Posted on May 7, 2010

AZ Debate Shows Low Profile of Latino Leadership

Jesse Washington, Buffalo News, May 7, 2010

Quick: Name a leader of the national Hispanic community.

That’s not easy for some Hispanics, let alone other Americans. Even as the Arizona immigration debate has highlighted concerns of the nation’s more than 40 million Latino citizens, it has revealed a lack of name-brand recognition for those dedicated to serving America’s largest minority group.


“When you’re in Colombia, you’re a Colombian. When you’re in Puerto Rico, you’re a Puerto Rican. When you’re in the U.S., you’re a Latino or Hispanic,” said Eric Cortes, a Philadelphia resident and member of a local leadership institute that trains people to work in the Latino community.

Cortes could not recall the names of any leaders of national Latino organizations, but he knew many locally based activists.


There are, in fact, many Latino leaders with national impact. Yet in the Arizona debate they have been overshadowed by the Rev. Al Sharpton, who led a march in Phoenix on Wednesday, debated pro-immigration sheriff Joe Arpaio on television and made numerous other appearances and statements.


Hispanic organizations have helped millions of citizens–desegregating schools and other public places, helping create the Head Start program, pushing for the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Yet people like Murguia [Janet Murguia of La Raza], Saenz [Thomas Saenz of MALDEF] and Brent Wilkes, LULAC’s national executive director, remain unknown to many.

Wilkes sees several reasons. “The African-American civil rights movement, because of slavery, was more dramatic. While there are parallels to some issues, Latinos didn’t face perhaps the same level of discrimination.”

Also, Wilkes said, “The culture is different. Latinos are less likely to rally around the one individual. Latinos who get involved prefer to create their own thing, and not necessarily fall in line behind one person.”


Most civil rights leaders came out of the black church, which has a tradition of public performance and showmanship that continues to draw media attention. {snip}

Today, the issue of equality in America is largely seen in a black-and-white framework, while Latino issues are not covered as much. Aside from immigration, it has been years since a Hispanic issue penetrated the national discourse, like Cesar Chavez’s farm union work starting in the 1960s or California’s Proposition 187 effort in 1994 to prevent non-citizens from receiving social services.


This dynamic could be changing as the looming immigration reform battle gives Latino leaders a new platform and a galvanizing issue to unite people of all backgrounds.