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Traditional politics versus community organizations: 2 Latino activists travel separate paths

In their undergraduate days at Texas A&M University, both Ernesto Cortes, class of ’63, and Henry Cisneros, class of ’68, were members of the school’s corps of cadets. An ROTC unit of clean-cut make students, the crops epitomizes the A&M “Aggies” to many Texans—both those who admire the university’s traditions and spirit, and those who mock it with Aggie jokes.

The two natives of San Antonio have moved along different, but parallel, career paths since they were students at Texas A&M. But their Aggie discipline served them well. In recent years, each has been responsible for a noteworthy political advance by Mexican-Americans.

Their success in Texas has been significant for Latinos in California, for both Cisneros and Cortes have accomplished things that political professionals and community activists here talk about, but have yet to match.

Cisneros went east from Texas A&M to study at Harvard. He returned to be elected as mayor of San Antonio, the nation’s 10th-largest city, at age 33. Last April he was reelected with 94% of the vote, and is setting a pace that other Latino politicians envy. He is the most visible of those Latinos working for political progress in the traditional manner, holding down public service jobs and active in the two main political parties.

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Cortes went north from Texas A&M to study in the Midwest with the late radical organizer Saul Alinksy and other directors of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a school for professional organizers. He has since set up some of the most effective Latino community groups in the Southwest, including Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) in San Antonio and the United Neighborhoods Organization (UNO) of East Los Angeles. At 39, Cortes is the most successful of those Latino activists wary of traditional politics, and seeking new ways for Latinos to assert their rights.

The two men do not consider themselves rivals, but each will argue that his success points the way that other Latinos must move in the future if their growing numbers are ever to result in political power.

Cisneros has not actively sought national recognition, and even tries to downplay it, because he believes it detracts from his duties as mayor of San Antonio. But while there are Latinos holding more visible public offices than he does, Cisneros is probably the best-known and most popular Mexican-American politician in the country today.

In his only appearance in Los Angeles since being elected, for example, the San Antonio mayor drew a capacity audience to a fund-raising dinner for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. And although he delivered a fairly standard speech, he got a standing ovation afterwards. More than one Latino in the audience was heard to remark on his exciting, charismatic style.

Articulate and photogenic, the young Democrat was the focus of attention by the national news media almost as soon as he was elected. More important, they reported on him as a Sunbelt politician with a bright future because of his appeal to non-Latino voters.

Certainly Cisneros is as well-prepared for a career in politics as any other young politician in the country, Latino or not. After studying urban planning at Harvard, he served a White House fellowship during the Nixon Administration. There Cisneros worked as a top aide to then-Secretary of Health and Welfare Elliot Richardson, with whom he remains friendly.

Cisneros returned to his hometown in the fall of 1974, after teaching for a year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. By the next spring, Cisneros had won a seat on the San Antonio City Council, where he served three terms before being elected mayor.

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The aura of success about Cisneros increased last April when he easily won reelection with the highest percentage of votes, 94%, that any mayoral candidate in San Antonio had received in more than 30 years. No Latino politician in California or elsewhere in the country can claim such broad support from both Latino and non-Latino constituents.

Although he faced no serious opposition in the mayoral campaign, Cisneros still campaigned hard. He says his intent was to make the election a “referendum” on his plans for San Antonio, which he has summarized in a slick report entitled “Target ’90.”

The report’s goals range from upgrading San Antonio’s drainage system and increasing the size of the police force and Fire Department, to building a modern arts center and 60,000-seat sports stadium.

“I am going to implement them step by step,” Cisneros said of the goals outlined in the document. “I have the mandate to proceed, and I have the City Council to do it. There is a momentum in the community. . . . I am going to move San Antonio, pure and simple.”

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Cortes has also never sought national recognition, and tries to discourage it because he believes it detracts from his work as a community organizer. But despite the fact that other Latino activists get more attention—or try to—Cortes is probably the most effective Latino grass-roots organizer in the country today.

It took Cortes only three years to graduate from Texas A&M, which he entered when he was only 16. He then studied economics for three years at the University of Texas, Austin, where he was first drawn to organizing by the same man who attracted many other young Chicanos to activism in the 1960s, United Farm Workers President Cesar Chavez.

It was while working as the UFW’s grape boycott coordinator in Texas that Cortes first became interested in the organization that had helped launch Chavez’s career in the 1950s—Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation, known as the IAF.

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After working for various anti-poverty programs in Texas, Cortes decided to link up with IAF. In 1974, he returned to San Antonio and organized the COPS community organization. Two years later he moved on to organize UNO and, in 1979, he helped set up The Metropolitan Organization in Houston, whose membership includes Anglos and blacks as well as Latinos.

For the last two years, he has overseen several other IAF organizers working with Mexican-Americans and other minorities to set up similar groups in Fort Worth, El Paso, Austin and the Rio Grande Valley.

