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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

La Raza Hopes To Appeal To All Latinos

By Madeline Baró Diaz

JULY 14, 2002
Copyright © 2002 S
outh Florida Sun-Sentinel. All rights reserved.

MIAMI · The National Council of La Raza, a group traditionally associated with Mexican-Americans, is hoping to expand the participation of other Hispanics by bringing its annual conference to Miami Beach.

By holding its convention in South Florida, home to a diverse group of Hispanics, La Raza President Raul Yzaguirre says the group wants to show that it is about representing the interests of all Latinos.

"We want to make a statement by being there," Yzaguirre said.

The conference will take place July 20-24 at the Miami Beach Convention Center, which was also the site of the group's 1994 conference.

La Raza's overtures to other Hispanic groups, such as Cuban-Americans, is part of its efforts to strengthen its national agenda. The idea is to bring together those who agree with the group's broader positions on issues such as immigration and civil rights and will work with La Raza on issues of concern to specific Hispanic groups.

The move comes as the country's Hispanic population is becoming more and more diverse and the southeast United States, in particular, is experiencing explosive growth in its Hispanic population.

Although La Raza enjoys a national presence it lacks the power of an organization like the NAACP, according to political scientist Dario Moreno. In the case of reaching out to the Cuban-American community, the group would probably benefit from the Cuban community's political power and ability to raise money, Moreno said.

Billed as the largest national Hispanic civil rights organization in the United States, La Raza was founded in 1968 in Arizona and is considered by many to be the most prominent Hispanic organization in the United States. Calling itself a constituency-based organization, it has 270 affiliates in 40 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C. Through those and a network of 30,000 other groups and individuals, La Raza says it reaches 3.5 million Hispanics a year.

The organization has been in the national spotlight on issues such as the presence of Hispanics on network television programs as well as through its nationally-broadcast ALMA Awards, which honor Latinos in television, film and music.

Yzaguirre said any national Latino organization like La Raza will be predominantly Mexican-American, since they make up about 70 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population.

"That doesn't mean we ignore the other 30 percent," Yzaguirre said. "We made that decision to be a pan-Hispanic organization 30 years ago, and I think we're living out that goal, in our staff, on our board."

La Raza is opening an office in Atlanta, to increase its presence in the Southeast, and already has affiliates in South Florida through which they carry out their programs, Yzaguirre said.

La Raza has primarily enjoyed support in the southwest among Mexican-Americans and Chicanos, said Moreno, political science professor at Florida International University. Throughout the years, Puerto Ricans have also been integrated into the organization, Moreno said.

"Cubans have barely integrated or been a part of it," Moreno said.

Holding its convention in Miami allows La Raza to reach out to Cubans and other Hispanics with large concentrations in South Florida, such as Colombians and Nicaraguans, Moreno said.

"Florida is one of the largest growing Hispanic states," he said. "The fact that they're coming to Miami is a good sign that they're reaching out more seriously toward Cubans and other Hispanic groups beyond their traditional base."

The last time La Raza held its convention in Miami Beach, there were concerns it would be a tense affair. The conference was held after some Cuban-Americans protested the Mexican government's decision to repatriate a group of Cuban refugees to Cuba by burning Mexican flags and stomping on sombreros.

"There was a great deal of trepidation about going to Miami," Yzaguirre recalls.

But after Cuban-American leaders assured La Raza that the group was welcome the event went off without a hitch, with President Clinton making an appearance to discuss health care.

That experience led the group to choose Miami Beach as its convention spot again this year. This time around, 15,000 people are expected, with 3,000 to 4,000 at the convention at any given time, Yzaguirre said.

Sessions will deal with such issues as health, education, culture, and community-based efforts. HUD Secretary Mel Martinez is among the speakers. Others expected to attend the convention include House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, Senator Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., California Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante and writer Sandra Cisneros.

Additionally, there will be a homeownership fair, health fair and an employment fair that are open to the public at the convention center.

La Raza has taken up issues stemming from post-Sept. 11 immigration crackdowns that have led to increased restrictions on driver's licenses in some states and efforts to give local and state police agencies enforcement power over immigrants. La Raza is trying to make sure there's a balance between security and racial profiling in the country's anti-terrorism efforts, Yzaguirre said.

In doing that, La Raza has been using its age-old strategies of lobbying people and urging Latinos to write letters and visit their elected officials to make their views known, he said.

La Raza will have to find a way to tailor its national message to the different elements of the Hispanic community, Moreno said. Issues like immigration and the fight against Spanish language discrimination appeal to the broad Hispanic community, but beyond those issues there are a lot of differences in what particular Hispanic groups find important.

For example, South Florida Hispanics, particularly Cubans, tend to be more conservative than Hispanics in Los Angeles or New York. In South Florida, U.S-Cuba relations has been the dominant issue for Cuban-Americans.

In contrast, La Raza focuses on national issues that affect Hispanics, said Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation. Cuban groups have been dealing with the external issue of Cuba and are now, after several decades in the United States, coming around to following La Raza's lead on focusing on internal issues, he said.

Moreno believes La Raza will move beyond making the Mexican-American agenda its Hispanic agenda.

"I think it's trying to move beyond that because it has to," Moreno said. "The Latino population in the United States is changing. Their challenge is how to come up with a general agenda that's meaningful while satisfying the interests of all the Latino groups that make up La Raza."

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