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Latino Old Guard Has Lost Touch With Those It Aspires to Lead : Leadership: What the old politics are reluctant to admit is that the world has changed and, along with it, a new generation of Mexican-Americans.

December 29, 1991|Ruben Navarrette Jr. | Ruben Navarrette Jr. is the editor of Hispanic Student USA and a graduate student at UCLA

Old-guard Latino leaders seem skeptical, if not hostile, toward a new generation of Mexican-Americans. This new generation is more diverse, more inclined to redefine an ancient culture in American terms, more eager to use their opportunities to change the world rather than simply take their place in it. As such, it is something of a threat to the Latino Establishment.

In the 1960s, Latinos were convinced that reform movements run by white liberals could not be trusted to defend and promote their special concerns. Accordingly, they banded together to push their ethnic agenda. Colorful acronyms--UFW, MAPA, MALDEF, LULAC--and dusty organization charters remind us that the leaders of old had their constituency, and that their vision of a better world was once legitimate.

What the politics of old, and those who embody it, are reluctant to admit is that the world has changed and, along with it, a new generation of Mexican-Americans. Terrified of being accused of the cultural sin of "selling-out," the politicos , for the most part, did not change. At a conference of Chicano professionals in 1991, you may hear the same flawless praise of farm-labor leader Cesar Chavez that you heard a generation ago, despite the fact that even Chavez has changed--and not all for the better. As these political dinosaurs entered the 1980s and encountered the Reagan Revolution in the form of teen-age Republicans, their challenge was to broaden their base of support, frame a modern agenda and redefine their constituencies to reflect the generational differences that threatened to diminish the Latino civil-tights movement to little more than a few pages in a history book. It is a challenge these Latino leaders have consistently failed to rise to.

Instead, the response of the old guard has been to criticize what they do not understand and isolate the young people whom they accuse of straying from the cultural path. Seeking to marginalize those who see a new world in new ways, many politicos find themselves marginalized. Without a following, they promise the white politician who buys them lunch that they can deliver the votes of those whom they do not know.

In her "Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation," Linda Chavez asserts that established Latino leaders have denied their constituencies the life-saving chance to drink of cultural assimilation, that wonderful river of opportunity through which all good things flow. She dismisses much of the monumental social reform of the last 30 years as little more than the selfish efforts of these leaders to obtain and maintain power through a currency of powerlessness. Latino leaders, Linda Chavez contends, act as if the best way to win the political prize of more social programs is to economically cripple their own people by making them increasingly dependent on such programs.

A stronger argument for the undeniable gap between established Latino leaders and those they claim to lead is that politicos openly exhibit contempt for those whom they judge to be ethnically incorrect.

To be ethnically correct is to be the "right kind" of Latino. To be ethnically correct is to be true to your culture even if it means fabricating one to compensate for an upbringing that downplays the cultural traditions. Violating the sanctity of affirmative action is not ethnically correct. Telling family secrets is not ethnically correct. Speaking English better than Spanish is not ethnically correct. Idolizing Magic and Madonna rather than Zapata and Villa is not ethnically correct. Wearing blue contacts to be more attractive is not ethnically correct. Forsaking corridos for country music is not ethnically correct. Being gay and, tragically, having AIDS is not ethnically correct. Using American Express vouchers to travel to Italy or Greece or France, rather than to Aztec ruins, is not ethnically correct.

The ethnic litmus test implicit in all this judgment may have its roots on college campuses. There, as children struggling to become adults, we attack one another for not being "our kind" of Latino. Latino leaders have simply taken ethnic jeopardy off campus and out of the political arena and begun to use it against Latinos who dare think for themselves.

Recently, Ben Benavides, the leader of a Chicano political organization, boasted to a cheering crowd that he has worked to "turn the '90s into the '60s"; those of us who fit into the '90s wonder if we will be led to the guillotine should his metaphorical (wishful) revolution be successful. Like SNCC or SDS, and indeed like much younger versions of those graying activists, a new generation of idealists is forced to produce its own leaders.

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