Clearing a Path From Barrio to Boardroom

Times Staff Writer

Janet Murguia grew up on bologna and powdered milk, sleeping five to a room in a tiny Kansas City, Kan., home with mismatched furniture and plastic curtains.

Her parents, one a Mexican immigrant and the other the son of one, never managed to advance beyond seventh grade. But they knew the value of education enough to pinch pennies for a set of encyclopedias.

Her church provided a spiritual compass and close-knit community of mostly Mexican immigrants and their children.

Those values honoring education, family and faith, Murguia said, helped lift her out of her barrio and onto a fast track of law school, the Clinton White House and now presidency of one of the nation's largest Latino advocacy organizations. Three of her six siblings also went to law school; two are federal judges.

Now, as president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, Murguia said she wants to make such dreams accessible to all.

"There's no question in my mind that the strong values instilled by my parents -- faith, family, community, hard work and optimism -- are the pillars that allowed us to be successful," said Murguia, 45. "It's what inspires me to be at the helm of this organization today: to throw open the doors of the American Dream to everyone, including the Latino community."

In Los Angeles last week for the council's annual conference, Murguia shared her life story and vision for the organization, which claims 40,000 members and a network of 300 affiliated community organizations.

Murguia, who was selected last year, inherits an organization with a mixed reputation within the diverse Latino community. Supporters praise its effective advocacy work and access to political and corporate power brokers, while critics regard it as an elitist organization whose "cocktail activism" is disconnected from the Latino masses.

Some Latinos picketed La Raza's conference last week, protesting the organization's support of a compromise Senate immigration bill that provides a guest worker program and path to legalization for some but not all of the nation's estimated 11.5 million illegal immigrants.

One of the protesters, Nativo Lopez of the Mexican American Political Assn., asserted that La Raza's significant corporate funding had crippled its ability to project a powerful voice on behalf of the poor. The Senate bill, he said, will serve U.S. corporate desires for cheap labor but slam the door to citizenship to millions of Latinos.

"The National Council of La Raza is the premier organization involved in a betrayal of the immigrant community," Lopez said. "They are a Trojan horse for corporate America in the Latino community."

Others praised the council for effective lobbying that has helped, among other things, protect bilingual programs, strengthen immigrant rights and restore federal funding for welfare and educational benefits to the poor.

"They are very much part of the White House, inside-the-Beltway world where you have to make compromises. From the outside, it sometimes looks like they're selling out," said Lisa Garcia Bedolla, a UC Irvine associate professor of political science and Chicano/Latino studies. "But the expectations for NCLR are too high. I don't think any single organization can do everything they're being asked to do."

For her part, Murguia said she was eager to listen to all voices -- supporters and critics, Republicans and Democrats, corporate presidents and undocumented workers.

"I believe in an open-tent approach," Murguia said. "If we're going to sit and throw rocks at everyone we don't agree with, we won't get anything done."

Murguia said corporations, foundations and the federal government each contribute roughly one-third of La Raza's $25-million annual operating budget.

The value of corporate partnerships, she said, was evident at last week's conference, where La Raza announced a breakthrough agreement on Latino healthcare. Concerned with rising neural tube defects among Latino babies, the organization had appealed to corn flour producers to fortify the product with folic acid to help prevent them. Thanks to La Raza's relationship with Wal-Mart -- one of the nation's largest purchasers of corn flour -- the retail giant helped broker a fortification agreement with a major flour producer, Murguia said.

But Murguia acknowledged the need to build visibility and connections with Latinos on a grass-roots level -- one of her top priorities, she said. One of her first actions was to take a "listening tour" of La Raza's community affiliates, all of whom clamored for stronger ties, she said. The council offers funding, training and other support to the affiliates, which focus on health, education, housing, economic development and other needs.

Despite the strong sense of "personal responsibility" among Latinos, she said, the community still needed public and private support to break down barriers to opportunity.

Murguia, who sports a broad smile, elegant pantsuits and short, coiffed hair, said public services -- transportation, schools and libraries -- were critical to her family's success.

Her father was an Oklahoma native who migrated back to Mexico as a boy and returned to Kansas City with his Mexican wife in 1950. He worked in a nearby steel mill; his wife watched neighborhood children to bring in extra income.

The close-knit Mexican American community celebrated Roman Catholic feast days and summer fiestas, and helped each other out when food ran short. Despite the tight household budget, Murguia said she never went wanting.

And every night, the linoleum table was cleared for homework. Education, her parents said, took priority over chores -- perhaps one reason she studied so hard, Murguia joked.

"They always knew the importance of education," Murguia said. "They knew they didn't have it, but knew it was the key to the future for their kids."

She and her twin sister Mary earned near-perfect high school grades, except for one B in vocational typing. When they entered the University of Kansas, they high-fived each other when they realized the spacious dorm room was theirs alone. Both went on to law school.

After graduation, Murguia worked for a Kansas congressman and was "flabbergasted" when the Clinton White House tapped her to work in its legislative affairs office in 1994. She was serving as a University of Kansas executive vice chancellor for university relations when she was named La Raza's executive director in 2004 and then, last year, selected president by the board of directors.

Along the way, Murguia has never forgotten the people who helped her, who "earned their way into Heaven," as her mother often put it. They include her elementary school teachers and college financial aid assistance officer, whom Murguia said cobbled together every loan, grant and scholarship program he could think of to make sure she could finish school.

"I've seen the American dream be a reality, and I want to make sure we can make it a reality for others as well," she said.

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