Monday, September 18, 2006

Political Clout of Latinos Growing

Lydia Camarillo sees the United States turning increasingly brown from her perch as a national political organizer and simply proclaims: "It's a good time for Latinos."

"Because we are a growing community in terms of population and in numbers of an electorate that's growing and participating, those who govern us have to take us into account, whether they like it or not," Camarillo said in a phone interview from San Antonio.

Camarillo, 48, an El Paso native twice recognized as one of the most influential Hispanic women in the United States, has plenty to cheer about as the nation observes its annual celebration of Hispanic heritage through Oct. 15.

Camarillo is optimistic that by 2008, 12 million Hispanics will be registered to vote and at least 10 million will vote.

She is the daughter of Mexican immigrants from Juárez and one of the most visible Hispanic women in the United States as vice president of the nonpartisan Southwest Voter Registration Education Project in San Antonio.

Last spring, millions of Hispanics, young and old, marched in cities across the United States, protesting what many of them perceived as proposed bad legislation that called for extreme measures against undocumented immigrants.

"The marches were the kickoff to the next stage of our political participation," Camarillo said. "No other electorate in America is growing at the same pace."

Just a year ago, the U.S. Census put the estimated Hispanic population of the United States at 42.7 million, making people of Hispanic origin the nation's largest ethnic or racial minority.

Camarillo and others worry that escalating immigrant bashing is having a negative impact on all Hispanics, who may now risk losing gains made the past 20 years in key issues, such as civil rights, education and voting rights.
Some politicians, political pundits and even national news outlets have equated the issue of illegal immigration with national security and have advocated sealing or fencing the southern border.

And the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, enticed many anti-immigrant voices to express racist attitudes toward immigrants and people of Hispanic origin.

"In America, we are under attack, and we have to take a stand against that as a united community from all walks of life," Camarillo said.
"Anytime there is a conservative Congress, we are in jeopardy of losing the gains we have made as a country and as a community, whether it is electoral or education reform and clearly on immigration and civil rights."

Clarissa Martinez monitors civil rights, immigration and other issues affecting Latinos as state policy director for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

"Every time there is a negative immigration debate like the one we're living through right now, it has negative effects on the whole Latino community in terms of discrimination, antagonism or division within communities where we live," Martinez said. "There's still a belief that if you're a Latino, you're an immigrant and for some people, that also means not an American."

Martinez laments that intolerance toward immigrants and Hispanics has intensified since Sept. 11.

"It's unfortunate because Latinos -- those who have been here for generations as well as those who have been here more recently -- really value this country," Martinez said. "We demonstrate that by the numbers of Latinos who are willing to put their lives on the line to defend this country."

Martinez, a Mexican immigrant, predicts a brighter future for Hispanics in the United States, as new citizens participate in the electoral process.
She expects that the political impact will not be fully felt until after 2008 as more young people and new citizens start voting.

"We're moving a little slow, but continuous progress is being made," Martinez said. "I'm hopeful because our community is in constant evolution, in renewal and growth."

Antonio R. Flores suggests that Hispanics at least have not regressed in educational attainment during the past 20 years. He is president and CEO of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities in San Antonio, an organization helping Hispanics succeed in college.

"The bad news is that everybody else -- African-Americans, Anglos, Asian-Americans -- has advanced in obtaining higher education degrees or in graduating from high school and left our community behind," he said. Flores blames cutbacks in state and federal funds for programs, such as financial aid for college.

"We are facing a number of challenges along the lines of inadequate funding for schools and colleges that are heavily attended by Latinos and no real light in sight coming," Flores said.

Camarillo grew up poor in the Sherman public housing projects near Jefferson High School. She attributes her own success to her parents, Salvador and Maria Camarillo, who worked hard for a family of eight children; her uncles Jose, Luis and Oscar Camarillo; and many others who encouraged her as she pursued college.

At 19, Camarillo wrote an angry and now widely studied poem, "Mi Reflejo," which celebrated women and forecast her own future in a couple of lines: "I am the reflection of the oppressed. / I am half the struggle."

"The state of life for me was poverty, but I had my family, love and a sense of hope," Camarillo said. "I understood then that one of my missions in life was to help our communities help themselves."
Story from El Paso Times