, setbacks and successes. For America's largest minority, this is the Dickensian Era – the best of the times, the worst of times.
Political parties go through the motions of wooing Latino voters. Yet, GOP presidential candidates, in discussing immigration, treat Latinos like piñatas.
Recently, in Albuquerque, I listened as a group of middle-aged Latinos commented on the strange phenomenon of feeling both powerful and powerless.
One woman, Maria Estela de Rios, president of an Albuquerque-based government contracting company called Orion International Technologies, lamented, "I always thought that, at this point in life, I'd have earned more respect and have more influence over my world. It feels like I have less."
Even in the California Legislature, with 16 Latinos in the Assembly and eight in the state Senate, those lawmakers haven't been able to use their numbers to improve the Latino condition in the state. Moreover, even if those numbers were to double someday, it's likely that, for most Latinos, their lives wouldn't be impacted one way or another.
A deeper look at the issues
I wanted to know why Latinos – in California and around the country – haven't been able to cash in their demographic prominence for political power and how to change that reality.
So I called two of the deeper thinkers on the subject, with experience in politics and activism. Both live in Sacramento.
Political strategist Arnold Torres insists that much of the blame goes to Latinos themselves, who, in the political context, continue to cast themselves as powerless and allow others to define their agenda and goals.
He says that Latinos put too much emphasis on the size of their population and what they think is due them because of it, and not enough on broadening their appeal by coming up with ideas and solving problems.
For Torres, achieving power starts with charting out where you want to go, knowing why you want to go there, and being absolutely clear on how you're going to get there.
"It's not enough anymore to run for office because we have the numbers and this sense of manifest destiny," he told me. "We never shook the mentality that we ought to run because it's our turn, but everyone else is moving on or digging in to resist having to give up anything. We need to be ahead of the curve, but we're behind – way behind."
So how do Latinos catch up? "We need to stop thinking like the victim," Torres said. "We are the victim, but we have to stop thinking like one. We have to think like the problem solvers. We need to come up with ideas, and not just treat everyone else like they created this problem and now they have to redress those grievances."
Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, doesn't disagree that many of the obstacles facing Latinos are self-generated. But the man whom CNN called "the leader of the Hispanic evangelical movement" also thinks that much of it has to do with external factors that the community can't control.
Such as where many of these people come from.
"There's a historical limitation to look beyond the previous narrative of where we come from – authoritarian regimes, countries where democracy was a farce," Rodriguez told me. "There is still a great amount of angst, doubt and skepticism. We are a politically agnostic community. We really have a hard time believing that there is such a thing as viable, sustainable and legitimate democracy where the vote actually counts."
Or their educational attainment.
"We have not been educated to the degree that we need to be educated to make decisions as it pertains to our electoral responsibility," he said. "That educational disparity is, in my opinion, the No. 1 deterrent to adequate, mature, viable and sustainable electoral, political and civic participation."
This is a major point. For as long as anyone has been keeping score, Latinos have listed education as a top issue. The disparity that Rodriguez talks about begins at the K-12 level, where Latino parents who want their kids yanked out of bilingual education have to go to war with an ingrained bilingual education establishment that needs warm bodies in classrooms to continue to justify the program.
Students face more battles
For students in the mainstream, there are more battles to fight as powerful teachers unions that resist demands for greater accountability put their interests ahead of the interest of Latino parents and their parents. And in college, it's proved easier for state colleges to recruit Latino students than to retain them. At every stage of the educational process, Latinos get the short end of the stick.
Rodriguez's argument is that this can't help but affect the political system. If people aren't taught about the importance of democracy, they may be less likely to participate in it.
As for the remedy, Rodriguez insists that it starts with shaking up Latinos and getting them in the game.
"We need voices to rise up in the community and say that apathy is not an option, complacency is not an option, standing on the sidelines is not an option," he said.
No, it's not. This is no small tribe. According to estimates by the Census Bureau, Latinos will likely represent 30 percent of the population by 2050.
According to an analysis of census data by the Pew Hispanic Center and the National Council of La Raza, every month, another 50,000 Hispanics turn 18 and thus become eligible to vote. Of course, there is no way to know how many of those people will register to vote, and how many of them will someday cast ballots. But the fuse is lit.
The obstacles to achieving greater political power are real and formidable, but they can be overcome. Once that happens, the opportunities for Latinos to contribute – or rather, continue to contribute – to this country are endless.
Why not? That's the American way.