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Pew Hispanic Center director Robert Suro compared current Latino demographic trends to his teenage son. It is growing in many directions and “getting bigger and getting different at the same time.”
Suro was addressing hundreds of participants attending the youth-focused Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute issues conference here earlier this month. Three days stoked with strategy sessions, fancy meals and plenty of laughs helped set a national Latino agenda.
Suro’s analogy is an important description because it comes from data-driven observations. His audience of present and future Latino leaders needed data and context to guide it through this nation’s political thicket. It delivered listeners in the direction they need to go, showed them what to look out for and how to shape their thinking. Analogies like that are important.
Just look at how reality was shaped by the 1890s’ “melting pot,” the 1950s’ “minority” mindset, the 1970s “salad bowl” descriptive and the 1990s’ “sleeping giant” misnomer.
One little-known event stood out over others, influencing a lot of how we think today. It occurred in 1969 when a Latino planning group was trying to frame a national job-training approach for itinerant farmworkers. Nothing like it before the “last yellow bus” strategy had been attempted. Prior to that time, the concept of “Hispanic” as a cohesive national body didn’t exist. Latinos were thought of mostly as “farmworkers,” even though the majority lived in cities.
A vigorous debate took place. The concern was about how rural Mexican-American issues had become the centerpiece of anything “Hispanic.” And how “West Side Story” characters had become stand-ins for all urban Latinos.
A particularly acrimonious meeting occurred at the Barbizon Terrace apartments here. Some invited community leaders of the day were engaged in heated, disparaging competition over who would get a government contract. That’s when Sam Bell, Luis Cardona, Frank Espada, Rick Ontiveros, Macario Ramirez and Maria Vasquez retired to the building’s rooftop.
There, under dim light that softened the tension, the first known agreement was reached for a pan-Hispanic national effort. The rural, urban, ethnic, resident and refugee differences were overridden in favor of concerns about language, education and training, as well as considerations about personal and government responsibility. Since then, policy issues have served as the template for expressing community concerns.
At the CHCI conference’s opening luncheon, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., reminisced about how the next step happened. He participated in 1976 when House members Edward Roybal of California, Herman Badillo of New York, Baltasar Corrada of Puerto Rico and E. “Kika” de la Garza and Henry B. Gonzalez, both of Texas, formed the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to monitor legislation and government activity. Dodd, a Spanish-speaking legislator, had a special interest in Latino affairs because he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic from 1966 to 1968.
Two years after the caucus was formed, the institute was created to develop and promote leaders.
Today, there are 28 Hispanic members of Congress. The institute’s Edward R. Roybal Building for Latino Leadership was inaugurated as part of this month’s conference events.
Bigger and different every year, major conceptual and practical milestones are being reached. At a Latino comedy event that was part of the festivities, Bill Santiago had one of the best quips of the night. Listing the top 10 advantages to being Latino, he cited “being able to date inter-racially within my own ethnic group.” That, too, is another milestone the rest of the country can learn from Latino social history.
At this year’s concluding black-tie gala, attended by 2,000, some $3.2 million was raised for CHCI fellowships, scholarships and internships in public affairs.
Among attending congressional members, lobbyists, movie stars, sports figures and media celebrities _ the U.S. equivalent of royalty _ was Prince Felipe de Borbon of Spain. “Spanish heritage has been here for centuries,” he refreshed the crowd’s collective memory, “and it is as American as any other influence.”
It was a nice reminder that the national picture continues growing, not just more complex, but bigger and better. It must be true. Otherwise, why would royalty come to pay respect?
(Jose de la Isla, author of “The Rise of Hispanic Political Power” (Archer Books) writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service.E-mail joseisla3(at)yahoo.com.)