Browning the Greens

Building the long-term incorporation of Latinos into the political system

By Dr. Victor M. Rodriguez
Published on LatinoLA: September 14, 2004

Browning the Greens

?The biggest demographic shift in the past thirty years is not the number of people who speak Spanish; it is the number of Americans who own stock . . .?
Grover Norquist, from ?Tax Code? John Cassidy, New Yorker, September 6, 2004

? . . . make the working class central to our struggle against racism and social change.? from Antonia Darder and Rodolfo Torres. After Race: Racism After Multiculturalism. New York University Press, 2004.

Earlier this year I argued that the Democratic Party (?Republicans Develop a Three-pronged Latino Strategy While Democrats Practice Benign Neglect? 1/9/04 ( was building a path toward its demise by failing to mobilize Latino voters. Unfortunately, Democrats are still engaging in an electoral strategy that might bring some regional short term gains for the party, but which will contribute very little to the empowerment and the full incorporation of Latinos into the political system. This strategy, which consists of ignoring large regions of the country where the majority of Latinos live, will also fail to bring Latinos into the Democratic Party?s ?big house? and might ensure Republican hegemony for another four years.

In tandem with national Democratic electoral strategy, Democratic majors throughout the nation are also failing Latinos. Most of the Democratic administrations in major urban centers across the nation are failing to address the urban needs of the increasingly urbanized and working class Latino population. As Joel Kotkin writes in a recent Los Angeles Times Article (?Sewer Socialism? 9/12/04) most urban democratic administrations have chosen what sociologist John Kasarda calls a ?visual prosperity? development scheme which focuses on pretty buildings, art structures and venues to bring the beautiful people to at least, visit downtown.

Kotkin mentions Mayor Martin O'Malley, Denver Mayor John W. Hickenlooper and even our own James K. Hahn as examples of Democratic mayors who instead of providing the urban masses with new infrastructure that could revive the cities and bring investment and jobs, mere engages in cosmetic changes that do not benefit the Latino and African American constituencies in these urban megalopolises. It is quite easy to understand why, many grassroots activists feel a bit annoyed with how Democrats take Latinos for granted. Some Latinos are arguing for a renewal of progressive politics and with alliances with white progressives to leverage power for the community. In order to achieve that, Latinos would have to begin disengaging from the Democratic Party.

The first step toward disengaging Latinos from the Democratic embrace was taken by one of California?s best known Latino community activists: Nativo Lopez. Recently, Lopez, National Director of Hermandad Mexicana Latino Americana and President of the Mexican American Political Association re-registered as a member of the California Green Party.

California?s alternative and left wing political organizations, like the California Green Party, are not known for their ethnic diversity, in general, progressive and environmental issues have historically been the province of white middle and upper middle class constituencies. However, ironically, ethnic groups like African American and Latinos are usually the ones who suffer the brunt of most of the environmental and economic problems arising out of decisions made by non-Latinos in the centers of power who see these communities as disposable and powerless.

Traditionally, white constituencies have been the ones visibly behind environmental issues. But most of the time it is ethnic neighborhoods who suffer since many are built over abandoned toxic dumps or are chosen for the building of prisons, or trash incinerators which cause a host of respiratory diseases.

Some years ago a group of Latina women formed the now well known community organization, the ?Mothers of East L.A.? as a local response to some of these issues. But despite the national prominence of Peter Camejo, the 2000 Latino vice presidential candidate for the national greens, Latinos and progressive and environmental issues were not associated in the public mind. Nativo Lopez is working to change that perception; the Democratic Party is making it easier for him to achieve that.

Latinos are essentially a hard working, working class community with a rising and more visible middle class. But despite the cheerleading perspective of some students of the Latino community, Latinos still face the traditional challenges of race, ethnicity, gender and class that limit their full integration to the economic mainstream of the United States.

Some years ago Peter Skerry described, from a conservative perspective, Mexicans as an ?ambivalent minority.? He basically argued that Mexicans were no different from other European immigrants and that, in some way, they were being held back because they bought into a political strategy that revolved around the idea that they were racialized minorities in the United States struggling against a history of racism.

