The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Latino Power
ROBERT MacNEIL: All over the country this week Hispanic Americans are on the march to call attention to the fact that while Christopher Columbus was Italian, he discovered America in the name of Spain. It`s part of a drive to raise the consciousness -- and the political influence -- the fast- growing Spanish-speaking population, a drive for Latino power.
Good evening. There are now an estimated nineteen million people of Hispanic origin -- Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban and others -- in this country. By the end of this century, by their birth rate and by immigration, the Census Bureau calculates they will be the largest minority in the country, exceeding black Americans. Increasingly, Hispanic leaders are wondering how they can translate these numbers into more power and more unity. Tonight, with the congressional elections approaching, we talk to some of those leaders about the problems of. achieving Latino power and why they want it. Jim?
JIM LEHRER: Robin, the Hispanic population is concentrated for the .most part in four specific areas of the country: the Southwest and California; the New York City area; sections of the Midwest; and the Miami, Florida vicinity. Hispanics in the Southwest and California are mostly of Mexican heritage; they`ve already had major political impact in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, electing many Chicanos to local office and influencing the outcome of numerous statewide races. They`ve been less successful in California despite their growing numbers; 1.6 million of the Los Angeles area population of seven million is now Hispanic, for instance. In the Northeast the center is the New York City area, 1.3 million of Puerto Rican heritage, another 1.3 million from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.
They have yet to make a major political impact except on elections involving their own immediate neighborhoods and sections of the city. Next, Miami. Half of that city`s population is now Hispanic, mostly Cubans who fled when Castro came to power. Miami now has an Hispanic mayor, and there are other signs of growing political power there. Cubans, until recently reluctant to become American citizens, are now doing so, at a rate of 1,000 or more a month. Finally, the Midwest, particularly in and around Chicago, Detroit, and Toledo, Ohio, but also places like Scotts Bluff, Nebraska, which has a sixty-six percent Hispanic population. Most have come to the middle of the country from Texas, California, Miami and New York, so the backgrounds are mixed although the majority are Mexican. They have yet to make their presence known politically in the Midwest, at least in any major way. Robin?
MacNEIL: First let`s look at the Southwest, where Latino power is not new but is growing. A key to such power lies in the ability to get out the vote. While only thirty percent of the average Hispanic community is registered, up to seventy percent turn out to vote. In some areas Hispanic turnout is greater than that of Anglo voters. This film, shown by TV stations throughout the Southwest, is part of a registration drive which has reached 350,000 Hispanic Americans in the past year and a half.
RICARDO MONTALBAN: Register and vote. It`s very quick and easy to register, and it`s free. When you see a register of voters at the supermarket or at some other place, take the time to register. If you don`t, you can`t vote. Do it today. Remember, your vote is your voice.
MacNEIL: The drive is run by the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, headed by William Veldsquez of San Antonio. Mr. Velasquez is with us tonight in the studios of Public Television Station KLRN in Austin, Texas. Mr. Velasquez, even with the political growth in your area, do Latinos still feel underrepresented politically?
WILLIAM VELASQUEZ: There`s no question about that. The Southwest Voter Registration, together with the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, investigated sixty-six counties in the State of Texas. All sixty-six of these counties were gerrymandered against Mexican Americans. This was one of the major reasons why Mexican Americans were not able to get county commissioners, for example, elected at the county level, or ...
MacNEIL: Are you talking about gerrymandered in state election districts or in federal congressional districts?
VELASQUEZ: Actually, the example was at the county level, but this is just as an example, and it really translates into gerrymandering across .the board. You have mentioned that in fact we have low registration but high turnout. Well, that`s one of the reasons, I think, that you have that situation. There is no real chance to elect people in proportion to our population because of this gerrymandering situation.
MacNEIL: I see. And it is of course the two major political parties which are in control of the system which bring that about, and in your state it must be very largely the Democratic Party.
VELASQUEZ: Yes. As a matter of fact, the twenty-nine counties that we`re presently suing right now are all Democratically controlled.
MacNEIL: I see. What are the major political parties doing about the Latino vote in your area in this election? I mean, how are they showing that they`re aware of you in this election?
