San Francisco Chronicle
September 10, 2006
Latino political clout grows
Convention a step toward creating national movement
By Tyche Hendricks, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tapping the passion that drew millions of Latinos
to immigrant rights marches last spring, leaders
from numerous national Hispanic organizations
culminated a four-day conference Saturday with
agreement on a broad political platform.
Participants called it an important step in
building a unified, national Latino political
"It's critical that we have unity, that our civic
organizations unite to make us more powerful in our
struggles," Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa
told the roughly 1,200 participants in the National
Latino Congreso. "We have more in common than the
differences we may have."
Organizers said it was the first time since a 1977
Latino "congress" that so many groups had made a
coordinated push to strengthen Latino political
The event brought together a high-profile roster of
Latino leaders, ranging from United Farm Workers
Union co-founder Dolores Huerta to Villaraigosa,
who was mobbed with admirers after his Friday
luncheon speech, to members of Congress such as
Loretta Sanchez, D-Garden Grove (Orange County),
and Xavier Becerra, D-Los Angeles.
"Thirty years ago you could bring together people
from five states and you could effectively say you
were representing the Latino community," said John
Trasviña, president of the Mexican American Legal
Defense and Education Fund.
Today it's more difficult to bridge the sometimes-
conflicting approaches of political organizations
representing diverse segments of the nation's 43
million-strong Latino population.
Indeed, Latinos make up almost 14 percent of the
nation's population, but the gathering included
many more southern Californians than people from
other parts of the country.
The Latino electorate has grown in recent years,
with a record 7.6 million Latinos casting ballots
nationally in November 2004 and accounting for an
estimated 6 percent of all voters.
A common refrain at last spring's rallies in Los
Angeles and in Chicago, Dallas, Washington, D.C.
and other cities was "Today we march, tomorrow we
vote." But some observers have wondered whether
activist energy would transform into a political
movement, especially when many of the marchers were
not U.S. citizens.
This gathering of seasoned activists, many with
roots going back to the Chicano movement of the
1960s and beyond, began to take the effort a step
"We've seen the largest mobilizations in American
history around immigration; it's the new civil
rights movement," said Emma Lozano, a community
organizer from Chicago. "Now we need to transform
that into political power so we can change these
Talking with colleagues at a conference was not
enough, said California State Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-
"It's about organizing and doing the hard work," he
exhorted the crowd Saturday morning. "When we leave
this congress, we should plan to spend the next 60
days putting voter registration applications in
But the conference was about more than electoral
power, said Antonio Gonzalez, director of the
Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and
a key organizer of the event.
The most burning issue on the conference agenda was
to push Congress to pass comprehensive immigration
reform that offers illegal immigrants a path to
citizenship, but the delegates also passed
resolutions backing a broad range of issues,
-- Electoral reforms, including abolishing the
electoral college and allowing for instant-runoff
-- Universal health care;
-- Environmental protection, including reducing
global warming and strengthening clean air and
clean water laws; and
-- A national holiday to honor United Farm Workers
founder Cesar Chavez.
Though some of these issues are not traditionally
thought of as Latino concerns, they affect that
community, said Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-
Allard, D-Los Angeles.
"The environment has been a concern and a lonely
battle that Latinos have fought for a long time,"
she said. Whether we're talking about asthma or
unwanted manufacturing projects that pollute, we've
been in that battle for a long time."
One of the most significant challenges to Latino
unity is in bridging the gap between newly arrived
migrants, the majority of them undocumented
Mexicans, and long-established Hispanic Americans,
including some who are not sympathetic to the
concerns of illegal immigrants.
But those groups seem to be converging. In a number
of recent elections, including the 2005 mayor's
race in Los Angeles, labor unions and other groups
mobilized hundreds of immigrants, many not
citizens, to go door to door and help turn out
Latino citizen voters. Dolores Huerta lauded the
tactic as a time-honored way to bring new
immigrants into the political process.
The other challenge is bridging the divide between
the Latino "street," the passionate grassroots
activists who have been uncompromising on demanding
full rights for all undocumented immigrants, and
the longtime political activists facing the harsh
realities for a pro-immigrant agenda in a
With 43 million Latinos in the nation, the
political agenda must be a multifaceted one, said
Gonzalez. As for getting everyone on the same page?
"The goal is harmony, not unanimity," said
E-mail Tyche Hendricks email@example.com.
(c)2006 San Francisco Chronicle
And, of course, Dolores Huerta is a Chair of DSA.