HispanicVista Columnists

Hispanics in America: New Challenges, New Leadership

By Frank Gómez


The New Year is upon us.  Raúl Yzaguirre, the long-time leader of the National Council of La Raza, has retired.  His stepping down, and the rise of his successor, Janet Murguía, are vivid examples of the sunset of a valiant generation of Latino leadership and the emergence of a new generation.

Antonia Hernández, who headed the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund for two decades, also retired last year.  Former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, after a stint at Univision, is back in Texas running a business.  Although he worked on the Kerry campaign, he has had a low profile in recent years.  The founder of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Héctor Barreto, died in 2004 in Kansas City, Missouri.  Veteran Philadelphia activist and City Councilman at Large, Angel Ortiz, has left government. 

In New York City, the influential Puerto Rican organizations like the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National Puerto Rican Forum have undergone great change.  Respected attorney César Perales has rejoined PRLDEF as its Chairman to help it through a financial crisis.  Leaders like former Congressman and Manhattan Borough President Herman Badillo, a prominent New York attorney, no longer head organizations, having ceded their positions to others. 

Latino New York – and the entire Northeast – has become much more diverse, with Dominican Americans now serving in local and state elective office.  Diversity is reflected in the name of the Hispanic Federation of New York City and a new Manhattan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.  Lorraine Cortés Vásquez, who took the Federation from its infancy to its status as one of the largest and most influential regional groups, has moved to the private sector.  Succeeding her is her former vice president, Lillian Rodríguez López, an able administrator and activist who will take the organization to the next level. 

Another leader of the civil rights period was the late Willy Velásquez, founder of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project in San Antonio.  The SWVREP was the model for the creation in the early eighties of the Midwest Northeast Voter Registration Education Project in Chicago.  Now called the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute, the organization has been led since its founding by Dr. Juan Andrade, a native of Texas.  He has made the Leadership Institute one of the most successful, respected and dynamic organizations of its kind in the country.  And it is significant to recall in this post-election time that in the eighties, three major cities had Latino mayors:  Cisneros in San Antonio, Maurice Ferré in Miami, and Federico Peña in Denver. 

Private Sector Pioneers

Changes wrought by Latinos in Corporate America are often overlooked.  In the 1980s, such pioneers as Patricia Asip at J.C. Penney, Carlos Soto at Coors, Rita DiMartino at AT&T, Jesús Rangel at Anheuser-Busch, and José Ruano at Miller, to name just a few, were the “go to” persons for countless organizations.  They and their private sector contemporaries had the courage and the conviction to argue for support.  Making that case, before the market burgeoned and made it a business proposition, was often difficult. 

Yzaguirre helped to broker an agreement with Coors that brought about not only a commitment from that company to improve its treatment of Hispanics but also to support initiatives on the national stage.  One outcome of that agreement was backing from NCLR, Coors and other corporations to create the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility (HACR).  That organization has been monitoring and reporting on corporate policies and actions relating to the Latino community since 1987.   

Pioneers in the corporate world merit recognition.  Many risked advancement, often being labeled narrowly as the “in-house Hispanic” because of their staunch advocacy.  Some courageous private sector executives became active in supporting Latino causes despite the fact that their responsibilities did not encompass anything related to the community.  Whether in corporate affairs, community affairs, marketing, human resources or other departments, they argued for funding for proven and unproven projects.  They were the internal proponents of increased numbers of Latinos on boards, in senior management, and increased purchasing from Latino-owned businesses.  They labored, they sacrificed, and as a consequence, they made it easier a successor generation of Hispanic corporate professionals.

Pan Hispanic Leaders

Raúl Yzaguirre, from South Texas, is a Mexican American. He devoted his early years to that community.  He had a vision, however, of a pan-Hispanic movement that would comprise members of all of our “tribes.”  That vision inspired the name of the National Council of La Raza.  For him, “raza” refers to writer-philosopher José Vasconcelos’ concept of a “raza cósmica,” a cosmic race that embraces Hispanics of all origins – African, Asian, European, American Indian and rich combinations of all of these. 

Yzaguirre is an early “pan-Hispanic” leader who worked hard to bridge geographic and sub-cultural differences and focus on what we have in common that can bring us together.  Like former Congressman and “Nuyorican” Robert García, once Chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and other leaders of the day, Yzaguirre is comfortable with members of all of our sub-groups and is conversant with their issues.  Their efforts to bridge the divides, along with the impact of Spanish language television, have made it easier for younger generations to view themselves more as pan-Hispanic rather than primarily a member of their particular sub-group.  This is healthful.

Other organizations that helped to unify and today are influential in their own ways are the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA) which comprises some 35 national organizations, and the National Association of Hispanic Publications (NAHP), among the most diverse groups in the country.  The latter group was born in 1982 at the same conference that led to the creation of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ).  Juan González, who was helped to found the NAHJ, completed his term as president of the organization last year.  Each of these organizations – and others – reflects a pan-Hispanic mission.  They came about because of leadership by pioneers who gave selflessly of themselves for a cause and believed in unity.

Two NAHJ pioneers, Robert Montemayor and Henry Mendoza, recently wrote a book entitled, “Right Before Our Eyes: Latinos Past, Present and Future.”  Its purpose is to acquaint all Americans, and particularly young Hispanic Americans, with the achievements and the promise of our community.  For anyone who wants to know more about what our mainstream media and our history books have so conveniently ignored, the book is a “must read.”

New Leaders, New Challenges

The accomplishments of the sunset generation do not mean that the biggest challenges have been met.  New leaders must confront new challenges, new realities.  Civil rights, while still sometimes denied, are now protected by law.  Higher education is more attainable, although not sufficiently, and the dropout rate is still much too high.  Housing is more affordable and accessible, but still not accessible enough.  And discrimination, especially against recent immigrants, continues.   Laws continue to be passed and policies continue to be enacted that overlook their impact on the Latino community.  Active voices are needed to ensure that Hispanics are part of the equation.

The media do us a great disservice every day.  Stereotypes persist.  Latino spokespersons are rarely seen on public affairs shows, even when a “Hispanic theme” is being discussed.  And the news more often than not is about crime, immigration or drugs, and not about achievements.  Film and television distort Hispanic truths, and roles for Latinos are few.  Our children grow up with few role models on the little screen. 

Political empowerment is advancing, albeit slowly.  Citizenship, voter registration, voter education and voter participation in the democratic process are essential if Latinos are to wield the influence that their needs and their growing numbers merit.  Economic empowerment is another challenge.  Discrimination continues and must be combated wherever it occurs. 

So as we begin this New Year, let us tip our hats to the pioneers whose sacrifices opened the doors and paved the roads for our communities throughout the country.  Let us also acknowledge the challenges that remain and wish every success to the new generation.  The challenges are great, the needs are many.  But with the example of their predecessors and with their innate talents, they will persevere, and they will succeed. 


Frank Gómez, a contributing columnist to HispanicVista.com (www.hispanicvista.com), a retired  Foreign Service Officer and corporate executive, is now a partner in LatinInsights (www.LatinInsoghts.com),  a research and strategic communications company in New York.  He can be reached at fgomez@LatinInsights.com.