VELASQUEZ: This is the first time that I have seen a reasonable approach to the Mexican American vote. Previously, for example, what you would normally see is the Spanish translation of the English campaign. Now you`re seeing the campaigns being run more professionally. By that I mean they are starting to run Mexican American Latino campaigns; they are starting to take surveys, they`re starting to take polls, they`re starting to do things completely in Spanish and not merely translating their English-speaking campaigns into Spanish. That, I think, is a significant difference because in that way they`re starting to address themselves to the Mexican American vote, not so much because they, in my opinion, like the Mexican Americans or the Latinos so much as because they are starting to read the reports and they`re starting to see the vote totals. That`s the reason.
MacNEIL: I see. You`ve had some success in registering a lot of Latinos recently, and when they are registered they come out to vote in very high percentages, as we`ve indicated. What are the issues which get them out to vote, and particularly right now what is really on their minds and on your mind?
VELASQUEZ: Well, as a matter of fact, our polls -- we`ve got very modest polling capability, but still I think it gives an indication of the trend. The fact of the matter is that Mexican Americans and Latinos get excited enough to go to the polls for local issues. For example, the polling that we took. in town some six years ago, we simply asked the people what`s the greatest problem facing Mexican Americans in the United States -- in the United States, mind you. And they said the biggest problem was drainage.
VELASQUEZ: Yes. They couldn`t cross the street when it rained, their kids couldn`t walk to school, they had to take them to school by car, and if it rained the kids had to stay at school and they had to go pick them up at the school. Well, you see, that indicates to us something very important, because the Mexican Americans that got elected to the city council in San Antonio, of which there are now five out of ten Mexican Americans, they almost all ran on the issue of drainage. That is significant for us because that is the issue that brought the people out, and that is the issue that the candidates started using to run.
MacNEIL: With so much interest in, really, parochial issues like that politically, is there any point in the various Latino groups -.Mexican American, Puerto Rican, Cuban and so on -- trying to forge them selves together in some form of national coalition? Do you think that`s a sensible and a useful idea?
VELASQUEZ: It certainly is, because it`s a question of years, it`s a question of, these sorts of things take a long time. The vote is starting to come out. Now, I have to make a distinction, because the reality is that only in the last few years have we seen Mexican Americans starting to vote more than the rest of the community at large; but that`s taken several years. In my opinion, it appears that we may soon reach the time where in order to have further advances we have to coalesce not only with other Latino groups but also with the black community, because it`s not a question of just getting your vote out and getting your people registered to vote; it`s still a question of a certain degree of latent racism in the Southwest -- and I preface it by saying this: the bloc voting that you will find in many areas, particularly in rural areas; where 500 Anglos vote the Anglo candidate gets 500 votes; if 400 Mexican Americans vote the Mexican American candidate gets 400 votes. That`s the bloc voting that we have had a lot of trouble with. We are still not the majority in many of these areas. In order for us to advance not only do we have to coalesce with the other Latino groups but we also have to coalesce with the blacks.
MacNEIL: Well, thank you. We`ll come back. Jim?
LEHRER: Hispanic Americans determined to have their voices heard in Washington are also going the direct route, otherwise known as lobbying. In the last year five different Hispanic organizations have opened lobbying offices here, and one is the National Council of La Raza, an affiliation of community organizations around the country. Raul Ysaguirre is its executive director. What specifically are you lobbying for, sir?
RAUL YSAGUIRRE: Immigration, bilingual education, services in the variety of social programs that affect our community -- those are some of our major issues right now.
LEHRER: Do you coordinate your efforts with the other Hispanic groups here in Washington?
YSAGUIRRE: Yes, indeed. We have a coalition of all the Hispanic groups in the country -- in other words, a forum of national Hispanic organizations. We have a coordinating committee that coordinates its legislative activities.
LEHRER: And you agree on one agenda and everybody`s on the same wavelength?
YSAGUIRRE: Well, that`s putting it a little bit better than reality. We do coordinate and we do agree on the major issues; there`s no question but immigration was one of the biggest issues we had. Before that, the extension of the voting rights act to include Hispanics, Mexican Americans in the Southwest -- there`s no question that on the major issues we do agree.
LEHRER: What kind of luck are you having in terms of getting your message over?
YSAGUIRRE: Well, it`s a mixed bag. On bilingual education we`ve lost some battles, we`ve won a few; we didn`t get the kind of support that we had hoped for from the administration. And bilingual education is being misunderstood by a lot of people, and it`s becoming the code word, I think, for racism against Hispanics. And immigration...
