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The Washington Post

La Raza's Challenge: Political Growth; Thousands At Austin Conference To Discuss Transformation Of Latino Power In U.S.


July 11, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Washington Post Company, Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

The headlines trumpet the numbers, hailing the latest demographic or cultural milestone in unrelenting waves. U.S. Latinos now number 38.8 million, making them this country's largest minority group. Their population grew by 3.5 million between the 2000 Census and July 2002 alone. In Texas, about one in every three people is Latino.

If by sheer force of numbers alone, Latinos, perhaps as never before, are emerging in the national consciousness.

But this weekend at the Austin Convention Center, Raul Yzaguirre, leader of one of the country's most prominent Latino advocacy groups, will urge Latinos to stop dwelling on demographic gains and turn them into political cachet.

"It was never a race, or just about numbers," said Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, the Washington, D.C.- based think tank and advocacy group. "It's about trying to capture the attention of decision-makers, about trying to change the way resources are allocated. The reality is that all federal and some state programs underfund Latino recipients."

Beginning Saturday, La Raza will consider those and other issues as it meets in Austin for its four-day annual national conference. Latino leaders and activists will attend workshops and seminars and hear speakers, including the president of Spain, Don Jose Maria Aznar; Democratic presidential candidates Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean; New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson; U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas; and U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, among others.

La Raza, celebrating its 35th anniversary, will bring as many as 17,000 to 20,000 people to Austin, making it one of the city's biggest conferences ever.

In his Sunday speech, Yzaguirre is expected to criticize the Bush administration and Congress for policies -- including recent tax cuts and stalled immigration reform -- that he says have hurt Latinos.

Getting money to serve Latino needs during a shrinking economy, when there is less government intervention in social programs, is one of the topics that will produce the most conference buzz. So will the 2004 elections. So will education and the dropout rate among Latino youth, nearly three times as high as that of non- Hispanic whites.

The challenges confronting Latinos are important issues for everyone, said Cecilia Muoz, a La Raza vice president who oversees the group's legislative agenda.

One-third of U.S. Latinos are under 18, she notes.

"There is an important relationship between the education status of Latino children and the economic future of this country," she said.

The conference agenda will cover a broad range of issues, including:

* Immigration. Despite the administration's cooling on the issue after the Sept. 11 attacks, Muoz believes reform legislation is inevitable because it has support from a "broad swath of society," including the labor movement and business community.

An estimated 8 million people -- about 4 million to 5 million of whom are Hispanic -- live and work in the United States without citizenship. Who would qualify for any kind of amnesty and how reform would be structured are among the biggest questions any legislation would address.

Reform, Muoz said, should address future immigrants and create a way for people to "come out of the shadows and sign up for legal status and go through the legal checks." La Raza prefers a process, not a guest worker program, under which immigrants could sign up for visas giving them full labor rights and the ability to earn citizenship.

"That, we think, eliminates or significantly reduces the paradox of our immigration law, which basically states that there isn't room for anyone, yet our economy beckons them in," Muoz said.

The recent deaths of 19 immigrants in Texas underscores "that we've got to make it real tough on smugglers of human flesh," Yzaguirre says.

* Health care. One-third of the Latino population lacks health insurance. Many are immigrants here legally who have no access to federal health care programs. Congress took all benefits, including health care, away from legal immigrants in 1996. Many of the services have been restored, but there is an ongoing battle over restoration of health service for legal female immigrants. In addition, many Latinos either make too much money to afford Medicaid and other publicly subsidized programs or too little to afford private health insurance.

* Criminal justice. A La Raza brief to be released next week finds that Latinos, blacks and other ethnic minorities constituted 67 percent of theinmate population admitted into Texas prisons between 1985-97.

* Poverty. Latinos have the lowest net worth among Americans, Yzaguirre said.

La Raza beginnings in Texas

A native of San Juan in the Rio Grande Valley, Yzaguirre, 63, traces his career in civil rights to the age of 15 when he founded the American G.I. Forum Juniors, an offshoot of the parent Hispanic veterans group. In 1964, he founded NOMAS, the National Organization for Mexican American Services. A proposal he wrote for the group led to the creation four years later of what is now the National Council of La Raza. Then, it was called Southwest Council of La Raza. A major grant from the Ford Foundation was a springboard for success.

"What we always talked about when I was young was the need to have a strong, accountable, effective Hispanic/Latino national organization," said Yzaguirre, who joined La Raza in 1974. "We have it -- a constituency, name recognition, reputation, resources, outreach."

Today, he says, La Raza operates with a $30 million annual budget (federal, corporate and foundation money) and works with more than 300 affiliates in 40 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, offering them resource development, advocacy and other help.

