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COMMENTARY : Latino ‘Decade’ Moves Into ‘90s

<i> Del Olmo is deputy editor of the Times editorial pages</i>

Does anybody remember that the 1980s were supposed to be “the Decade of the Hispanic”? Probably. Should anybody care? I think not.

For the term “Decade of the Hispanic” was contrived and artificial. And, in fact, the progress for Latinos it was supposed to symbolize began long before the 1980s. More importantly, it will continue into the 1990s.

The phrase “Decade of the Hispanic” was first used in an article about Latino appointees working in the Carter Administration published by U.S. News & World Report in 1978. Many Latinos working in Washington, D.C., at the time were quoted by the news magazine, but the final word went to a Cuban-American named Maria Elena Torano.

“The blacks had the decade of the ‘60s; women had the ‘70s. The ‘80s will be the decade for Hispanics,” she said.

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U.S. News used Torano’s phrase to end the 1,500-word report, and even ran a picture of her, using “The ‘80s will be the decade for Hispanics” as the caption underneath. Times librarians found 173 additional print-media citations of that phrase in the ensuing 11 years.

As near as I can remember, the phrase was first widely used in the Los Angeles area as part of an advertising campaign in the early ‘80s. Then, as now, the Coors Brewing Co. saw the Latino community as a growing market for its beer. So it plastered billboards all around town of a smiling Latino holding a beer and toasting the world as he proclaimed Coors “the beer for the Decade of the Hispanic.”

Because of those billboards, I have always associated the phrase more with marketing than I have with the arts, politics, business and the other fields in which Latinos became more visible and prominent during the 1980s. Because of that increased visibility, the glib, easy conclusion to reach about the ‘80s is that they were, indeed The Decade for Latinos.

But if you look a little more closely, you’ll find that all the advances and triumphs of the ‘80s were presaged in the ‘70s. Just look at the progress made in California and the Southwest.

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For example, the most evident impact Latinos had in the ‘80s was in the arts. East Los Angeles’ Los Lobos became one of the country’s most popular rock groups, and Tucson’s Linda Ronstadt returned to her Latino roots with a hit album of classic Mexican songs. Latino-themed films like “Stand and Deliver,” “La Bamba” and “The Milagro Beanfield War” were produced, and some became major hits. Latino actors played major roles in popular TV series like “L.A. Law” and “Miami Vice.”

But I would argue that the precursor to all this artistic ferment was the 1978 opening of Luis Valdez’s hit play, “Zoot Suit,” in Los Angeles and in 1979 on Broadway. And many of the Latino artists whose artworks were displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1989 were painting murals in the city’s barrios in the 1970s too.

Equally dramatic changes occurred in the world of politics, but even there the groundwork was laid in the 1970s. Throughout California, the number of Latinos holding public office rose from 231 in 1973 to 460 in 1984 and 580 today, according to the National Assn. of Latino Elected Officials.

That number is expected to increase even more as Latino activists take advantage of recent court decisions against the at-large voting system that many political analysts claim works against Latino candidates in local elections. But all this progress stems from changes made in the Voting Rights Act in 1975, which extended protection to other minorities in addition to African-Americans. That act provided the leverage for groups like the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund to challenge discriminatory voting laws and the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project to conduct hundreds of get-out-the-vote drives from South Texas to Northern California. Among the more noteworthy results:

A handsome Texan, Henry Cisneros, was elected mayor of San Antonio in 1981 and within a few years was being talked about as a candidate for vice president. The number of Latino members of Congress rose from two to eight, including three from California. Gloria Molina was the first Latina elected to the Legislature and, later, the Los Angeles City Council. And proof that Latinos do not have to rely solely on Latino voter support to be elected was provided by Gaddi Vasquez, who was elected a county supervisor in Orange County and is now being touted by his fellow Republicans as a future candidate for statewide office.

But the 1980s also saw setbacks for Latino politicians. Earlier this year Cisneros left office, and took a hiatus from politics, after an extramarital affair became public. Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre paid a hefty fine for violating fund-raising laws. State Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) may have had his career sidetracked by drunk-driving convictions. State Sen. Joseph B. Montoya, (D-Whittier) is facing felony charges for alleged financial improprieties.

Because of the ups and downs of the political world, some community activists argue that the most lasting kinds of political change take place at the less visible grass-roots level. They point to the emergence of groups that focus on issues of local concern to the average Latino worker and taxpayer. Even here, trends begun in the 1970s gained momentum in the ‘80s. The United Neighborhoods Organization of East Los Angeles, founded in 1976, spawned three sister organizations in the Los Angeles area. Its affiliated organization in San Antonio helped form new groups in that city as well as in Houston, Austin, El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley. Community groups with different organizing philosophies, like Barrios Unidos in San Bernardino, also appeared and expanded.

But, ironically, the biggest political opportunity Latinos got in the 1980s did not involve U.S. citizens. When Congress enacted the landmark Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 to stem the flow of illegal immigrants to this country, it offered illegal aliens already living here the chance to legalize their status. More than half of the 3 million people who took advantage of that so-called “amnesty” program are Latinos, and under the 1986 law they can become citizens, and voters, in the 1990s. If they take advantage of the opportunity, the coming decade could see even greater political progress for Latinos than the 1980s.

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One area where Latinos still lagged behind during the 1980s was in business. Of course, Vons’ President Bill Davila became one of the best-known business executives in Los Angeles in the ‘80s thanks to the television commercials he does for his supermarket chain. But in other corporations, Latinos are barely working their way into executive suites. Still, that does not mean businessmen are ignoring the Latino community--just trying to figure it out. The 1980s were the decade when dozens of major corporations became aware just how fast the Latino market is growing and joined early pioneers in trying to plug into it. The most noteworthy result of this trend was the founding of a second Spanish television network, Telemundo, to compete with the long-established Univision.

In education, the record was decidedly mixed for Latinos in the ‘80s. While there were inspiring success stories like the advanced calculus classes taught by Jaime Escalante at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, the dropout rate for Latino youngsters in schools all over the nation remained frighteningly high, reaching 50% in some areas.

Sports fan that I am, a review of the ‘80s cannot pass without recalling how much fun “Fernandomania” was when it seized the city in 1980. A portly left-handed pitcher from Etchohuaquila, Mexico, made the Dodgers more popular than ever with local fans--and helped the team’s veteran Spanish-language broadcaster Jaime Jarrin become almost as well known as--well--Fernando Valenzuela.

An East L.A. barrio kid named Paul Gonzales made us proud at the ’84 Olympiad when he won a gold medal in boxing. And the Raiders’ Chicano Connection, coach Tom Flores and quarterback Jim Plunkett, brought Los Angeles its first Super Bowl victory. On the playing field, at least, the ‘80s were indeed a special decade for Latinos.


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