With shouts of "Arriba!" whistles and thunderous applause, Los Angeles mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa was greeted like a conquering hero at a gathering of Latino officials this week.
Though Villaraigosa lost the race, Latino officials, buoyed by census data showing their growing numbers, believe that victory--greater political power--is inevitable.
Census findings show that there were 35.3 million Latinos in the United States in 2000, or about 12.5% of the population. They now rival blacks, who number between 33.9 million and 35.4 million, as the country's latgest minority group.
"It means influence, it means buying power, it means having a greater voice and being able to have more officials that can represent that voice," said Deborah Ortega, a City Council member in Denver.
Ortega was one of about 900 Latino elected officials, from city council and school board members to members of Congress, who attended annual meeting of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Education Fund.
At the conference, they swapped strategy on how to translate their growing numbers into political power by mobilizing the immigrant vote and by backing crossover' candidates with broad appeal in areas without Latino majorities.
Many were brimming with excitement generated by Villaraigosa's campaign. Though City Atty. James K. Hahn, who is white, received 54% of the vote to 46% for Villaraigosa, the Latino vote made up 22% of all ballots cast in the mayoral race, compared with 15% in 1997.
"I have no tears. I put all my sweat on that battlefield," Villaraigosa said Thursday to a crowd of about 500 who greeted him with hugs, cheers and a standing ovation. "There was an energy, an excitement there that all of us can tap into."
There are about 5,000 Latino elected and appointed officials across the country, ranging from sheriffs and school board members to mayors and members of Congress.
Still, Latinos represent 1% of elected officials and 4% in Congress, and there are seven Latinos in statewide elective offices.