October 3, 2003

In Central Valley, Latinos Inch Toward Political Participation

The scene: A campaign visit by Lt. Gov. Cruz M. Bustamante to the United Farm Workers’ historic compound at Forty Acres, just west of Delano.

The question, asked in Spanish: With Latinos accounting for 35 percent of California’s population, why don’t we see that representation among our elected officials?

Response time: Not a moment’s hesitation.

The response: “We are moving gradually forward, getting bigger and better representation, but the agenda for the Latino community is much like the agenda of the entire community.

“The agenda of the Latino community is about being 35 percent of the population. With that comes 35 percent of the responsibility, 35 percent of the solution, 35 percent of the businesses, 35 percent of those graduating from college.

“It is our responsibility to provide 35 percent of the answers; otherwise, we’re not carrying our own weight.”

These are the answers a burgeoning Latino population in the San Joaquín Valley want to hear, especially in the four-county Central Valley where more than 40 percent of the residents are Latino. Thirty years ago, Latinos accounted for less than 25 percent of the population in Fresno, Tulare, Madera and Kings counties.

Bustamante’s prominence as the first Latino elected to statewide public office in more than a century — and the possibility that he could be California’s first Latino governor since 1886 — puts the current spotlight on Latinos.

In many ways, Latinos are no different than the overall population. Latinos want more jobs, better schools, improved transportation and cleaner air.

While discriminatory practices that banned Mexicans from public swimming pools or forced them to sit in the back row of local theaters are long gone, there are still many problems unique to the Latino population.

The Latino experience in the San Joaquín Valley is not new. Miners from México, Perú, Chile and other Latin American countries were among those who joined the California Gold Rush in the mid-1800s. By then, the Spaniards had established missions and settlements throughout the state.

Mexicans began moving into the Valley in the 1920s to work in fields, but not in numbers as large as in the 1940s, when a guest worker program brought thousands of Mexican men to the fields and railroads.

Oldtimers like Raúl Gutiérrez, who moved to Fresno in 1946, recall that there were not many Mexican-Americans in Fresno at the time.

“There were a few at work, but I didn’t see them in great numbers like there are today,” says Gutiérrez.

When President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in 1986, he made it possible for millions of undocumented residents to become legal citizens and eventually obtain U.S. citizenship.

Jenny Rodríguez, a bilingual coordinator in the Fresno office of the Citizenship and Immigration Services division of the Department of Homeland Security, sees a huge desire by immigrants, especially those from México, to become legalized.

“Just a few years ago, officials had to use Bulldog Stadium for the monthly naturalization ceremony to accommodate all the new U.S. citizens.

But, beyond creating more work for immigration officials, the Latino growth here has led to a major upheaval in how the Valley identifies itself.

Forty years ago, KGST ‘La Mexicana’ 1600 AM was the only Spanish-language radio station in the Valley. Today, a Fresno resident can tune in to more than a dozen radio stations. The choice is just as varied when it comes to television or publications. Mexican food, music and arts have become part of Americana.

All government offices — as well as a growing number of businesses — offer services in Spanish, or use interpreters when necessary. In fact, it would be easy for a monolingual Spanish-speaking resident to live and die in Fresno without learning a single word of English.

Lawmakers have made it easier for undocumented Mexicans to use a matrícula consular as a valid form of identification, and Gov. Davis recently signed a bill that will allow undocumented immigrants to apply for a driver’s license.

Critics say it isn’t right.

“I believe the cards do serve a purpose of identifying illegal aliens. The sooner we deport illegal aliens the better California will be financially, and there will be far less crime,” responded a Fresno Bee reader to a column about the use of the ID cards, which are issued by the Mexican Consulate.

“I am not against Mexicans, but illegals who tend to make the Mexican culture look bad,” he added.

Francisco Mireles, a community-based Assistance Program associate with the Great Valley Center, says Latinos still face many hurdles despite the growth in political representation.

“We still have many challenges that we need to overcome,” said Mireles. “There is still much discrimination in many forms, and we still lack political representation. We aren’t where we should be.”

The problem, says Rufino Domínguez, coordinator of the Frente Indígena Oxaqueño Binacional, is that politicians continue to ignore the population.

“Furthermore, there are those who see us as terrorists,” he said. “Many see us as a burden, not as the help that we are in developing the economy.”

The flow of immigrants will never stop, said Domínguez. “We will keep coming because of the lack of opportunities in México. In time, we will become citizens and that will translate into greater participation in politics.”

The overwhelming majority of Latinos in the Valley are of Mexican descent (approximately 93 percent), but that is dropping slightly with the influx of Central and South American immigrants. The Latino experience cannot solely be identified as that of a farm worker, an undocumented immigrant, or a white-collar professional.

Latinos are just as diverse as the rest of the population. Some are millionaires; others are unemployed. It includes dropouts and PhDs, criminals and judges, non-English speakers and monolingual English speakers, teen mothers and childless parents, Democrats and Republicans.

Their clout has been bandied about for decades. Remember when pundits named the 1980s the “Decade of the Hispanic” and rallied that the “sleeping giant would wake up?” While the Latino population did steadily grow, its influence never really got going until the new millennium.

Fresno County Supervisor Juan Arámbula, in a speech a couple of years ago to the Central California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said that Latinos were never sleeping.

“They were sending their children to college, becoming doctors, lawyers and professionals and preparing,” said Arámbula, who became the second Latino ever elected to the board of supervisors.

López, the longtime Orange Cove mayor, believes that preparation is beginning to pay off for Latinos.

“I see a change. Many people in this state now know that they have to work with us, that they have to make decisions with us,” said López. “But, we have to be more united, more educated, more prepared. I believe that in that manner, we could move mountains if we wanted to.”

The numbers are there, says retired judge Armando Rodríguez, but that isn’t enough.

“The fact of the matter is that even though there are a lot of young people at many levels and people in positions of importance, we’re not developing ourselves to the extent that we should be,” said Rodríguez.

Education and getting more Latinos elected to office are critical, he said.

Despite past and present discrimination, and issues that continue to plague Latinos, retired educator Bob Arroyo likely sums up the feelings of most Latinos in the Valley.

“I love my brown skin. I wouldn’t change it for anything,” said Arroyo, who became the first Latino elected to the Fresno school board in the late 1970s. “I love being Mexican, and I love being Mexican American. My life, my world has been a great world for me. It’s been a bicultural one.”

Reprinted from “Vida en el Valle” Sept., 25, 2003

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