El Pueblo Unido

Making the Case for a United Latino Front

Ahora es el momento. A Spanish-speaking president, one who can do more than stumble through a few phrases at a political rally, may be nowhere on the horizon, but for activists like Rosa Clemente, the time to forge a powerful Latino bloc is now.

Even with the latest census showing that some 37 million Latinos now live in the United States—making us by some measures the nation's new largest minority—we have no place at the political table. For our numbers to mean anything to George Bush or the challengers now vying for the chance to defeat him, we'll have to find common threads—not an easy task when our first instinct is still to check off the box that says "other."

"If we as a community that's being called Latino don't become racially conscious and don't begin to identify in racial terms, people will do it for us, and that leaves us with less power," says Clemente, an activist for the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement.

illustration: Rachel Salomon

The idea of a Latino or Hispanic race is almost a necessary fiction in black-versus-white America, where influence hinges on identity. Under the label of Hispanic, first used by the U.S. government in 1973, Dominicans become the same as Argentines and Nicaraguans. In reality, those groups have little to do with one another. When Afro-Latinos mark off "Black, African Am., or Negro" along with Hispanic, the government shoves them into one compartment, essentially telling them they don't exist. In the narrow view of the United States, they're Latino, regardless of how they're perceived when they walk down the street.

And the community is split not just along color lines but on the issue of nationality. "American" is too wide a category for Latinos, who still see themselves primarily as the product of another land. "I would say I'm Puerto Rican, Honduran, and Greek," says Calixto Chinchilla, executive producer of the New York International Latino Film Festival. "It's a reflex."

It doesn't help that the different nationalities have unresolved, historical beef with each other. Ecuadorans begrudge Peruvians. Puerto Ricans don't get along with Dominicans. Argentines belittle Uruguayans. Mexicans, now immigrating in droves, have a hard time gaining acceptance by other Latinos because they're willing to work for lower wages and thus displace those who came before them. That's much like what happened to the Irish when the Italians showed up. Eventually, these two marginalized adversaries joined forces as "white," the elite. Perhaps it will be years yet before Latinos accept that they have to move beyond old national identities in order to get in on the debate.

"Sometimes we can be so separatist—but wait a minute, we all speak the same language," says Chinchilla, who's more comfortable talking in Spanglish, which is also a way of life. Walk through an immigrant neighborhood, like Jackson Heights in Queens or Washington Heights in Manhattan, and count the phone-booth businesses selling llamadas to Latin America. Check out the restaurant awnings decorated with Mexican or Dominican flags. So often, we live with one foot in this country and the other entrenched someplace else.

Latinos in New York have managed to elect local leaders, even if they've had to settle for one gringo mayor after another.

Adolfo Carrion Jr., borough president of the Bronx, which has the highest concentration of Latinos in the city, says he wonders about the "grand prize" his people will get for being named the country's biggest minority. "That comes with the distinction of being the poorest community, having the lowest educational attainment levels, poor health conditions, and certainly being at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder."

If you break down the numbers, one in three Hispanics is under the age of 18, and those teenagers have the highest dropout rate in the country. Over 36 percent of Latinos lack medical insurance. Hispanics are afflicted by high risks for asthma, hepatitis C, cervical cancer, and HIV/AIDS. In New York City alone, 71.1 percent of Latino children are born into poverty.

In spite of these alarming statistics, or perhaps because of them, Hispanics lack the voz to bring about significant change. The Latino approach to power is in part determined by culture. "Our parents teach us that we cannot demand something, that we have to ask, and if it's not given to us it's fine," says City Council member Margarita Lopez, of Manhattan. "We are not aggressive. We tend to be more laid-back."

Hispanics, she adds, suffer from "battered-woman syndrome"—meaning that no matter how bad the situation gets, there's no attempt to escape. If things are bad, that's just the way they are.

Lopez also counts a history of colonialism in some Latin American countries as an impediment. "We do not stand up and take responsibility for our own future, our own present, and our own destiny," she says.

You have to know where you came from in order to know where you're going, and the only point of reference for most Latinos is the countries where they, their parents, or even their grandparents were born. Those links are tightly held, though the larger society seems eager to sever them. "In school, we don't learn much about ourselves," says Chinchilla. "I know more about Dr. King and Malcolm X than I know about [Puerto Rican Nationalist] Pedro Albizu Campos. That's a lack of education that is somewhat dangerous. Unless you go to college and take Latino studies, you're not going to find out. We're not part of the curriculum."

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