2/3/08 Daily Breeze (Torrance, Cal.)
At a table filled with margaritas and tortilla chips, a group of
disappointed volunteers from the defunct Bill Richardson
presidential campaign recently debated whether to shift allegiance
to Sens. Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Then a cell phone rang.
"I just got a call from Hilda Solis," said longtime activist Ruben
Treviso, who heads the politically connected Latino veterans group
American G.I. Forum. "She read me the riot act. I've got to go with
But the influence of Solis - the powerful, four-term San Gabriel
Valley congresswoman supporting Clinton - only went so far. By the
time the meeting ended, the group of Los Angeles activists had
decided to split between Clinton and Obama and campaign among
Latinos for both leading up to Tuesday's California primary.
"We decided it wouldn't be a good idea to put all our eggs in one
basket," Treviso said. "It's one thing to be a lawmaker in
Washington. It's another living out here."
The incident underscores the realities of the Latino vote: It is not
as simplistic as often portrayed in the national media. Latinos
don't necessarily accept the endorsements of elected officials as
political gospel, and they aren't automatically rejecting Obama
because of historical racial-ethnic tensions.
Despite the endorsement of most of the country's leading Latino
leaders - including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa - Clinton
has been getting only two in three Latino votes. That's only
slightly better than what the Democratic nominees have received in
recent presidential elections.
Still, the numbers put her well ahead of Obama, although he
continues to be confident his support will increase in California.
And in the days leading up to Super Tuesday - fueled by support from
Democratic icon and Latino favorite Ted Kennedy - the Obama campaign
has been increasingly aggressive in wooing Latinos in the Golden
State and the Southwest.
"My history is excellent with Latino supporters back in Illinois
because they knew my record," Obama said in a campaign stop in Van
Nuys last month. "It's important to get my record known in the
Latino community, and our supporters in California, like Maria Elena
Durazo, will help accomplish that."
Durazo, the popular and influential head of the heavily Latino Los
Angeles County Federation of Labor, recently took a leave from her
position to endorse Obama and join his campaign organization in
Some fear losing gains
But some say the challenge Obama faces in wooing Latino voters is
not historic racial tensions but fears that a black president could
jeopardize the political and economic gains Latinos have made in the
past generation as they have outnumbered African-Americans.
"They say things like, 'If Obama is elected, Latinos will start
losing all the gains they've made in recent years,"' says Lucy
Casado, owner of the Hollywood restaurant where the former
Richardson activists met and a founder of the Mexican American
Political Association in California.
In fact, a growing number of Latinos and African-Americans think the
historic racial divide separating the two groups is no longer what
it once was.
"The media, in general, have been too anxious to portray that side,
as if it is always a case of troublesome conflict," says Jaime
Regalado, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute
at California State University, Los Angeles.
And activists on both sides say far less attention has been paid to
progress made in race relations in America's most diverse city.
Those strides include the Latino and African-American Leadership
Alliance, a new coalition led by South L.A. activist Najee Ali and
Christine Chavez, granddaughter of farmworker legend Cesar Chavez.
At last month's parade marking Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the
parade's grand marshal was Mildred Garcia, president of California
State University, Dominguez Hills.
"Like Dr. King, she is breaking down barriers for women and
minorities while continuously striving toward the best in
education," Kingdom Day Parade founder Larry Grant said.
For the record, few Latino voters will publicly admit they will not
vote for Obama because he is black. "Hillary gives them an out,"
Latino political activist Alex Jacinto said. "Of course, there's an
undercurrent (of racism), but no one is going to go there."
The issue, sociologists and racial experts say, is also deep- rooted
among Latinos: Although Obama and other African-Americans often
include Latinos when talking about "people of color," few Latinos
identify themselves as such.
According to the 2004 Census Bureau's American Community Survey,
58.5percent of Latinos identified themselves as "white," 35.2percent
claimed "some other race," 3.6percent checked "two or more races"
and only 1.6percent self-identified as "black."
Still, Obama's campaign boasts of several recent developments that
it says dispels the notion that Latinos will not support the
Illinois senator: The endorsement of Durazo, the backing of several
elected Democratic officials, including Rep. Linda Sanchez of
California, and last month's roundtable in Van Nuys that included
two Latino supporters among the four participants.
Latinos give backing
They also point to grass-roots organizers such as Leila Linford, 27,
of Long Beach, the University of California, Riverside, graduate and
daughter of a Cuban mother and American father - both Republicans -
who has been working in Latino communities on behalf of Obama for
Or 17-year-old Gustavo Delgado, a Cypress College student from
Orange County, who has been averaging more than 20 hours a week
volunteering in the campaign.
"I think he is not afraid to deal with countries that don't agree
with or align with the American status quo," said Delgado.
Obama himself refuses to accept the notion that Latinos might reject
him. "Yes, there have been historical patterns," he said. "But there
are places like California where those patterns are going to be