LEHRER: Excuse me; in what way?
YSAGUIRRE: There seems to be a sense that bilingual education is being linked to the great numbers of undocumented workers that are coming across from Mexico and other parts of the country, and for the first time in years bilingual education is controversial. Early on in its inception it was supported by nearly all of the educational community; now it`s all of a sudden controversial.
LEHRER: When you go to talk to a politician here in Washington, do you detect any new awareness of this Latino power and the political power that`s growing, or is it pretty much business as usual?
YSAGUIRRE: There is a growing realization of the power of Latinos and Hispanics in this country, yes. But it isn`t to the degree that I think we can be complacent about. There are still too many Congressmen, too many Senators who don`t understand the large number of Hispanics in their own districts.
LEHRER: Are you in a position to remind them of that?
YSAGUIRRE: We try every opportunity we can get.
LEHRER: Are you able to make a connection? When you go to Congressman X and you say, Look, we want your vote on bill so-and-so that, say, involves bilingual education, and he says, Oh, I don`t know about that, are you able to say, Well, look, buddy boy, if you don`t go for this we can hurt you back home -- can you make that connection and deliver on it if there is a large Hispanic population in that particular Congressman`s district?
YSAGUIRRE: Well, that`s not the way we tend to operate, and the...
LEHRER: It was a blunt way, I realize that.
YSAGUIRRE: The laws don`t quite enable us to operate that directly. But we let Congressmen know we have a constituency, we are the largest Hispanic organization in this country and that we`re going to make their records known and we`re going to tell the folks that are with us, that we fight them, and that sort of thing; so yes, I think the point has gotten across.
LEHRER: Let me ask my question in a little more gentle terms. When you talk about coordination among Hispanic groups, is there a political coordination as well as an issue coordination?
YSAGUIRRE: There is less of a political coordination. There`s more of an issue coordination. We are a movement that`s still trying to find it self, that`s still trying to coalesce. And so on the issues it`s a lot easier, it`s a lot easier to understand them. The political kind of coordination, number one, is a little bit outside of my particular realm, and number two, I think it`s going to take a little bit longer, it`s going to take a little bit more maturity, and more experience.
LEHRER: Well, what I`m getting at, is the coordination between the issues, which you are lobbying for, and the political reality back home in a particular Senator or Congressman`s district, is what I`m really getting at.
YSAGUIRRE: I think that the people on the Hill are beginning to understand that the Hispanic community is increasingly more sophisticated. One of our problems has been that we don`t get the media exposure that we need, and that educated our community. But for the first time we`ve created our own national magazine and we`ve got more media publicity now than we`ve ever had; that begins to raise the consciousness, and all of a sudden people begin to make the connections, and it`s beginning to have an effect.
LEHRER: Mr. Velasquez mentioned the need to coordinate efforts with other minority lobbying groups, particularly blacks. Are you doing that, or are they considered the competition?
YSAGUIRRE: No, they`re not considered the competition, we are (unintelligible). As a matter of fact, we have somewhat of a Sunday meeting coming up with the black leadership in the middle of November, and we hope to hammer out a common agenda.
LEHRER: Do you think that`s realistically possible?
YSAGUIRRE: Very much indeed. There`s no reason why blacks and browns should be in competition; we essentially want the same things. We want a pluralistic society, free of discrimination, we want to solve poverty and we want better education for our community; these things join us rather than divide us.
LEHRER: All right; thank you. On the national political front some claim that eighty-one percent of a Hispanic vote, particularly in New York, Ohio and Texas, went for Jimmy Carter in 1976. As President Mr. Carter has responded by appointing 128 Latinos to positions in his administration, more than any other president has ever done. One of those 128 is Alex Mercure, Assistant Secretary of Agriculture. Mr. Secretary, has President Carter delivered on the promises he made to the Hispanic community during the election?
ALEX MERCURE:I don`t think he`s completely delivered; he`s delivering. The number of appointees continues to go up, obviously, but that`s not the only solution. I was reviewing the list just before coming here, and I noticed that the list I had did not include Armando Rodriguez, which is one of the latest appointees, who`s been recommended to the Senate for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. So I think the President is very seriously trying to fulfill his commitment. And as was indicated in the introduction, the number of appointees to critical political and administrative positions are the highest ever. And the interesting part of that is that -- like in my case, for example -- the appointment is not just limited to civil rights and equal employment opportunity issues; very significant policy positions and very important resource allocation decisions are in the hands of Hispanics just like everybody else.