With the recent successful start of a new IAF organization in South-Central Los Angeles, with a mixed black and Latino membership, Cortes believes the time is ripe for IAF to now expand further in California. Before the establishment of the South-Central Organizing Committee, IAF’s only project in California was East Los Angeles’ UNO.

Since its inception, UNO has received more public attention than any organization on the Eastside. A key reason is that its contributions to the area have been substantive—it has successfully campaigned for innumerable municipal improvements throughout the barrio, the closure of a toxic waste dump, lower automobile insurance rates and low-interest home improvement loans for area residents, and an innovative program to reduce youth gang violence.

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Important financial and moral support for the IAF’s organizing process has come from the Roman Catholic Church (almost 90% of Latinos are Catholic) and several main-line Protestant denominations. “There is nothing more conservative, nothing more American, than these types of organizations,” said Bishop John McCarthy, explaining the support that the Galveston-Houston Roman Catholic Archdiocese has given the IAF organization in that city.

At a time when many traditional social structures are weakening, these organizations “create a buffer for individuals, families and neighborhoods against the big, impersonal forces that can affect them,” he said.

Eventually, Cortes hopes there will be dozens of organizations similar to UNO and COPS in urban areas throughout the Southwest, and possibly even in northern Mexico. The “Southwest Strategy” is Cortes’ term for the effort to create this network by the next century.

“But the number of organizations we help set up is less important than the quality,” Cortes said, explaining IAF’s slow, methodical organizing process. “We would like to see three UNOs in L.A., and similar organizations from Stockton to San Diego. But we also want them to be sophisticated and effective –to know how to leverage issues with all the allies they can get.”

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Any Latino activist in Los Angeles can talk about the political limits that Latinos face locally because so many people in their community are not citizens. But nothing illustrates the problem so poignantly as the experience of Assemblywoman Gloria Molina (D-Los Angeles).

“When I was elected to the Legislature last year, my own mother couldn’t vote for me because she isn’t naturalized,” Molina said.

“She has studied to be come a citizen, but I guess she’s intimidated by the test,” the first Latina ever elected to the California Assembly added sadly. “I may have to take her by the hand and just tutor her through it. And I know there are so many others like her. All the talk about how big our population is, how potent we are, won’t mean a thing unless we motivate all our people, young and old, to vote.”

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That final sentence summarizes the greatest single challenge facing Latino political activists in the 1980s—the decade that so many of them had cockily presumed would be the “Decade of the Hispanic.” They have yet to find a way to overcome the tendency of one-third to one-half of all Latinos in California to simply not participate in the American political process, either because of apathy or lack of citizenship.

A recent Los Angeles Times Poll of 568 California Latinos illustrates the problem starkly. That survey found that 58% of the respondents were not registered to vote. The reason for this remarkable statistic was easily determined by another question, which found that 45% of the poll respondents were not citizens.

“It’s not a question of being alienated from the political process, said I.A. Lewis, director of The Times Poll. “They are just not in the process at all.”

“It’s a citizenship problem, not a registration problem,” agreed Dr. Leobardo Estrada, a demographer at UCLA’s Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning. “It’s as if Latinos are cutting off one-third of their strength before they get into the game.”

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A consultant to the U.S. Census Bureau, which in 1980 made an extra effort to accurately count the nation’s Latino population, Estrada cited the bureau’s findings that the number of people of Mexican descent in the United States increased 93% between 1970 and 1980, from 4.5 million to 8.7 million. The census also found that the median age for Mexican-Americans is only 23, seven years younger than for the U.S. population as a whole.

“Every year for the next 10 years, 200,000 Latinos will come of voting age. But unless they vote, unless they become citizens, all this will remain only as potential,” Estrada warned. “The increase in numbers is inevitable. The issue is how to translate those numbers into gains.”

Even the possibility of a generous amnesty for illegal immigrants, currently being considered by the Congress as part of an immigration reform package, will not guarantee an increase in Latino voters. Traditionally, resident aliens from Mexico have the lowest naturalization rate among legal immigrants to this country, according to U.S. immigration service statistics.

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Some Latinos say the proximity of Mexico, and the closeness of personal ties across the border, account for the deep emotional attachment many Mexicans have for their homeland. Others argue that a long, sad history of Anglo racism has made Mexicans feel unwelcome in the United States.

In his book “Occupied America,” Chicano historian Rodolfo Acuna argues that Latinos have been politically powerless almost to the present day because, in the aftermath of the U.S. victory in the Mexican War of 1848, they were treated as colonized people.

“After the conquest, a colonial administration was established that advanced the designs of the Anglo Americans, enabling them to deny the Mexican any semblance of political or economic power,” according to Acuna. “Through physical violence and control of government bureaucracy at local, state and federal levels, the gringo robbed the Mexican of his land and submerged his culture.”

