'Yes, we can."
The chant made famous by Sen. Barack Obama's presidential bid captures the senator's infectious optimism and movement candidacy. It also neatly translates into Spanish as "Si, se puede." That slogan, as any politically conscious Angeleno realizes, is the rallying call of this region's labor movement and its largely Latino leadership. And yet, despite Obama's surging national popularity and rhetorical identification with Latino political strength, many Latinos continue to harbor doubts about his candidacy. As this race enters its final stretch, Latinos owe Obama a second look.
Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton differ on few issues and generally agree on the matters of principal concern to Latinos. Both support comprehensive immigration reform; indeed, Obama promises to press that cause even more aggressively than Clinton. Both support significant revamping of the nation's healthcare system. Both favor economic, tax and job programs that would help poorer Americans, many of Latin American descent.
One of their relatively few policy differences places Obama in allegiance with many Latino leaders -- and Clinton on the other side. She opposes the issuance of driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, while Obama favors licensing those drivers. In part, his reasons are practical -- unlicensed drivers are more likely to flee the scene of an accident -- but the result puts him closer to what might be described as a predominantly "Latino" position on this issue than Clinton.
Nevertheless, Latino voters have given Clinton overwhelming support in some contests, notably California, where they favored her over Obama by roughly 30%, contributing significantly to her victory here. Partly, this may be because Latino voting power in this country owes much to Bill Clinton, who as president tapped several prominent Latinos -- Bill Richardson, Federico Pena, Henry Cisneros -- for positions of influence. Also, Latino voters traditionally have valued experience over soaring rhetoric. And some Latinos -- like some Anglos -- sadly have shown distaste for African American candidates, a reserve exacerbated by tensions between blacks and Latinos in many American cities. That last factor -- prejudice -- is rarely addressed directly, but it stalks this campaign.
The combination of history, loyalty and bigotry has hurt Obama, but there are signs that it may be ebbing. La Opinion endorsed Obama and specifically praised his "inclusive message of hope." The Service Employees International Union, with its huge Latino membership, on Friday backed his candidacy, and a number of prominent Latino officials have joined his campaign in recent months. Those endorsements have been trickling in and appear to be registering with voters. Obama lost California and other heavily Latino states on Super Tuesday. But he held his own among Latinos in Virginia, and his support is unmistakably broadening.
We in Los Angeles occupy the glorious center of Mexican American life. Our polyglot culture -- its language and institutions, politics, parades and street life -- is being shaped daily by the rub of black and white, Asian and Latino. Our mayor was elected by an inspiring cross-cultural coalition. It is, as we well know, a uniquely American joy to be immersed in the fast currents of cultural change.
Now the nation has the chance to experience a bit of the excitement that we enjoy in Los Angeles. It can set aside its prejudices and predispositions and join in support of a new kind of candidate. Texas, with its large Latino population, goes to the polls on March 4. Latino voters there and across the country should give Obama a chance. His victory could be theirs as well.
Si, se puede.