El Pueblo Unido

Making the Case for a United Latino Front

Increasingly, Latino activists are studying the example set by black leaders trying to win equality. "We have to say thank you to the African American community and the African American struggle," says Lopez. "We have to kiss the floor on which Martin Luther King walked, because it was them who put the struggle for civil rights out there, and it was them who framed the issue clearly."

African Americans and Latinos share many of the same problems, Clemente argues. She rattles them off: "Economic oppression. Economic exploitation. Police brutality. Lack of housing. Lack of access to health care. Lack of access to education."

The black and Latino struggles may be much the same, but key disparities separate the groups. African Americans were forced to come to this country, and most Latinos came of their own volition. There is no single event in the history of Hispanics here as poignant or as unifying as slavery. That's not to say Latin America didn't participate in the slave trade—some countries did. What Latinos do have, though, is a history of internal struggle with classism, sexism, and racism. In some cases, Latinos have held that the only way to "better the race" is to marry someone lighter skinned. We've got our own "paper bag" test.

illustration: Rachel Salomon

The preoccupation with differences, both among different Latinos and among our natural allies, has frustrated attempts to form an agenda. While we worry about whose country is better or skin fairer, decision-making power where we live remains in the hands of white men. The absence of Latinos in high elected offices has nothing to do with apathy. "In many places in South America, voting is not a right, it's an obligation," says Santiago Bonilla, a community reporter for Hoy, one of the city's most widely read Spanish-language newspapers. "By nature, we do have an interest in politics."

But when politicians don't show an interest in us—when Governor George Pataki, for example, is content to win our support by calling himself an "amigo" and then fights against better funding for the city's public schools—they push us to the sidelines. And for too many sons and daughters of disenfranchised immigrants, these conditions have lasted so long that anything else seems unattainable.

You can hear the roar of the elevated No. 7 train from Pilar and Julio's apartment. They share this a one-bedroom place in Elmhurst, having moved from a nice house on the semi-tranquil Caribbean coast of Colombia a year and a half ago. They came for opportunity. Now the former licensed aesthetician washes hair in a salon, while her husband, a former director of sales and distribution for a major retail chain, makes deliveries for a local shop.

Pilar has applied for citizenship, though she has been told to expect a wait of almost two years. "Before we came here, we wanted to open our own business," she says. "If we go back now, we will have been beaten."

Much of the Latino hope rests with the younger generation, with those who at least have the benefit of having been born as American citizens. "Wait till you see what I can do, and I'm a Latino," says Max Amparo, a 17-year-old aspiring rap artist and record producer. "I'm not trying to make a big change in the world but at least between the people that I walk around every day."

Amparo recently got out of the Campos projects on Manhattan's Lower East Side, looking for something better. "I know a lot of chicks feelin' him, five-six, brown eyes, and pure Dominican," he rhymes, obviously proud of his heritage.

He and his peers still contend with tired stereotypes. "In the movies, they portray us as drug dealers, dishwashers, wetbacks," says 18-year-old Jose Luis Moreno, a freshman at John Jay College. "They don't think a Latino can be very successful."

Young Latinos are working to counter that notion, and to consider, on a greater scale, what it means to be Latino in the United States. On MiGente.com, a community-based site, their inquiries find a forum. One asks, are Puerto Ricans and blacks a lot alike? Do you get accused of not being "Latino enough"? What's the difference between Hispanic and Latino? If you could nominate a Latino for president, who would it be? Can we achieve unity without an all-encompassing cause?

In answer to the last question, the overall outlook seems positive. Perhaps the United States is the place where Latin American liberator Simón Bolívar's dream of unity based on a common Hispanic heritage will become a reality. Listen to the responses on MiGente:

"The differences that exist within the 'Latino' community are the mechanisms for getting changes made."

"They need to serve as a catalyst to bring people together and fully address issues that plague minority communities."

"If you tell yourself unity is impossible, it'll never happen."

"Yes, we are called Spanish or Latino, but that does not say who we are."

"Today all of Latin America—white, black, and indigenous—faces similar challenges, be they political, economic or social. That alone should call for their unification."

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