Ironically enough, one example Acuna cites of this almost complete Anglo takeover of political power is the city of San Antonio. In 1837, one year after the Texas Republic won its independence from Mexico, 40 of 41 candidates for office in the city’s local election were of Mexican descent. In the municipal elections 10 years later, there were only five Mexican candidates. (When Cisneros was elected that city’s mayor in 1981, he was the first person of Mexican descent to hold the job since 1842.)

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Political scientist Rodolfo O. de la Garza of the University of Texas contends that in the 135 years since the Mexican War there have been three distinct “generations” of Latino political leadership in the Southwest, and that the third generation is only now coming into its own. It is represented by politicians like Cisneros and newly elected Denver Mayor Federico Pena, 36, “well-prepared professionals who can appeal not only to their natural constituents, but to voters outside the Chicano community.”

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Cortes does not dispute the importance of Latino politicians being elected to public office, but he argues that focusing solely on electoral politics limits Latino activists.

“Most of their energy is being used up to get people registered, and to get anybody who’s Mexican elected,” he said. “The problem is that some people, when a majority of Chicanos get elected to a city council, think the millennium has arrived. Actually. Even harder work is just starting. Those politicians have to be held accountable.

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“We like to think we are engaged in politics in the highest sense,” Cortes said. “That means beyond electoral politics. We are trying to have a say in the everyday process of decision-making. That way, organizations like COPS cane be the conscience of politicians like Cisneros. He is a good man, but Henry can lose his soul unless someone holds him accountable.”

“Accountability” is a word the activists in groups like UNO use often, and it defines the fundamental difference between their philosophy of political action and that of more traditional political organizers. To the traditionalists, politicians are held accountable on election day. To Cortes, the must be held accountable all the time.

“We have to combine an ability to get out the vote with and understanding of how power operates,” Cortes argues. “The one thing really lacking in the Latino community is somebody to teach us about power. We have our baseball players, our businessmen and many people who do good works, but where do we learn about power?

“Until Latinos in Southern California, and everywhere else, learn about political power in this country and how it really operates,” Cortes said, “the Decade of the Hispanic will be just so many beer commercials.”

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Some critics of the IAF’s methods wonder how long the sometimes abrasive tactics of its organizations can be effective. Others question the policy of UNO and similar groups not to endorse political candidates or otherwise engage in electoral politics.

The tactics used by UNO leaders in the recent election campaign for the Los Angeles Board of Education seat representing the Eastside were a textbook illustration of the modern Alinsky methods as taught by IAF organizers. UNO leaders used the fact that incumbent school board member Richard Ferraro and challenger Larry Gonzalez were locked in a tight race to extract agreements from each candidate, but endorsed neither of them.

Before the campaign, Ferraro had refused to meet with UNO for several months. With the campaign nearing its end, UNO leaders finally won Ferraro’s agreement to a meeting.

When they arrived at his office, however, it was with 200 UNO members and the news media in tow. The surprised school board member refused to meet before such a large audience. When UNO leaders insisted, Ferraro refused and stormed back into his office.

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Although the meeting never came off, UNO leaders insisted that they had won the confrontation. “We showed our members what Ferraro thought of the people he is supposed to be representing,” UNO spokeswoman Lucia Rocha said afterward. “They were educated and will vote accordingly.”

Throughout the incident, UNO members denied that they were acting to help Gonzalez’s campaign. Rocha even refused to use the rival candidate’s name in speaking with reporters. A few days later, UNO set up a similar mass meeting with Gonzalez. Rocha and other UNO members lectured him on the educational issues important to the organization.

At the conclusion of their meeting with Gonzalez, UNO leaders extracted an agreement from the candidate that he would meet with the organization regularly if elected to office.

Ferraro ultimately was defeated by Gonzalez, who criticized the incumbent toward the end of the campaign for refusing to meet with UNO.

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The election of Gonzalez to the Los Angeles school board was the latest in a series of recent political victories for Southern California Latinos.

Last year when the state Legislature reapportioned political districts throughout California, Latinos organized a statewide coalition called Californios for Fair Representation to lobby on their behalf. Most political analysts give Californios—along with state Assemblyman Richard Alatorre (D-Los Angeles), who chaired the Assembly’s Reapportionment Committee—credit for the creation of several new “Latino districts” in California.

Two of those districts elected Latinos to Congress in last fall’s elections. There U.S. Reps. Matthew Martinez (D-Monterey Park) and Esteban Torres (D-La Puente) joined longtime U.S. Rep. Edward Roybal (D-Los Angeles), who had been the only Latino in the state’s congressional delegation since 1962. The total number of Latinos in Congress increased from five to nine as a result of last fall’s vote. There were only three Latino congressmen in 1970.

