2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
Speaking Truth to Power!

Democratic Latino voters face tough choice


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Tony Castro
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 Clinton."

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 California.

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 months.

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 broken."


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