More than 300 prominent California Latinos gathered Friday for a watershed academic conference designed to provide the nuts and bolts of what was called a new “Latino agenda for the 1990s” aimed at securing wider recognition of Latino issues.
The focal point of the conference was not politics, but information: a tantalizing, unprecedented collection of studies, directories and polls that describe California’s 6.6 million Latinos. The data will be collated early next year into what was portrayed as the first-ever “Latino almanac.”
Some of the almanac’s contents released Friday include a directory of hundreds of Latino-owned businesses in Los Angeles, a list of Latino social and political groups statewide, one of the most in-depth opinion polls ever done of Latinos in California and census data projected far beyond the year 2000.
‘Never Been Done Before’
“This kind of comprehensive study has never been done before, and it’s a recognition of the importance of the Latino community in California,” said Ed Avila, president of the Los Angeles City Board of Public Works and an organizer of the conference. “On the practice side, it gives us tools we never had before.”
For example, he said, one part of the study reviewed all the licensed businesses in California and distilled 81,000 businesses owned by people with Latino surnames--35,000 of them in Los Angeles County. Such lists will be used not only by business, but by fund-raisers for Latino political and charitable causes, he said. The almanac also provides community groups a network of Latino organizations statewide.
While the opinion poll conducted last spring generally reflects previous studies, the most significant finding, according to consultant Mark Baldassare, a UC Irvine professor, was the answer 800 Latinos gave when asked the open-ended question: What is the most important issue facing Latinos today?
“They answered, ‘Education,’ ” he said. “And the more English they spoke, the more concerned they were. That raises the question of whether (the lack of quality) education may be a crucial barrier to participation in American society.”
The conference, held at Claremont McKenna College and titled “California’s Latinos: Countering the Myths and the Quest for Equity,” drew participants as diverse as insurance executives and community activists, Boy Scout directors and politicians.
The conference was not partisan in a political sense, but was a collective call to successful Latinos to apply their academic, business and professional skills to achieve wider recognition of Latino concerns and political representation of Latino residents in the 1990s.
“Basically what we’re talking about is a new stage of development: the Latino agenda for the 1990s,” said Armando Navarro, a political scientist and organizer who is director of Impacto ’88, an organization that has accused both Republicans and Democrats of ignoring Latinos.
“Speaking for me, personally, it’s the same agenda we’ve had since the 1960s. Oh, I use different phrases now. Instead of saying Chicano power, I say Latino power. . . . Instead of political representation, I say empowerment. But what we’re all looking for is one thing: a way to say we want to be a part of this nation, and doing it in a way that doesn’t provoke fear.”
Specifically, he said, the data will enable him and other political organizers to contact hundreds of Latino groups statewide for upcoming political conferences aimed at securing additional elective offices for Latino politicians. It will also allow social service agencies to do fingertip research in filling out applications for grants.
“We weren’t interested in producing a volume that would sit on a shelf,” said Alan Heslop, director of the college’s Rose Institute of State and Local Government, which sponsored the conference in conjunction with the Hispanic Volunteer Council of United Way. The Ford Foundation funded part of the research. “So we identified our users: small and large businesses, social organizations like United Way, community service groups, Latino candidates and political organizations and scholars, of course.”
Not All Good News
The study is not all good news.
Leobardo Estrada, a nationally recognized demographer at UCLA who compiled much of the data, said studies show that many Los Angeles Latino neighborhoods have been splintering in complex ways as educated Latinos move out and are replaced by new immigrants and members of other ethnic groups. Such splintering makes it much more difficult for Latinos to elect leaders with Latino priorities.
“Twenty years ago, if the Latino community had been united, that would have been enough,” he said. “But we have been suburbanized, and no longer have economic enclaves that are homogeneous. Now our old barrios are filled with non-voters and new immigrants, Asians and blacks, and Anglos.
“Ten years ago we began to develop unity and I believe now we have a degree of that unity. But now, unity is insufficient. Now we will have to establish coalitions if we are to get anywhere.”
The demographic projections indicate that Latinos, who now make up about 20% of the state’s population, will make up 30% by the year 2000. Most of that expansion is due to higher birthrates among Latina women. The average Anglo family is made up of 3.3 people. The average Latino family has 3.9 people.
Moreover, the average California Latina is 23 years old and early in her child-bearing years; the average Anglo woman is 33 years old. Latinos born in the United States have significantly fewer children than foreign-born Latinos, who outnumber them slightly.
Such age disparity is leading to a gradual division of California’s population into an aging Anglo group and a youthful Latino group. That gap worries demographers and policy-makers who question whether Anglo retirees will be willing to pay for the education of young Latinos, and whether young Latino workers will underwrite the Social Security bills of financially more secure Anglos.
Still unclear is whether Latinos will be able to muster the votes to become a political force. Only 24 of every 100 California Latinos are eligible to vote, and only 13 of 100 in Los Angeles County are registered.
“Researchers can read the tea leaves,” said William S. Davila, president of Vons Companies and a keynote speaker at the conference. “But it’s up to us to steer the course of our destiny.”