How Can 29 Million People Be Politically Invisible to Democrats? : Convention: Only two Latinos made it to the podium, and party leaders virtually ignored Latino concerns. Is the GOP paying attention?

Tad Szulc, author of "Fidel: A Critical Portrait" (Avon), is working on a project about Latinos in the United States

New York City Mayor David N. Dinkins owes his job to the city's Latinos, who provided him with the margin of victory. Twenty-five percent of the city's residents are Latinos, 15% of all its voters. They are the fastest-growing immigrant group.

But if you watched or read about the Democratic National Convention held in New York City, you would have hardly known that Latinos exist at all in this country, let alone that they constitute a major, if not yet fully tapped, force in U.S. politics and could conceivably play a decisive role in the November elections.

Latinos were not heard in a meaningful way at the convention. Their problems went unmentioned by the party's standard-bearers in their acceptance speeches (presumably falling under the misleading, catch-all category of "race"). There were no references to Latinos--or immigration problems--in the party platform.

In broader terms, the convention emphasized once again the degree to which Latino-Americans (who are called Hispanics by the U.S. Census Bureau) continue to be disregarded, underestimated and just plain ignored politically, notwithstanding their rapidly rising numerical and economic importance.

When I asked Cecilia Munoz, a senior official of the National Council of La Raza, an umbrella Latino organization, why she thought no Latinos had been invited to address the convention the first night and only two Latino elected officials spoke during the rest of the week, at ill-attended afternoon sessions, she replied: "This reflects the overall attitude toward Latinos in the United States."

That this should be so is not only an aberration on the part of mainstream politicians, but blindness by U.S. society in general. Latinos today form the country's second-largest minority, with 25 million--more than 10% of the total population. (The black population is 31 million.) If an estimated 4 million illegal immigrants are added, the Latino community stands at around 29 million.

At the rate the Latino population is growing--through natural increases and legal and illegal immigration mainly from Mexico, Central America, the Dominican Republic and Colombia--demographers project that Latinos will become the largest minority soon after the year 2000, affecting even more life in America.

Meantime, Latinos are powerful, though underrepresented politically. Close to 15 million are American citizens, and their voting strength is calculated at 5 million--quite crucial because of the heavy Latino population presence in at least three strategic states.

In California, Latinos account for 25.8% of the population (it is almost 40% in Los Angeles County), in Texas, 19.1% (but 56% in San Antonio) and in New York, 12.3%. Latinos of Cuban origin in South Florida usually vote Republican, but Democrats hardly try to influence them.

In a possibly tight race in November, the Latinos can make the difference. According to a poll by Univision, the Spanish-language television network, Latino preferences as the convention opened were 37% for Gov. Bill Clinton, 30% for President George Bush, and 23% for Ross Perot, who quit the race. Latino experts think most of the ex-Perot supporters will go to Clinton.

Dennis Rivera, the president of New York City Hospital Workers' Union and a powerful local Latino politician, was quoted later as saying that if the Democrats "reach out to the white suburban voters without activating and energizing the African-American and Latino vote, the labor vote, you won't get a winning combination." Rivera, by the way, was among the two Latino spokesmen interviewed on national television during the convention, in startling contrast with the strong black contingent. His point was that the Clinton-Gore ticket might sink if Latinos massively don't vote.

Moreover, many Latinos believe in the exercise of democracy in a way that might put the rest of us to shame. Eighty-one percent of the eligible naturalized citizens of Latino origin have registered to vote, which is higher than the national percentage, though the figure drops to 57% for U.S.-born Latinos (who, Munoz suspects, may have become disillusioned by the treatment they receive from our political system). Nevertheless Latino organizations are busy registering as many voters as possible.

For now, Latinos see themselves discriminated against politically, even in comparison with the black community. While the black population is only 2% larger than the Latino, it has twice as many seats in the House of Representatives--26 vs. 13. Obviously, blacks are underrepresented as well, but Latino spokesmen say it is ridiculous that, statistically, the share of their community representation in Congress should be as low as 2.5%.

Latinos find it bizarre that the American political system still fails to recognize their identity whereas big business and industry have already discovered them. To the businessperson, they represent an overall buying power of $180 billion, up from $100 billion a decade ago, and the fastest-growing segment of consumers in the country despite widespread poverty, a reality translated into massive advertising by national products on Spanish-language television, radio and publications.

It rankled, they say, that on the convention's opening night their existence was acknowledged only by Texas Gov. Ann Richards' salutation to " senors y senoras " (no further mention of Latinos) and by former Rep. Barbara Jordan's references to Southwestern slums. No further elaboration. Then silence, while the problems of race affecting blacks and whites received unprecedented attention throughout the evening. Whatever happened to American diversity? And, just by the way, will the Republicans do something about the Latino vote?

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