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Man’s Quest to Broaden Minds Leads to Institute

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Many scholars accepted it as conventional wisdom, but the assertion stung Harry P. Pachon like an arrow shot from an ivory tower. It was the early 1970s, and some political scientists had declared that Latinos weren’t likely to become voters because of an anti-democratic, Ibero-American heritage.

To Pachon, who had grown up in Florida’s politically superheated Latino community, the theory seemed absurd and reflected the lack of Latino voices in the academic world.

Then a graduate student in public administration, Pachon decided to broaden the minds of academia by focusing his scholarship on Latino citizenship issues. For the next two decades, he researched Latino political involvement as a scholar and encouraged it as an activist, working for a congressman and heading an association of Latino government officials.

Latinos are now enough of a political force that earlier theories of their distaste for democracy seem as distant as the view of the Earth as flat. And Pachon, 53, a professor of political studies at Pitzer College, heads a facility dedicated to researching Latino issues--the Claremont-based Tomas Rivera Policy Institute.

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The institute is one of the most influential voices in the public discourse over the profound impact of Latinos on American life. Its studies frequently make headlines, and Pachon often contributes to newspaper Op-Ed pages and is quoted in news stories.

Under his leadership, the research center has ridden the rising tide of Latino influence, amassing a staff of 15 researchers and a $2-million annual budget. With those resources, Pachon hopes that the institute can provide unbiased information as Latinos find themselves at the center of rancorous public policy debates over issues such as bilingual education, welfare reform and notions of nationality and citizenship.

Latinos are expected to surpass African Americans as the nation’s largest minority group by 2006, Pachon said. There are about 28.3 million Latinos in the United States, according to July 1996 census estimates, and within 50 years Latinos are projected to compose a quarter of the national population.

That rapid growth has heightened the need for original scholarship that defines the characteristics and policy needs of Latinos.

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“There’s a tendency to take models from minority experiences we already know about and apply them to new populations,” said Manuel Pastor Jr., an economist who is chairman of Latin American and Latino studies at UC Santa Cruz.

Pastor points out that although African Americans and Latinos both have high poverty rates, studies--including those commissioned by the Rivera Institute--have found that low-income urban Latinos more often have jobs. Raising wages or providing capital for small business start-ups might therefore be better tools for addressing Latino poverty than changes in welfare policy, Pastor said.

The institute began in 1985 as the Tomas Rivera Center, named for the late chancellor of UC Riverside. The center was founded with $1.3 million in grants from the Carnegie Corp. of New York and the Times Mirror Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the company that owns the Los Angeles Times. Its focus was Latino educational issues, such as the availability of college preparatory courses or school breakfast programs to Latino students.

Though headquartered at Claremont Graduate University, the Rivera institute is also affiliated with the University of Texas in Austin. Rodolfo O. de la Garza, a professor of government there, is the institute’s vice president of research.

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The Texas connection is crucial, Pachon said, because the Latino communities in Texas and California constitute more than half the U.S. Latino population.

Pachon, who has been president of the institute since 1993, is credited with broadening its research interests and raising its public profile.

“The institute had different trajectories until Harry took over. He brought hard research skills and credentials that molded the impact and quality of the research,” said David E. Hayes-Bautista, director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Latino Health.

Corporate sponsorship of the center has also multiplied during Pachon’s tenure. The private sector money reflects the growing strength of the Latino consumer market and an awareness among businesses of “the old adage that you can’t have a healthy business in a sick society,” Pachon said.

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When the institute proposed a series of studies of Latino computer ownership, the foundations of technology companies such as Pacific Bell, GTE and Ameritech agreed to help fund them. Identifying both a social problem and a business opportunity, studies over the past three years found that Latinos were less likely to own computers than others with comparable income and education levels, which researchers asserted would be a disadvantage as computers and Internet use become more widespread.

But the institute also found that since 1994, Latino computer ownership, while still lagging the overall population, has risen dramatically, suggesting a potential growth market for computer makers. “We looked at the reasons for the [computer ownership] gap, but also found an opportunity for a $400-million computer market,” Pachon said.

Although corporate foundations contribute heavily, the institute is a nonprofit group and does not perform contract research for companies. “The research is directed by scholars who don’t interact with the funders at all,” said Karen A. Escalante-Dalton, the institute’s vice president of operations.

Pachon emphasizes that the institute transcends ideology. “We get zinged by both the right and the left, which is good. It shows we’re concerned with the data and not just giving the politically correct answer,” he said.

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One example Pachon cites is a 1996 study on Latino attitudes toward welfare. “The advocates criticized us because our survey found more than 75% of Latinos favored a two-year cut-off for benefits, but the right criticized us because 90% of those we surveyed said undocumented immigrants should be entitled to services if they pay taxes,” he said.

Political neutrality is important to an institution serving a community with diverse nationalities and beliefs. Pachon’s life has intersected the broad range of experiences of Latinos in the United States.

Born in Florida to Colombian parents, Pachon moved at age 16 to Montebello, where he lived with an older brother and finished high school.

He enrolled at Cal State L.A. while working full time at odd jobs, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees before completing his doctorate at Claremont.

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Pachon taught at Michigan State University before moving to Washington, where he worked for five years on California Rep. Edward Roybal’s staff. In 1981 Pachon joined the faculty at the City University of New York.

He moved to Claremont in 1987 to begin a joint appointment at Pitzer and Claremont Graduate University and concurrently served as the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund’s executive director until 1993.

UC Santa Cruz’s Pastor said that Pachon’s management of NALEO, which is made up of Democrats and Republicans from throughout the United States, reflects “an ability to bridge a lot of audiences.”

“Harry’s really smooth,” Pastor said. “He can say things that shoot right down the middle and strike a chord with both conservatives and liberals.”

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