Skerry argued that focusing on past injustices would not lead to political empowerment and portrayed the model of San Antonio, Texas politics as a more attractive model of empowerment than the one followed in California. As Rodolfo Rosales has clearly shown in his book ?The Illusion of Inclusion? you can?t effect social change if you don?t clearly address the political and economic structure that makes the decisions that impact people?s lives. The rise of Henry Cisneros, or other Latino political leaders in that city did not change in any substantial way the political and economic dynamics that oppress Mexicans in San Antonio. The rise of traditional Latino politicians basically added some minor Latino ?socios? to the political and economic structure that controls, dominates and oppress Latinos in that Texan city. But business went on as usual in that city, with Latinos still playing a game whose rules are designed to benefit others at their own expense. Today, working class politics and anti racism are essential for any politics for real social change.

The ?Sleeping Giant,? Again

Liberals also have provided a cheerleading perspective of the Latino role in the electoral process. Just like decades ago when many called the 1980s the ?Hispanic Decade,? today, another chorus of prophets, wearing rose colored lenses, predict that Latinos will be the pivot that will decide the 2004 presidential elections. Bill Richardson said in 2003 that the Latino vote ?It?s a sleeping giant that is about to explode? and since he recently chaired the Democratic Convention I guess Democrats expect to bring in 10 million Latino voters to the polls and reap 80 per cent of those who show up at the polls.

Journalist Jorge Ramos? recent book ?The Latino Wave,? which has done quite well among the reading public, argues that ?the future of the United States is a Hispanic One. The Latino wave is unstoppable.? Blacks were the majority in South Africa and they still were the political minority. Being a ?minority? is about power, not numbers. Unfortunately, no amount of spin will hide the fact that Latinos still face an uphill battle and that neither Democrats nor Republicans have a program which will make these aspirations a reality.

Nationally, Latinos still experience the highest levels of unemployment (2003 7.7% while 5.2% for non Hispanic whites), highest levels of poverty (2003 22.5% while 8.2% for non Hispanic whites), larger percentages of uninsured (2003 32.7% while 11.1% for non Hispanic whites) and in general, lower educational achievement. Jorge Ramos? dream is the neo-conservatives nightmare, for neo conservatives like Samuel P. Huntington author of ?The Hispanic Challenge? or Victor Davis Hansen who authored ?Mexifornia: A State of becoming? have recently became part of the chorus that blame foreign born immigrants for everything. In their work they blame Latinos for increasing poverty, changing ?American? culture (salsa has usurped ketchup as the preferred food condiment across America?) and leading the nation into the multi cultural abyss.

However, as usual, prejudices are not supported by the available evidence, according to the latest data on poverty and income, poverty increased among the native born (from 11.5% in 2002 to 11.8% in 2003) while remaining the same among the foreign born (17.2%). Obviously, whatever effect immigrants have had on society, they have not been massively increasing the ranks of the poor. One forgotten fact about Latinos is that they have a very high rate of labor participation. While in August 2004 ?Lazy? Latinos had a 69% labor participation rate only 66.3% of the nation?s whites were in the work force. Since 38.4% of the foreign born are naturalized citizens and they do have a smaller poverty rate than non naturalized foreign born citizens, this seems to clearly suggest an anti poverty measure: facilitate the naturalization of those long term immigrants. Then, they can get better paying jobs, educate their children, pay more taxes and become full fledged members of this nation.

But the reality is that unless a politics that addresses the racial, ethnic and class inequalities that impacts Latinos is not developed, unless the political and economic potentates and principalities are not challenged, Latinos will as a group remain in the margins of America. While recent surveys (Pew Foundation and Tomas Rivera Policy Institute) clearly show Latinos? two main political issues are the economy and education, what radical (root cause) programs were debated in the Republican Democratic conventions that would address these root causes of Latino inequality?

Despite the fact that both Republicans and Democrats are expected to spend $17 million in Spanish ads this election period (in 2000 Gore spent $1 million, Bush double that amount) I think most Latinos are not impressed with whether you address them in broken Spanish or with Mariachi or Salsa music in the background unless you are providing them programs that will allow Latinos to access those missing steps in the social ladder of upward mobility. If you have children in your midst you know that most Latinos speak English and in fact, most young people only know a rudimentary Spanish. So even this increased media blitz on Latinos is really missing the target.

In a recent (2002) study for the Public Policy Institute of California Jeffrey Grogger and Stephen J. Trejo reviewed the available data about Latino social and economic achievement, and wrote the following conclusions (my emphasis):

?We find that people of Mexican descent acquire much less schooling than other groups in the United States, and that this educational deficit is the main reason for the relatively low earnings of Mexican-origin workers.?

