Latinos must reconsider Obama

Much is being said in the media, town-hall meetings and rallies about Latinos choosing between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama as the next president of our country. Some pundits, Latinos included, predict the longtime “rift” between Latinos and blacks will come into play.

I disagree with those who buy into this so-called racial division. We should challenge that old view every time we hear or read about it.

Some also say the “older” working-class generation of Latino Democrats will go along with Clinton because of the Clintons’ connection with our community. The reference has some truth to it, but it is a hollow truth that leaves much to be desired.

In contrast, these same pundits say Obama is relatively young and new to the political realities of our country and even less knowledgeable about the needs of Latinos. They point to his lack of experience on global matters as something that could set us back internationally.

Well, maybe yes, maybe no. Then again, how much of a setback can it be, measured against our downward spiral under George W. Bush. There is no place to go but up in our standing — up in world affairs, up in our economy, up in citizen participation and certainly up in hope for a better future, away from the class, racial and religious divisiveness of the last seven years.

Insofar as Latinos are concerned, Obama may not know how to speak Spanish, but he is not alone. Many, many Latinos don’t, either.

He is not an immigrant from Latin America. Here again, he is not alone. We Latinos are increasingly second-, third- or fourth-generation.

Obama is the biracial son of a white woman and African man. Bottom line, he is a U.S. citizen who knows the sentiments of our community.

He has worked organizing with Latinos in Chicago. He has experienced the pressures faced by the working class and has consistently fought the challenges posed by racism and exclusion.

When I see Obama and hear him speak of his vision for our country, it reminds me of where I walked 43 years ago, on a picket line with the United Farm Workers in front of a Safeway store in San Diego.

I was 21 years old, in the Navy and excited to be involved fighting for the rights of farmworkers under the leadership of Cesar Chavez. While the store no longer exists at that site, I am still reminded of the first of many “political” activities I would engage in.

After serving in the Navy for four years, I joined the social-justice fight for inclusion of Chicanos and Latinos in education, health, economic development and our political representation at all levels of government. I was involved in the founding of many local, state and national civil-rights organizations representing the interests and rights of Latinos and low-income students.

I share this background with you so that you will understand where I am coming from with my public endorsement of a political candidate.

My experience is not unique when compared with other Chicano/Latino social-justice activists who rose up in the late ’60s and those who continued with the fight since then. I attribute my passion and involvement to Chavez, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert, Latino Vietnam vets and many of the unsung men and women warriors throughout our communities who participated right along with us in our struggle for justice.

We were inspired by great leaders who looked like us, spoke like us and lived amongst us.

Those were challenging times. Our friends were beaten up and locked up because we demanded our civil rights. My younger brother and I were tear-gassed when we took part in the first Chicano Moratorium March in Los Angeles, where journalist Ruben Salazar was killed by police.

Our participation in countless demonstrations across the nation, helping open the doors to institutions of higher education, allowed our community the opportunity to gain a higher education and join the professional and political ranks in this country. We made some gains. We still have a long way to go.

Unlike the family members I grew up with in Texas, my own family now is multicultural and multiracial. I see great and wonderful opportunities for it. The election of a compassionate leader like Obama will spread the path for us, our country and the world. Take a look at your own history and story, take a look at his, and then join me as we cast our vote for Barack Obama.

(Gus Chavez, now retired, served as director of the Office of Educational Opportunity Programs and Ethnic Affairs at San Diego State University. Readers may reach him at guschavez2000(at)