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The Allentown Morning Call

Building Unified Latino Coalition Is Delicate Balancing Act

By Louis Rodriquez, Special to The Morning Call -- Freelance

April 30, 2004
Copyright © 2004 TThe Allentown Morning Call. All rights reserved.

At an April 12 summit of Latino Leaders at Kutztown University, much was accomplished toward building a unified Latino vision. However, there was also conflict between local and state Latino leadership.

The meeting was initiated by the Governors Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs (GACLA) or the Pennsylvania State Latino Coalition or local Latino leaders -- depending on whom you ask. Latino leaders at the state level as well as leaders from communities throughout the state were invited. State leaders set the agenda. But, to some, that agenda didn't recognize Latino diversity, and smacked of a state grab for local control.

At the summit, Lzaro Fuentes of the Lehigh Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce implied that state leaders lacked the right attitude toward the local community because there was no local representation at the state level. Using census data, Fuentes demonstrated that Lehigh County and the Lehigh Valley were not represented on GACLA's board in numbers commensurate to population ratios. Several of the attendees agreed.

I have noticed these state-local tensions, too. Though local and statewide organizations share interests that should lead to political alliances, such collaboration is conflicted because some state Latino leaders focus on issues that don't address immediate local needs.

Latinos are not a monolithic group. Latino ideological, political, and religious diversity creates tensions that breed intra-

Latino conflict. Diversity tied to national origin is a characteristic of the Latino community often overlooked, and that diversity can vary around the state. One local community may be predominantly Dominican, while a state agenda might address predominantly issues of concern to Latinos from Puerto Rico living in Philadelphia. While diversity makes it more difficult to articulate a unified Latino vision, why not strive for an inclusive vision, instead?

Fuentes failed to convince everyone of GACLA failures. He implied that GACLA's claim to be representative of the state's Latinos was impossible to take seriously. He implied that the motives for its leaders' agenda are not the betterment of Latinos but personal gains. His evidence was based on the latest census data; he identified inequalities in representation based on numbers and differing Latino interest. To some, his complaints appeared based on a personal dislike for individual GACLA leaders. That is unfortunate, because Fuentes's criticism has merit.

Fuentes's argument assumes the leadership and the community have different agendas; local leaders want local issues heard at the state level, and, conversely, GACLA wants control of the local community.

But as Lillian Escobar Haskin, a former GACLA director, argued, GACLA's work and current commissioner representation was based on a response to the needs of the community. The most obvious, non-controversial examples of this representation shared the table during Fuentes's presentation: Kutztown University President Javier Cevallos, Secretary of the Commonwealth Pedro A. Corts, Ben Ramos, adviser to the governor, and the present GACLA director, Herman Bristol Colon. All have been directly or indirectly assisted by the leadership in question.

Fuentes did not appear to take these subtleties into account, characterizing the Latino community as simply a "rank and file," on call for the powerful. This is a shame, because there is an important critique of the leadership waiting to be aired, namely, the question of fair representation and what will be GACLA's role in the future of an increasingly politically important segment of the population.

This is not a rejection of Lzaro Fuentes's criticism of GACLA, or a united Latino coalition, but a recognition of political realities. Diversity exists within the Latino community and must be considered. While census data is important, it is not the only ways to evaluate diversity. An inclusive agenda can be arrived at by inviting representatives and accommodating issues of importance to divergent groups in the Latino population.

Nor should recognition of Latino diversity be read as a suggestion that a united Latino organization is an impossibility. However, individuals within both state and local Latino communities are wary of an alliance. Many have adopted the victim approach. What will become of Latino leaders who have built careers brokering between state and local communities and those in power? They have a history of extracting favors from those in power in return for nearly automatic support. The price for this approach has been a perpetuation of the status quo.

What is needed is honest communication. Local and state Latino leaders must honor commitments. This is essential. To challenge effectively, bridges must be built among the divergent groups comprising the Latino community. By focusing on common Latino interests while recognizing local needs, a more powerful Latino coalition may be constructed.

Louis Rodriquez of Allentown teaches history at Kutztown University.

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