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The number of Latinos in the California Legislature has also increased in the last few years. There was only one Latino officeholder in Sacramento in 1970, compared to seven today—three in the state Senate and four in the Assembly.

The most notable exception to the recent string of Latino political successes was the narrow defeat earlier this year of urban planner Steve Rodriguez, who challenged incumbent Arthur K. Snyder for the Los Angeles City Council seat representing the Eastside. Neither the council nor the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has a Latino member.

Most analysts attribute the failure of Latinos to win a City Council seat to the high concentration of non-citizens living in the inner city, in areas like Boyle Heights and the Westlake district just west of downtown. By way of contrast, they point to the large number if Latinos serving on city councils and school boards in the suburbs east and south of Los Angeles, where many second- and third-generation Mexican Americans moved after leaving the Eastside.

To the extent that Mexican-Americans have been involved with U.S. politics in the past, it has been as Democrats, and that party identification is still strong, The Times Poll found.

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One hopeful sign for Republicans was an indication that their support tended to increase among younger Latinos. In the 18-to-29-year-old age bracket, 18% of poll respondents identified themselves as leaning toward the GOP, compared with 59% who favored the Democratic Party. This is in contrast to survey respondents over 65, who favored the Democrats by an overwhelming margin—84% to only 4% for the Republicans.

Fernando Oaxaca, former head of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly and a long time GOP activist, attributes the shift to “growing sophistication, and a recognition that, while by tradition many Latinos don’t want to move to the Republican side, they don’t want to stay on the Democratic side, either. They are bunching up in the middle and are fair game for responsible candidates on either side.”

That kind of Republican thinking is reflected in recent reports that if President Reagan runs for reelection, a key element of his campaign strategy will be to focus on Latino voters in major states like California, Texas and Florida, where Cuban-Americans are concentrated.

Reacting to the possibility that Latinos could be a key constituency in the 1984 presidential race, Latinos in both of the major parties have banded together in ethnic caucuses to raise funds for voter registration and other activities aimed specifically at their community.

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In the GOP, the National Republican Hispanic Assembly has set a goal of raising $1 million for the party’s 1984 presidential campaign. On the Democratic side, New Mexico Gov. Toney Anaya has brought together an organization called Hispanic Force ’84 to raise money for party coffers.

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Some veteran Latino activists question the “shelf-life” of groups like UNO and COPS because they rely so heavily on the voluntary commitment of their members.

These activists point to history of the network of groups that IAF organizers, including the young Cesar Chavez, helped set up in California during the 1950s.most of the Community Service Organization (CSO) chapters were quickly transformed from voluntary service groups to anti-poverty agencies when vast amounts of federal money became available during the War on Poverty of the 1960s. )It is to avoid this possibility that IAF organizations are now self-supporting, according to Cortes.)

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IAF officials reply that their methods are often criticized because outsiders fail to understand their organizing method. Critics focus on the obvious public activities while overlooking the more fundamental changes such groups bring about. A key reason that UNO has a reputation for effectiveness, for example, is the work that IAF organizers have done training a cadre of new leaders for the Eastside barrio—grass-roots area residents rather than social workers or poverty program employees.

“One of the most important things these organizations can do is bring people into the system who do not know how to operate in it, and teach them how to do it effectively,” Cortes said. “Even if someday there is no UNO, the leaders will remain in the community.”

For now, most Latinos are clearly more comfortable with traditional politics than with the innovative organizing methods favored by the IAF. But most knowledgeable observers do not underestimate Cortes.

One who still sees great potential for UNO-type groups is Cesar Chavez, who says, “We can’t rely on individuals as our inducement to vote. We have to focus on issues. That’s why citizen groups are so important. They gear people toward thinking about issues, not personalities.”

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“The trend for the next 10, 15 years will be political organizing,” said Richard Martinez of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project. “Either community organizing of the type Ernie does with IAF, or the electoral organizing that we do through the voter registration project, which helps elect politicians like Cisneros.”

Martinez, a native of Los Angeles who worked for three years with Cortes as an IAF organizer before taking his current position with the voter registration project, believes that is because “Latinos are moving into a whole new power arena. Our organizing now is among middle-class folks, people who feel they have a stake in the system, not the young, alienated people who were so prominent during the ‘60s, the Chicano movement days.”

Martinez said he and other voter project officials have recently been in contact with Cortes about using the IAF network to help increase voter registration among Latinos in the Southwest before the 1984 elections.

Cortes said that the IAF organizations are seriously considering the request, and explains this new flexibility toward electoral politics, saying: “We have never foreseen doing what we plan all on our own. We are willing to work with other progressive elements—in labor unions, the business world and even with decent politicians like Cisneros.”

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This story appeared in print before the digital era and was later added to our digital archive.


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