Who Speaks For the Latino Student?

When it comes to military on college campuses, some voices are ignored

By Rudy Acu?a
Published on LatinoLA: February 4, 2003

Who Speaks For the Latino Student?

Who speaks for the Latino student?
Rodolfo F. Acu?a
It seems as if I am constantly harping on the theme of who is an organic spokesperson for the large Mexican/Latino communities of this region. What qualifies a person to speak for the Latino communities? Is it based solely on the color of the self-appointed leader's skin color, how well he or she speaks Spanish, and/or whether he or she eats menudo? Or, should it be based on some kind of history of service and vision that the person has for those communities. It is a question that we have not resolved.

The debate will take on a broader as the United States approaches a war with Iraq and then as it wars with other countries in the years to come. On my own campus of California State University at Northridge, students and faculty have been protesting President Jolene Koester's signing of an agreement with the ROTC, allowing it a physical presence on campus. Latino students were especially upset about the ROTC's Hispanic Access Initiative that targets Latino students exclusively for recruitment. It is an initiative that Latino educators have criticized because this
recruitment begins in the high schools and continues into the university level.

Supporters of the Initiative attempt to justify the Hispanic Access Initiative because former Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera created it in an attempt to get more Latinos in the Army. They point to the fact that Caldera, a former California Assemblyman, has received awards from numerous organizations including Ventura County's League of United Latin American Citizens. Apparently, they seem to believe that Caldera's support for the ROTC trumps the voice of a bunch of students who have never been elected to office and are not recognized by the media and the ruling institutions of this country.

Indeed, Caldera's career reads like a Latino success story. Born in El Paso, Texas, Caldera is the eldest son of Mexican immigrants. He was raised in Whittier, California and graduated from the US Military Academy. After a tour in the Military Police Corps, Caldera graduated with a J.D. from the Harvard Law School and an MBA from the Harvard Business School. He practiced law in Los Angeles, California at the prestigious firm of O'Melveny & Myers. In the early 1990s, with the
support of many of the downtown's elite, he was elected to three terms in the California State Assembly. In 1998, Clinton appointed Caldera Secretary of the Army where he pushed for recruiting more Latinos into the army.

Personally, I have always found Caldera to be articulate but also somewhat arrogant. Like many of my colleagues, I believe that the right to speak for a group comes about by working and bonding with the group. It comes the old fashion way: You work for it. It is not something that comes to you by the process of osmosis. So, when Caldera first ran for office, I questioned his credentials because he was running in a district that he knew little about and had previously shown little interest in.

After he was elected, his actions raised eye brows. He is notorious for sponsoring and pushing a bill requiring first-time applicants for drivers' licenses to prove they are U.S. citizens or legal residents. It was a bill supported by the nativist Federation for American Immigration Reform. I agreed with Assemblywoman Martha Escutia, D-Huntington Park, who argued that ''Voting for this bill is going to lead us down a
slippery slope toward blatant discrimination.''

Yet Caldera defended the bill and argued that they patterned it on a New Jersey system that has been in effect for fifty years. Caldera showed that he had little
understanding of the phenomenon or history by defending the bill: ''It will apply to everyone, . . . so I don't believe it will result in discrimination . . . This measure will help enforce our immigration laws.''

Caldera carried this vision or lack of it to Washington where he preached that Latinos by not being recruited into the army were being locked out of the American Dream. One of his solutions for a decline in enlistments was to recruit undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Caldera stated that a group of recruiters in North Hollywood, Calif., had asked: "Why can't we take these students who aren't citizens but want to serve and help them become citizens?"

On another occasion addressing the Latino Leadership Conference in Los Angeles U.S. Army Recruiting Command Caldera deplored that so many young people were missing the opportunity to gain from military service. He said that the
services had to learn to recruit en espa?ol to fill their thinning ranks.

After leaving Washington, D.C. as secretary of the Army, Caldera returned to California where they appointed him vice-chancellor for Advancement of the California State University system where seventeen campuses are heavily Latino. Significantly, most of those appointed by Caldera to work for him are non-Latino. Moreover, it has to be pointed out that Caldera did not qualify for the job because of his long involvement with education or knowledge of it.

CSU Chancellor Charles B. Reed correctly points out that the CSU system is heavily diverse and it will become a major battleground for the hearts and minds of Latino students. Surely, many of the CSU presidents will rely on the advice of Caldera as what to do about the aggressive recruitment of Latino students on the campuses. For them, Caldera is the legitimate voice of the Latino community. The fact that his vision is closely allied to their interests makes him even more compatible.

I have been in the CSU system as a student and a professor for more than forty-five years. I remember being the only student of Mexican extraction in my classes, and I remember San Fernando Valley State College (now CSU Northridge), having less than a hundred Mexican Americans in 1969.

Changes came about because of people with a vision for the community insisted that the Latinos be given equal opportunity to high education, not the military. People like Caldera are the beneficiaries of these sacrifices. So, I believe it is reasonable that the CSU should listen to the people who have made the sacrifices, and I, for one, am offended that the US government is spending $8,000 to $11,000 to recruit a single student when the money would be better spent keeping them in
college. More important, I am offended that CSU administrators dismiss voices such as mine.

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