?Mexican Americans experience dramatic gains in education and earnings between the first and second generations. On average, U.S.-born Mexican Americans have three and a half years more
schooling and at least 30 percent higher wages than do Mexican immigrants.?

?Intergenerational progress for Mexican Americans appears to stall after the second generation, with only modest improvement in educational attainment and no wage growth observed between
the second and third generations. A possible reason is that the intergenerational transmission of education is much weaker among Mexican Americans than among other groups.?

Mexican Americans, who constitute the overwhelming majority of Latinos in California and more than 66 per cent of Latinos in the United States still, do not have the educational access that will ensure their entry into the mainstream of America. Latinos, face institutional barriers in the educational system that excludes them from having the kind of education that in a post-industrial economy will aid their rise up the social economic ladder. For Latinos, some steps in that ladder have disappeared and it is just so much more difficult to climb than for previous generations. These steps began to disappear as Latinos began to become a larger percentage of the nation?s population, especially, as they began to be a larger proportion of the student population in states like California (reaching close to 50% of all k-12 kids). The reasons for this are too complex but neither party is even beginning to address these issues.

So here we have Nativo Lopez, a community activist who led a process of educational reform in the Santa Ana Unified School District which began to empower Latinos since the late 1980s and who has now abandoned the Democratic Party and joined the Greens. During the tenure of the Latino majority he led in Santa Ana, before Mr. Lopez was recalled (2003) by the powerful economic elite that controls Southern California, parents were provided with leadership classes and translators so they could actively defend their rights in school board meetings, bilingual principals, Latino and Non-Latino were hired so that they could effectively communicate with their constituencies, the teaching curriculum was improved, Latino business had access to a share of school district vendor contracts, most of whom had historically been monopolized by the white business community. In sum, Mr. Lopez, arrogantly, wanted to bring democracy to a school district where 90 per cent of the students where Latinos and where for years, no Latinos were in policy making positions.

In came billionaire Ron Unz, with hundreds of thousands of dollars, followed by Republican Party operatives, right wing Christian fundamentalists while the Democratic Party, who had benefitted from the mobilization of naturalized citizens by Mr. Lopez? Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana remained silent. More than 125,000 newly naturalized Latinos were mobilized into the electoral system leading to the election of Cong. Loretta Sanchez, State Assemblyman Lou Correa (now running for Orange County Supervisor), School Board member Sal Tinajero, all now enjoying a measure of power because of the grassroots politics that challenged the political and economic elite that has dominated Southern Orange county for decades. All, have turned their backs at grassroots activism and chose the safe journey into establishment controlled politics.

It is obvious that the new strategy being initiated by the Mexican American Political Association is fraught with risks and uncertainties. To organize Latinos at the grassroots, to challenge the political and economic structures that brought us where we are is an awesome task. To organize in tandem with the Green Party is something unheard off in Latino politics; there are no historical parallels we can use to measure progress. MAPA and the Greens will focus on organizing in communities and college campuses around the state pooling their resources together. There is even talk of concurrent membership, being a MAPA member will be tantamount to being a Green party member. But then, if Republicans are organizing the rich (especially the growing demographics of stockholders), and Democrats are organizing the rich who fail to join the Republican Party, who will focus on organizing the Latino working class?

In the end, will Kerry make a great difference in the Latino community? Will more Latino youth graduate from High School, college in a Democratic government? Will less Latinos feel forced to enroll in the armed forces in order to survive in a Kerry administration? If Kerry is elected, will Latinos have a strong voice in Washington D.C. addressing the environmental issues that impact their daily lives? As the tax burden moves shifts even more toward the middle and working class, as the recent Congressional Budget Office (August 2004) study revealed, who will speak for the Latino working people? These are the basic issue questions. But organizers know these questions will not be answered in these elections, which would be thinking in terms of a short term strategy, for Mr. Lopez, I am sure, his strategy is a long term one.

Keep your eyes on him . . .

About Dr. Victor M. Rodriguez:
Chair and Associate Professor of the Chicano and Latino Studies Department at California State Long Beach, working on a manuscript ??Si Se Puede?: The Mobilization of Naturalized Latino Citizenry in Santa Ana, CA.? He can be reached at

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