by José de la Isla
HOUSTON — In their mad scramble to gain credibility from the increasingly important Latino vote, presidential candidates are already harvesting endorsements and forming “advisory” committees of prominent Hispanics.
So how is one candidate more in tune than another? What is authentic interest and what is entirely self-serving?
In fact, who sets the Latino agenda?
The late Los Angeles Times columnist Frank del Olmo complained in 1987 about the efforts of then-San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros who proposed a summit to prepare a national agenda for the 1988 presidential race. Del Olmo reasoned, it is simply not possible to combine the political interests of Mexican Americans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Central Americans. He even referenced what he called “the myth of a Hispanic vote.”
Today, the list would go beyond ethnicities to regions, income groups, education categories, religion, citizenship status, and gender.
Of course, there is no myth now but a functioning reality about the importance of the Latino vote.
Yet, what exactly is the Latino perspective when so many “issues” are put on the table? With the possible exception of the deep-seated dismay with Congress’s inaction on immigration and (so far) education, other matters can cut any which way.
True, Del Olmo was correct to object to a one-size-fits-all mentality. Yet, an agenda resulted in 1988, formulated by 50 leaders, of the National Hispanic Leadership Conference. It offered a buffet of 14 policy issue areas. In 1992, a similar bipartisan agenda was offered to George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Even those who follow politics closely may be surprised to learn that this contemporary effort, while significant, was not unprecedented. Actually, the first such effort occurred in 1939.
In his forthcoming book, “The Search for a Civic Voice: California Latino Politics,” Kenneth C. Burt brilliantly documents the First National Congress of the Mexican and Spanish-American Peoples of the United States (known as El Congreso). Representatives to it came from Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Montana and New York.
The basic values expressed in the first meeting, held in Los Angeles, stand up to this day. Eduardo Quevedo, its presiding chairman, talked about promoting unity within the Hispanic community by combating inequality. The movement would form alliances with other progressive organizations. Its agenda was directed at state-level initiatives and federal action. It had a transnational perspective, showing presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lázaro Cárdenas’s shared responsibilities in matters of immigration and progress.
El Congreso stood for democratic rule in those pre-World War II days, when some prominent state and national leaders flirted with fascism and others rationalized for Stalinist Russia.
And most applicable today, they stood for civic participation — extending voting rights by eliminating discriminatory practices, and engaging in outreach to turn out the vote.
The national mobilization foreseen in 1939 was not carried out. But its spirit has persisted over the seven decades. Now, a new initiative — ya es hora, now’s the time — involves the National Council of La Raza, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, the Service Employees International Union SEIU and the We Are America Alliance, ImpreMedia, Univisión, and 300 regional and local organizations in 15 states.
This is the kind of action that makes presidential frontrunners perk up. The Wall Street Journal concedes the mobilization “could influence the agenda and outcome of the 2008 election.”
So, who speaks for Hispanics? The voters do, of course. And it seems candidates listen, but only after a scrappy Latino agenda packs a brawny wallop at the polls. And with each election, their hearing improves.
(José de la Isla, author of “The Rise of Hispanic Political Power” (Archer Books, 2003) writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.) © 2007