Outside the ‘big tent’

Hispanic Link News Service

HOUSTON — A prominent Hispanic Republican businessman in this city was among Latino, black, Vietnamese, Chinese and Asian Indian realtors invited to a trade-association retreat. The invitees to the largely Republican gathering were there to add ethnic diversity to the meeting.

When immigration came up as a topic for discussion, the visitors found their opinions mostly drowned out. Their perspectives didn’t conform to those of the host.

The businessman telling me this said it was "like the ducktail thing," when many barrio youths were typified as nonconformists. Their hairstyle was their marker. "It’s like the 1950s all over again," he said.

Then he added the most disturbing fact of all: he keeps his passport in his inside coat pocket in case he is stopped and has to produce identification. He knows the likelihood that someone would ask him for his ID is remote, but it’s a kind of penance to remind him of the awful past.

Back in the days of dragnets, streets leading to some neighborhoods were blockaded and residents asked for identification. Opinions of Hispanics were irrelevant to the issues of the day. Those formative times left indelible impressions.

In response, emerging Latino spokespersons began their long struggle to foster better understanding with the power structures that surrounded them. Hispanics in business and politics often carried this responsibility.

To a large extent, they succeeded, but my businessman friend who thought he was part of the establishment is reconsidering whether he is really a member of the club. Why, really, do Republicans want folks like him inside the big tent of inclusion?

"What should I do now?" he asked.

How do you confront a group in need of an attitude change?

Moving into the 1970s, Democrats were also guilty of ignoring or casting the diverse Latino community narrowly. Until then, the Latino population was mostly portrayed as less capable instead of as a potential constituent partner.

As more Latinos were elected and gained political footholds running as Democrats, the party of the donkey learned that respect and consideration were more than mentions in a speech.

The party of the elephant, slower in grasping or remembering that message, has been nonetheless aided by the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, formed in 1974. The group is comprised mainly of business and civic leaders. It has grown slowly to where it can influence elections in 15 states.

RNHA is important locally but especially visible in presidential elections when its members rally behind a national candidate. Yet its voice is having a hard time these days finding a place in the chorus among the "traditional," "neo-" and "social conservative" ideologues in the party.

For instance, businessman Massey Villarreal broke ranks with GOP leaders in Houston recently to do what’s right over what’s expedient. A former RNHA chairman, Villarreal has headed local, state and national Hispanic chambers of commerce.

He recently volunteered to serve as treasurer and chief fund-raiser for Project Houston, organized to defeat a Republican-led petition drafted on the premise that police need more authority to require people to show them their identity papers. It is a thinly disguised anti-immigrant measure.

A coalition of leaders representing civic, labor, community, religious, racial and ethnic groups met at a downtown union hall last month to plan strategy. Villarreal was among them.

Yes, he said, he was a Republican. And in future campaigns, most of his Democratic Project Houston colleagues would find him on the opposite side on issues and supporting candidates they might oppose. But right now, what mattered more was defeating the objectionable petition. Anticipating the obvious question _ why was he doing it? _ he simply said, "My father was an immigrant."

Everyone understood and they applauded him.

(Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. He may be contacted by e-mail at joseisla3(at)yahoo.com.)