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The Detroit News

Metro Latinos Strive For A Political Voice

Judy Lin

18 October 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Detroit News. All rights reserved.

Anita Alfaro of Pontiac successfully pushed for a local Latino affairs office to promote the sharing of cultures. She also got the school superintendent's approval to open a bilingual office that helps families enroll children.

But when it came to making a bid for Oakland County commissioner, the 68-year-old community activist couldn't muster enough momentum to win the election.

"We don't have support in any group that can help us," said Alfaro, who lost on the Republican ticket in the August primary. "Some (Latinos), they don't know enough to register or they don't have passports because many are illegally here."

Alfaro and members of Metro Detroit's Latino community say that while their population is growing ‹ up 10.3 percent in Michigan in the past three years ‹ they are still struggling to gain political representation in all levels of government.

It's one of several issues Latino leaders raise about the status of their community in Metro Detroit. Others involve education and a battle over language in a proposal before Detroit City Council that is designed to spark black-owned business.

While Latinos have been elected to the Legislature, courts and city councils, there is no Latino elected official representing southwest Detroit ‹ Metro Detroit's largest Latino community.

According to research by Wayne State University demographer Kurt Metzger, only 33.5 percent of Michigan Hispanic voters turned out in the 2002 elections, compared to 50.3 percent of the overall population.

Latinos say the need for political clout is being underscored by recent tussles such as the Detroit City Council's support of a report that blames immigrants for taking resources from blacks. The report was the basis of a proposed black business district dubbed African Town.

A ray of hope can be found, however, in the growing success of the business community. Heily Vazquez, 25, of Pontiac runs the Latino-American Market with her mother, Elba Gonzalez. She says business at their 20-year-old grocery market has directly benefited from the growing Latino community. Roughly 3 percent of the nearly 5 million people in Southeast Michigan are Latino.

"There's a definite growth," said Vazquez, who moved to Pontiac from Puerto Rico when she was 5.

In 2001, Valde Garcia was the first Hispanic elected to the state Senate, to represent Livingston and Shiawassee counties. But the growth of Latino businesses in Mexicantown in southwest Detroit and in Pontiac has people wondering why those communities haven't coalesced politically.

"The Latino community is getting more and more active, and yet in terms of getting anybody elected, they're having trouble," Metzger said.

Earlier this year, Juan Jose Martinez lost to incumbent state Rep. Steve Tobocman, who is white, in the 12th District. The district represents southwest Detroit, where much of Metro Detroit's Latino population lives.

Martinez, who was the first Latino elected to the Detroit school board in 1994 and 1998, said more people are becoming concerned about having a voice in government.

"Some believe that it's long overdue that we have some political presence in the various levels of government. I don't have a problem with that sentiment," he said.

Tobocman said that you don't have to be Latino in order to represent a Latino community, saying he won because he has been successful in bringing results for everyone in his diverse community.

"I think you're missing the point in the sense that it goes beyond skin color and ethnic origins," he said. "We're having a fairly sophisticated dialogue in southwest Detroit."

Still, Latino community members say they need to find a way to take care of their own.

Pontiac's Alfaro said her campaign suffered from a lack of organization. Fliers didn't get out and people didn't make calls. It also didn't help that she couldn't actively campaign because of high blood pressure.

"It cannot happen if we can't get organized to really do the campaigning," she said. Alfaro holds out hope for future generations as Michigan mirrors the Latino population boom. Come Nov. 2, three of her grandchildren will be voting in their first election.

Latinos also are speaking out on education issues because youths 17 and younger make up 36 percent of the tri-county Hispanic population, according to a 2002 report sponsored by United Way Community Services.

Latino leaders are concerned about Wayne State University's ouster of two Latino professors from a Chicano-Boricua center because of alleged discrimination.

And they are speaking out on a Detroit school governance initiative known as Proposal E.

Latino community leaders say they have a lot to learn when it comes to becoming power brokers, but they are making gains. A prime example is their last-minute support of Detroit's school governance initiative, which voters will decide on Election Day. Proposal E calls for a nine-member school board with the mayor nominating the chief executive officer.

By supporting Proposal E, Latinos would stand a better chance of getting a Latino elected to the school board because the proposal also calls for election by districts.

Angie Reyes, executive director of the Detroit Hispanic Development Corp., said the nonprofit civic group likely will support Proposal E. Eva Garza Dewaelsche, president of the Latino job-training organization Ser Metro, has been an outspoken supporter.

Meanwhile, Reyes and other minority groups last week asked the Detroit City Council to rescind a pair of resolutions aimed at creating a black business district because of concerns about anti-immigrant language used in a report. The City Council is expected to pass an amended resolution today that allows the project to move forward while acknowledging that the rhetoric "may have been interpreted by some as racist."

The report states: "For over four centuries, Black Americans were considered second-class citizens. Hispanics have surpassed blacks now and made them third-class citizens."

"The African Town piece has been fairly divisive," said Ricardo Guzman, CEO of the Community Health & Social Services Center Inc., a federally funded health center in southwest Detroit.


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