Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre likened the "One Voice, One Future" study to a mirror reflecting the needs of the Latino population of Los Angeles County.
The two-year study by the Tomas Rivera Center of Claremont concluded that greater political participation and improved educational and economic opportunities are the keys to a better future for the Latino community that already exceeds 3 million.
The report offers recommendations on what kinds of programs should be created to best help Latino residents move ahead in political, educational and economic arenas. The findings are being forwarded to governments, private agencies and philanthropic foundations throughout the country.
"They (policy-makers) can no longer say they don't know what the Latino community wants," said Beatriz Olvera Stotzer, who chaired an advisory committee that worked on the project."They can no longer say they don't know what the Latino community's needs are."
The survey lists four top priorities: political participation, education, economic development and leadership development.
A secondary grouping lists health, social services, immigration, legal services, crime and housing.
While education has often been listed as the No. 1 priority in other surveys, organizers of the study said the need for greater political involvement now supersedes all other issues.
"If you have people in the political system, you can shape educational policy . . . and all other policies," said Claude Martinez, president of El Centro Human Services Corp.
To come up with the results, surveyors first contacted by telephone 493 Latino households throughout Los Angeles County. According to a summary of the report, 55% of the respondents were not U.S. citizens, and 17% were undocumented.
Surveyors then selected 360 Latinos perceived as "leaders" from a wide range of fields and interviewed 242 of those who answered an initial mailer.
The final lists of priorities were drawn up by eight focus groups made up of the "leaders." They were instructed to rank the issues in terms of where the most headway could be made in the next 10 to 20 years, according to Julie Solis of the center's staff, who was a principal investigator along with David Lopez-Lee of USC.
This process weighted the final results in favor of the opinions expressed by the leaders. Discrimination, for example, ranked high among issues on the list from people in the community, but did not figure at all on the list drawn up by the leaders. "Political participation" did not appear on the community list, yet topped the final report.
Sponsors of the survey explained the difference as one of causes versus effects. Residents tended to list immediate complaints and needs, they said, while leaders sought to identify long-term ways of solving those problems. If more Latinos are brought into the political process then employment, discrimination and other problems can be solved more easily, survey sponsors contended.
"Our community is really concerned with survival--those issues have not gone away," said Leobardo Estrada, a nationally known demographer from UCLA who provided technical expertise to the project. "But we have to get at the causes . . . at the underlying issues."
As political participation grows, he said, "people will listen to us, will be more sensitive to us, will pay more attention to us."
Under political participation, the study called for education and outreach programs for immigrants to promote naturalization, voting and other civic activities. Also suggested were procedures to develop a greater accountability of elected officials and an increase in the number of Latino public officials and journalists.
Other recommendations included stepped-up efforts to stem high school and college dropout rates.