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The Hartford Courant

Hispanic Lawmakers See Strength In Numbers


December 7, 2001
Copyright © 2001
The Hartford Courant. All Rights Reserved.

In early November, close to a hundred Hispanic legislators met in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Sponsored by the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators, the forum had only one question: How do 40 million Hispanics translate the power of population into significant political and economic change?

The conference began with an unprecedented conversation among the heads of five national Hispanic organizations, including the National Council of La Raza, The Cuban American National Council, The National Puerto Rican Coalition and The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (a group with more than 6,000 members). The new group at the table was the Dominican American National Roundtable. Director Jose Bello explained that his group existed only because Dominicans wanted a front-row seat at the conference.

Bello's comments put everyone on notice. Outsiders might think all Hispanics are alike. In reality, the many ethnic groups that walk under the Hispanic banner boast differences that are sometimes as wide as the gap between the French and Germans, Belgians and Italians.

The conference was the creation of John Martinez, a deputy majority leader of the Connecticut House of Representatives. As president of the national caucus, Martinez wants to transcend divisions, achieve a consensus about priorities and then get all Hispanic state legislators to convince whoever needs convincing.

Some issues (for example, the future political status of Puerto Rico) are likely to be resolved only in heaven, so all the organizations wisely decided to exclude topics that create perpetual dissension.

Next on the agenda was George Herrera, CEO of the National Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He explained that because Hispanics buy 27 percent of Ford Motor Co. products, they should get an equal share of the procurement process. When the president of Ford said, "We can't find Hispanic businesses," Herrera sent him to Ford's marketing department. Herrera said, "If you can find us as consumers, you can find us as purveyors." The chamber's home page now includes a national directory of Hispanic vendors.

Herrera also stressed that political and economic power are inseparably linked. So he offered to get behind legislators with financial support and a great gift. The chamber owns a nationally syndicated TV program, "Hispanics Today." It airs on NBC and it reaches, each week, 89 percent of all Hispanic homes. Herrera told legislators: "Give us an issue and we will broadcast it to the nation."

Without rancor, the conference settled on priorities that included education, voter registration, immigration, health and employment. It's such a solid basis for a national consensus that even adverse reactions to the consensus will help increase the degree of unity among Hispanics.

When the majority puts a negative spotlight on Hispanics, everyone is included. Even the rich, successful Chicano lawyer in Sacramento cannot escape being Hispanic when the larger society jams the lawyer and the hotel worker into a pot that also includes prejudice, resentment and fear.

The Hispanic label is therefore a forced choice for some and a voluntary spiritual commitment for the majority. Either way, it is a label with great political potential.

Only time will tell if Martinez and his colleagues can achieve the conference's ambitious goals. But, as they make the attempt, consider Floyd Esquibel, Leticia Van de Putte and Felipe Reinoso.

Esquibel is a state representative from Wyoming. He is intelligent and amiable and his English is as perfect as his ostrich cowboy boots.

Van de Putte is a state senator from Texas. She dresses with style and she speaks English and Spanish in the same way -- with a pronounced Texas drawl.

State Rep. Reinoso, D-Bridgeport, is from Peru. Although he speaks with an accent as thick as my father's, his constituents easily understand his words and applaud his enthusiasm.

These three very different people have at least two things in common. They are 100 percent Hispanic and, like all good Americans, they mean to get a bigger piece of the pie for themselves -- and for the 40 million members of their immediate family.

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