ANAHEIM — If the 1980s was the decade of Latinos' struggle to gain access to the halls of America's political decision-making, then the '90s will be the decade to exert power there, Latino leaders said Friday at the annual convention of the National Assn. of Latino Elected Officials.
"The struggle has been to open the rooms where the decisions are being made," Andy Hernandez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Project, said at the largest-ever NALEO convention. "Now we're in the room, and some of us in this room are sitting at the table."
Latino politicians and activists from throughout the country told more than 500 delegates that the Latino community is poised for "profound change" because the upcoming reapportionment and subsequent increase in political clout will transform lifestyles for Latinos in the United States from the boardrooms to the barrios.
Based on the 1990 census results, Latinos could add 12 seats to the 10 they now hold in Congress, said Richard Martinez, executive director of the Southwest Voter Registration Project. And within five years, he said, the Latino vote could be a deciding factor in national U.S. politics.
"By 1996, California, Texas and New Mexico will be Latino swing-vote states in the (presidential) general election," Martinez said. Those states represent more than 30% of the electoral vote, so, "if everything goes right, Latinos will elect the next President of the United States," he added.
Despite the glowing predictions, however, there were warnings that substantial obstacles still hinder Latinos' ability to achieve influence.
Voter registration among Latinos is still lagging. And delegates said there is a need for a major effort to increase citizenship among Latinos living in the United States.
Henry Pachon, president of NALEO, said that in 1988, for the first time, there were more non-citizen Latinos in the United States than there were registered Latino voters, who number 4.8 million. He said the potential influence of the community is unrealized because many of its residents are discouraged from becoming citizens.
Pachon said the average Latino lives in the United States for 18 years before he or she becomes a citizen, compared to only five years for Asian immigrants.
According to surveys, 63% of Latino immigrants say they want to become U.S. citizens but only 25% are eventually naturalized, largely because of a bureaucratic and unsympathetic process, Pachon said.
"A 50% increase in our numbers does not lead to a 50% increase in our influence," said Ruben Franco, president and general counsel of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York.
Several leaders also said the future political clout of the Latino community will depend on avoiding divisive internal struggles as well as learning to share power with other minority groups, particularly African-Americans.