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Local Hispanics' Political Voice Largely Unheard; Though They Form The Region's Largest Minority Group, Many Are Not Voting.
19 November 2004
National Hispanic groups heralded this month's election as a victory -- more than 7 million Hispanics voted, and for the first time two Hispanics were elected to the U.S. Senate, including Mel Martinez in Florida.
But if Hispanics are gaining political clout statewide and nationally, they are struggling to gain a foothold in local politics.
Although the Hispanic population is growing in Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties, many aren't eligible to vote because they are here illegally or are undocumented workers. In Manatee, for example, less than 10 percent of the county's 28,000 Hispanics were registered to vote in this election. And of those who were, many are too busy trying to make a living to be political players.
Numbering more than 50,000, Hispanics are this region's largest minority group. Despite their numbers, Hispanics hold no elected positions and are nearly voiceless when it comes to government and the institutions that influence their lives.
Those who followed the election closely can't pin the low numbers on just one thing. It's a cycle, they say, that starts with the difficulty in attracting Hispanic candidates. In addition, a large number of Hispanics aren't registered to vote. Plus, non-Hispanic candidates typically aren't familiar with the issues important to Spanish-speaking constituents.
Some Hispanic residents said they wish elected bodies more closely resembled the community. Blacks are also dramatically under- represented but do hold a few elected offices in the region.
But no Hispanics were on the ballot in local general election races in Manatee County, which has the largest percentage of Hispanics in the three-county region.
Godiva Garza, a home school liaison at Palmetto High School, has lived in Palmetto for 23 years. She said she's always been frustrated by the dearth of Hispanics in office.
"Everyone wants to stay in the background and that's why nothing gets done," Garza said of local Hispanics.
She said non-Hispanic candidates didn't debate topics important to the Hispanic community, such as issuing drivers licenses to undocumented workers.
Change comes slowly
C.J. Czaia, a Sarasota attorney and Palmetto resident, ran unsuccessfully for a state senate seat in 2002 and ran for a congressional seat this year but didn't make it past the primary. Locals have praised him for running, but they say just one candidate isn't enough to change the face of politics, and Czaia agrees.
He said more Hispanics need to register to vote, run for office and better inform themselves to make a difference politically.
Two Hispanic candidates threw their names into the ring in Sarasota and Charlotte counties. Alberto Belinfante, who was born in Panama, ran for a seat on the North Port City Commission, but lost. Fernando "Dondi" Gutierrez, a Puerto Rican Democrat, ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Charlotte Airport Authority.
Gutierrez said the loss won't discourage him from running again.
"I hope it encourages other Latinos to run in the future," he said. "It doesn't matter to me whether you're a Democrat or Republican as long as you're making the community better."
But some local Hispanics worry that their skin color or last name may keep them out of office because the majority of the area's voters are white and older.
Subconsciously, the lighter you are, voters like it, said Jim Delgado, a Palmetto attorney.
He said that a candidate's race or nationality shouldn't matter if he or she has solid ideas. But that kind of thinking, he said, is still years away despite the headway Hispanics are making nationally.
"It's almost scary," he said. "It makes you think, where are we? We always talk about having a voice, but really, where are we?"
For Miguel Figueras, a Cuban-American who owns a Sarasota art studio, a candidate's ethnicity or nationality won't sway his vote.
"If one candidate is Hispanic and the other is not, that doesn't mean anything," said Figueras, a registered Republican. "I am going to vote for the best person."
A lack of Hispanic candidates may reflect the fact that despite the large Hispanic population here, many can't vote. Undocumented immigrants cannot register to vote, and even those who are here legally can't vote if they're not a citizen.
Vicente Medina, a Sarasota Republican, said that many of the area's Latinos live paycheck to paycheck in hotel, landscaping and farming jobs.
"We're seeing a lot of the Latinos in the area are more concerned about everyday living than the concerns of the community to put themselves at the forefront," said Medina who's also a board member of the Gulf Coast Latin Chamber of Commerce.
But he said the future looks good for Hispanic representation as more middle-class Hispanics move into the area, establish themselves and become active in local politics.
The National Association of Latino and Elected Officials Education Fund touted the 2004 election as a big win for Hispanics, who went to polls in unprecedented numbers. That means more Hispanic candidates may be on the horizon, said Marcelo Gaete, senior director for programs at NALEO. Gaete said Hispanic perspectives are needed in political leadership.
"We're all Americans at the end of the day, but" Hispanic representation "determines how government services its communities," Gaete said.
Candidates in this recent election cycle made huge efforts to garner a chunk of the lucrative Hispanic vote. They launched television and radio campaigns on Spanish language networks and chanted "Si se puede!" (Yes we can!) on the campaign trail.
But at the same time, Hispanics don't feel that candidates really understood the issues affecting their daily lives, such as poor wages and immigration troubles.
Same language, different issues
Hispanics also face challenges resulting from the variety of different people who make up their culture.
Mexicans make up the majority of Hispanics in both Manatee and Sarasota counties, totalling about 21,000, according to the Census. But groups such as Colombians, Cubans and Puerto Ricans are also on the rise here.
Although linked by a common language, Hispanics have different cultures and traditions as well as polar opposite political views. A Venezuelan won't be interested in diplomatic relations with Cuba, just as Puerto Rico's status won't interest most Cubans.
For that reason, it's difficult for Hispanics to unify themselves and their views. Critics say candidates often try to generalize Hispanics, which often alienates voters.
"People think that Hispanics are all the same," Czaia said. "We're not."
Campaign ads targeted at Hispanics and efforts by candidates to speak Spanish weren't enough to influence some Hispanic voters. Jennifer Garza, Garza's 19-year-old daughter, said none of the candidates impressed her, so she didn't vote at all.
"Candidates have to prove that they're open and care about my community's issues," Garza said.
If anything, the 2004 election showed that nationally Hispanics are starting to carve out their spot on the political landscape. And that's enough for Cristina Aburto, a 29-year-old registrar at Tara Elementary School in East Manatee, who voted in her first presidential election.
She's the only one in her Mexican-American family who registered to vote. She identified with Mel Martinez, who was once an immigrant, and voted for him.
Aburto grew up working the fields next to hundreds of people who will never really be represented.
"Now I feel that my voice is being heard," Aburto said. "It's like saying, 'See? I can do it.' ... It's part of the process of bettering yourself."