"They do very well by networking social service providers and other professionals in the helping professions," said Ben Marquez, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is the author of "Constructing Identities in Mexican-American Political Organizations: Choosing Issues, Taking Sides."

But that's not where the strength of the organization lies.

"The hard work of the NCLR gets done out of the Washington, D.C., staff and its policy agenda," said Christine Sierra, a political scientist at the University of New Mexico who wrote her doctoral thesis on La Raza.

Born of the same era as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and other advocacy groups, La Raza originally worked for grass-roots mobilization.

"They were community activists, but they created entities that were supported by non-indigenous institutions. Basically, they were able to leverage resources from the larger society and put them at the service of people who wanted to create change," Marquez said.

A mainstream approach

In the early 1970s, the Ford Foundation changed its funding guidelines, essentially cutting off groups with so-called radical reputations.

"More Chicano-oriented mobilization efforts were more or less cut out of the picture in favor of a more moderate and mainstream approach to community development, and ever since then the council has not fashioned itself as particularly grass roots," Sierra said.

Jose Angel Gutierrez, a fiery leader of the Chicano activist movement in the 1960s and '70s and a co-founder of the La Raza Unida Party, thinks National Council of La Raza has gone too mainstream.

"They're more about fund-raising than hell-raising," said Gutierrez, now an attorney and a political scientist at the University of Texas-Arlington. He says groups such as the La Raza council need leadership change.

"They're doing good work, it's just not cutting-edge work," he said. "This is about us becoming the majority populations. When we started, we were the governed. Now we're going to be the governors."

Marquez said groups such as the La Raza council, though more professional than grass roots, serve a valuable purpose, particularly in advocating a liberal take on Latino issues.

"There would be a void if they were to disappear," he said.

"Groups that tend to be more radical, have more unconventional tactics, more contentious positions on Latino politics, they're not the ones who get the money," Marquez said. "Their voices aren't heard as clearly, or broadcast as far."

Critics wonder how effectively in touch with the community that groups such as the La Raza council can be when they accept millions in corporate donations.

Funding sources will always constrain a group's agenda in some way, Sierra said.

According to the council's financial report for fiscal year 2002, 28.5 percent of its revenue was from corporations and foundations.

Muoz, who has been responsible for La Raza's advocacy portfolio for 15 years, said corporate donors "do not dictate our policies or our work."

Of Gutierrez's criticism of the group's leadership, Yzaguirre said the group has always strived for stability.

"It's interesting, and in some ways it's comical . . . Nobody said to Cesar Chavez or to Martin Luther King Jr., 'You've been there too long.' We have a tendency to be critical of our own," Yzaguirre said.

Last month, the group announced a search for an executive director who, "if everything works out, will be my successor," Yzaguirre said.

In 2001, Yzaguirre disclosed that he had Parkinson's disease. He said it is the mildest form and is in its earliest stages. He has announced no plans to retire.

For now, behind the numbers, there is much work to do. And there is the "respect question," as Muoz calls it.

She and Yzaguirre are disturbed by a rise in anti-immigrant views.

Muoz tells a story she said is not widely known, about how the workers who rebuilt the Pentagon in round-the-clock shifts were largely immigrants, some of them without papers.

"The guy who managed the program had to tell them to go home," she said. "That's the kind of people they are. They're getting treated as if they were a threat. What they're about is building this country."

About the conference

National Council of La Raza is one of the country's oldest and largest Hispanic advocacy groups. Its annual conference, which runs Saturday through Tuesday at the Austin Convention Center, will bring together as many as 20,000 community leaders and activists. It's billed as the largest gathering of its kind.

How to register

Full registration allows access to all events, speakers, workshops and entertainment. The Latino Expo USA, which will include 300 exhibitors, is free to the public. For information and to register, visit


The term 'La Raza' has its origins in early 20th century Latin American literature, and translates into English most closely as 'the people,' or, according to some scholars, 'the Hispanic people of the New World.'

National Council of La Raza was established in 1968 to reduce poverty and discrimination and improve opportunities for Hispanic Americans. It serves all Hispanic nationality groups.

Who are the Latinos in the U.S.?

In 2000, the Latino population on the U.S. mainland was composed of the following groups: Mexican American, 66.1 percent; Puerto Rican, 9 percent; Cuban, 4 percent; Central and South American, 14.5 percent; and 'Other Hispanic,' 6.4 percent.

Nearly 56 percent of U.S. Hispanics were native-born, according to 1997 data.

Sources: National Council of La Raza, U.S. Census

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