LEHRER: All right; what impact is that having in terms of Hispanic causes?
MERCURE: Well, for example, the basic legislative recommendations .for rural development with respect to the Department of Agriculture go through my office. To the extent that we make those recommendations which have importance to people of low income, it`s obviously nationally going to help a lot of people but it`s going to help in a disproportionate way the Hispanic, the blacks, the people who are more often represented among the poverty populations in this country, at least disproportionately. In addition, because we are in critical policy positions we have an opportunity to participate at various levels of government and to increase the awareness of other elements of the administration about our own community and the kinds of problems that they face, both in unemployment, in the areas of housing, in the areas of community facilities, and general improvement of life in their community.
LEHRER: Is that awareness increasing here among those many other departments besides the one you work in?
MERCURE: Oh I think so. There are now some six or seven people who I guess one would call at assistant, sub-cabinet level; I personally serve on the Interagency Coordinating Council, including the core group of that which the President had Mr. Jack Watson chair, which attempts to coordinate all of the federal government`s efforts at providing resources in communities - - basically urban as well as rural -- with this stress.
LEHRER: Do you 128 high-level Hispanics in the Carter administration ever coordinate among yourselves, get together and work out an informal agenda or anything like that, structured or unstructured?
MERCURE: Basically unstructured, but we do get together on a rather periodic basis, although it`s not a systematic basis. The President, for example, sent us out on the town hall meetings during Hispanic Week. Monday we`re getting together to try to find out, after we`ve digested the comments people made to us throughout the country, what it is that came out of that that is of particular importance for presidential response. And so it`s that kind of role that I think we`re able to play together that`s very important.
LEHRER: All right; thank you. Robin?
MacNEIL: Yes, let`s go back over this with all three of you gentlemen now. Starting with you, Mr. Velasquez in Austin, can you just give me in a general sense, looking at the whole country, where do Latinos not have enough power in this country, at whatever level you think significant?
VELASQUEZ:I would think that my comments would be more accurate if I spoke just about the Southwest.
MacNEIL: Okay, fine.
VELASQUEZ: It appears to me that Latinos in California have the least power of any group in the Southwest. I go back to the same reason: gerrymandering. Now, one of the reasons that we have so much power in states like Texas and New Mexico, and now growing in states like Arizona is that we have a group, we have a cadre, of local elected officials that are elected at the local level. You don`t have that in California. There are some practical reasons; you have larger counties. Although you have large numbers of Mexican Americans, they are still small percentages of the population. But the worst thing is that you have severe gerrymandering of the Mexican American Latino population in .the State of California. I think that it has got to become a top priority for Latino organizations in this country to do something about the gerrymandering question, and something can be done after the 1980 census is taken. In the meantime...
MacNEIL: Why is the census important, Mr. Velasquez?
VELASQUEZ: Well, you see, after the 1980 census is taken, all of the jurisdictions, all of the elected officials that are elected by district, have to have their districts redrawn based on the 1980 census.
MacNEIL: I see.
VELASQUEZ: And for example, in the legislature, the different legislatures are the ones that draw their district lines for state legislators and the different county commissions.
MacNEIL: I thought you were referring to the issue of the alleged underreporting of Latinos in the existing census.
VELASQUEZ:I think that we have done an excellent job, if I could talk about all of our Mexican American Latino organizations, of preparing for the 1980 census in terms of making sure that we get counted. I think that now what we have to do, starting in 1979, is to prepare ourselves to have the capability to make sure that we draw effective lines that do not discriminate against Mexican Americans so that Mexican American, Latinos in the Southwest, have an opportunity to win elected local positions.
MacNEIL: Okay. Let`s ask the gentlemen in Washington: Mr. Ysaguirre, how bad a problem do you think this gerrymandering -- or the sort of deliberate drawing of districts in such a way as to minimize Latino power -- is elsewhere, outside the Southwest? Are you concerned about this problem?
