July 3, 2003

Commentary

The Need For A National Hispanic American Agenda Summit

By Peter Fontanes

There is a great deal of anticipation among political pundits throughout the country with the announcement by the United States Census Department that Hispanic Americans are now officially the largest ethnic minority group in the nation. At 33 million strong, it is now clear that this decade should belong to Hispanic Americans as far as political empowerment is concerned. Yet the voter turnout among eligible Hispanic Americans in national elections remains dismal and, except for volatile local issues, which stir the voters to act, there does not seem much of a cohesive effort to push a national agenda, which would demonstrate the true strength of the sleeping behemoth that lurks in the “Barrios”.

Certainly, politics is local and local politics has seen an upsurge in Hispanic American representation. The work of former Bronx County Democratic leader, Roberto Ramirez, has forever changed the landscape of New York City politics. The mayoralty race of Fernando Ferrer in that city and Antonio Villagrosas in Los Angeles (though both were lost by razor thin margins) clearly shows that the Hispanic American vote is being taken seriously in urban America.

Republicans have made significant strides with conservative, church going Hispanics. Polls clearly indicate that many of these voters feel disenfranchised by the Democratic Party on issues such as abortion, family values and school vouchers. Everywhere you look, Latinos are participating in the local political process.

Unfortunately, no one of real stature from the Hispanic American community has been able to successfully bring the Chicanos from Texas, the Puerto Ricans from New York, the Cubans from Florida or the Dominicans from New Jersey to worship together at the altar of national politics.

Numerous state and local governments have seen the emergence of newly elected officials with Spanish surnames. You would think that we could rest on our laurels but there is, no doubt, much to be accomplished. Many of the solutions to problems confronting Hispanic Americans lie squarely within the jurisdiction of the federal government. There is little that local and state governments can do short of issuing toothless resolutions condemning federal immigration practice and inadequate HUD spending. We urgently need to develop a national agenda.

Recently, Congressman Sylvestre Reyes from Texas, City Council member Diana Reyna from New York, Jose Marquez, Executive Director of the National Association of Hispanics in Information Technology and Telecommunication and myself  (A Mexican, Dominican, a Cuban and a Puerto Rican respectively) sat down at an informal breakfast and gradually gravitated to the discussion of voter turnout in the Hispanic American Community. As a comical note, it was noted that in a recent community newspaper poll Mexico’s President Vicente Fox was the American politician most Hispanic Americans most admired. To think that for the exception of Cesar Chavez, there has been no one in our community that has stood out as a national leader with a message of national pride, unity and hope. It was an inexcusable and outrageous concept to those seated at the table that morning! However in our bantering, we suddenly realized that before we have a messenger, we should, at least, find the message. So thus was born the idea of a National Hispanic American Agenda Summit.

However the task will not be easy. The eternal “envidia” and “bochinche” that has too  many times jettisoned efforts to unite our community must be pushed aside for the higher purpose and common good. The organizers of a proposed Hispanic American national movement must be sensitive to nationalistic pride and partisan loyalty but not to the degree that narrow nationalism or partisan parochialism jeopardizes the bigger picture for Hispanics Americans who wants to enjoy the benefits of their citizenship to the fullest. The important issues of education, immigrant rights, housing, police brutality, crime and senior citizens as they relate to Hispanic Americans must be addressed first and foremost without sacrificing the solutions to the demons of petty internal squabbles, power clashes, hidden political agendas and clan rivalries that has hindered our community in its search for a unified and comprehensive national agenda and identity.

I, for one, proudly consider myself to be an American first. I then stand tall “con orgullo”, with 39 million other Americans, as a  “Latino”. The stars spangled banner is my political father! “La Hispanidad” is my cultural mother. I pledge allegiance to the stars and stripes and sing with tears of pride and joy in my eyes the words to “La Borinquena”. As I equally and strongly loved both my parents likewise I love both my country and my culture. In fact, I thank God for the double blessing. Hot Dogs and Salsa! What can be better!

Nor are Hispanic Americans automatically voting Democratic or Republican. In New York, Republican Governor George Pataki successfully garnished the Hispanic American Democratic vote to be swept into office in a state that for years was a bastion of Latino Democrats. New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg would not have won were it not for the phenomenon of a spontaneous revolt among Latino Democrats who switched party lines to protest the Democratic party’s cavalier treatment of their community during that primary. We have grown up as a political animal. It is time to emerge from our cocoons.

In short, we are Hispanic Americans. Punto, final y se acabo! Anyone else coming with another agenda should be looked upon with suspicion and should be repudiated. We have no time for nonsense such as anthropological semantics espousing nationalistic excesses or aimless excuses for partisan selfishness.

More importantly, as a united people, we will begin to stir the spirit of hope that transcends political partisanship or petty nationalism. Perhaps, we will begin to harness the energy of Latino aspirations and start reshaping western hemispheric foreign relations and change forever the diplomatic scenario that has dominated our long history with economic subservience. Perhaps we can start shaping a future that will include more Hispanic American United States Senators and Representatives from Congress legislating in the not too distant future for a new global order that will look at Latin America as equal partners in an alliance for real progress. Or maybe we will have a political movement that will make sure that economic development programs are more evenly distributed and channeled toward businesses in the barrios or federal school funding is disbursed in rural farm areas where migrant farm worker’ children can be better educated.

It is time we look to pushing the agenda forward. Too many of our young people are dropping out of school, too many of our senior citizens are sick because of inadequate health care, too many of our families are living in horrendous conditions for me to worry about the Republican or Democratic agenda.

In fact, it is about time that the national political parties started addressing the Hispanic American Agenda. No more photo opportunities, no more cute speeches and no more “Yo hablo el espanol” commercials! That is no longer enough! If national party leaders want the Latino votes, they must put what we ordered on our table! We will not accept poor substitutes or crumbs anymore.

The problem, however, now lies with us. They cannot do it until the leadership that we have elected in the barrios makes them do it. The Agenda has to be unequivocally and clearly drawn by us. No one else can do it for us. No one else should.

Peter Fontanes, is a graduate of the University of Chicago and he also went to Antioch Law School in Washington, DC. He founded Paylexx Telecommunication the first full service Minority owned Telephone Company in the country. He is the National Chair of the National Association of Hispanics in Information Technology and Telecommunication.

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