YSAGUIRRE: Yes, indeed. I think in places like Chicago and parts of the Midwest it`s a very, very serious problem. But there`s also an aspect -- you asked the question of where are we low in power and he answered in geographical terms; I`d like to answer it in other kinds of terms. We really are underrepresented in a variety of circles, like for example philanthropy, which causes a movement to happen. We get less than half of one percent of all the private foundation dollars into our community, although we`re approaching ten percent of the population. If you look at the advisory committees that serve in the federal government, we have less than two percent. So you look at every sector that affects our lives and we`re terribly underrepresented.
MacNEIL: I see; it`s not just in voting power and in elected officials, it`s in these other institutions as well.
MacNEIL: And Mr. Mercure, are you concerned about the gerrymandering and district problem, and do you agree that there are other areas in which the Latinos just simply lack power right now?
MERCURE: I think they`re basically related. I think that appointments to federal positions, to advisory positions, are basically going to respond to the ability of the Hispanic population to gather and garnish the vote.
MacNEIL: I see. Well, what do you do about it, gentlemen? What can you do about it? Let`s start with gerrymandering. I mean, that is up to state legislatures.
MERCURE: A sit turns out, I did serve on the Census Bureau advisory committee on the Hispanic population prior to my coming to work for the federal government, and that, I think, is one of the critical elements, to assure that that undercount is minimized. But even further I think that whatever the federal government can undertake to make certain that when the new districts are drawn there is no deliberate effort to discriminate against the collective power -- at least, in terms of the vote -- of any population in the country, and particularly the Hispanic.
MacNEIL: Right; thank you. Jim?
LEHRER: All right, gentlemen, finally on this question of the Hispanic Americans coalescing under one group, let me ask you first, Mr. Velasquez in Austin: I`ve heard it said many times and it`s been writ ten many times that the Puerto Rican in New York has more of a common interest with the black in the ghetto than he does, say, with the Mexican American in Harlingen, Texas, or with the Cuban in Miami. How do you respond to that?
VELASQUEZ: That may well be. But I think that we should not underestimate the strength of our cultural ties. It is true that there`s large distances, it is true that we have a different history from each other here in the United States; but still, the cultural ties, the language are very, very strong, and I feel very, very comfortable in being able to call Latinos no matter where they`re from, no matter where we`re at; it`s very, very easy to get together with them; they`re almost like a brother.
LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, do you feel that it`s realistic to think there could b e a coalition of the disparate Hispanic groups in this country?
MERCURE: Well, I think that that is forming. I think Mr. Ysaguirre referred earlier to the fact that a coalition or a forum of Hispanic organization is taking place. Strangely, I think, it`s assumed that the language is the only similarity. If one looks at the other elements of the culture of the Hispanic population, one finds a great deal of other similarity -- the folk ways and folk tales, and a lot of cultural traditions are not that unlike, and it`s surprising how many common elements there are.
LEHRER: Mr. Ysaguirre, you mentioned the new awareness of publicity concerning Hispanic power, and one of the biggest things this week, of course, is the cover story of Time magazine dealing with this-very question that we`re dealing with tonight. But there is a quote in there from a black leader in which he says that "this rise in Hispanic awareness and accompanying political power is a threat to us." You don`t see it that way, though.
YSAGUIRRE:I hope our black brothers will not see it that way; I hope that they will understand that together we can do more good for ourselves and for the country as a whole.
LEHRER: But isn`t there a germ of truth to what he`s saying?
YSAGUIRRE: There is a germ of truth, and I think historically in any society, not just here, where you have a variety of oppressed communities or deprived communities who are competing for resources, who are competing for attention, you will have some rivalry. But I am very confident in the leadership of the black community that they`ll be able to see their own self-interest in the long run.
LEHRER: All right, thank you. Robin?
MacNEIL: Yeah; thank you all, gentlemen. Thank you, Mr. Velasquez in Austin, Mr. Ysaguirre and Secretary Mercure in Washington. Good night, Jim.
LEHRER: Good night, Robin.
MacNEIL: That`s all for tonight. We`ll be back on Monday night. I`m Robert MacNeil. Good night.
- The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
- Latino Power
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- The main topic of this episode is Latino Power. The guests are Raul Ysaguirre, Alex Mercure, William Velasquez. Byline: Robert MacNeil, Jim Lehrer
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