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Latinos' Response to Estrada Is Mixed

Some see his judicial nomination as tokenism, others as a plus. But there's no groundswell to see him on U.S. appellate court.

March 13, 2003|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

SAN ANTONIO — The name Miguel A. Estrada usually draws a blank here, an apologetic shake of the head.

But mention the filibuster by Senate Democrats to block a vote on Estrada's nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals, and recognition sometimes follows.

"Oh, that guy. We need minority representation on the courts, but he'll be a token Latino," said Mary Jessie Garza-Mansur, 52. "To slap him in there because his name is Estrada, what good will it do?"

She questioned whether Estrada's life experiences were comparable to those of most Latinos in the United States, saying she would prefer a nominee "who understands what it's like to be us."

The politically conservative Estrada, 41, is a Washington attorney and Harvard-educated immigrant from Honduras whose rise has been described as the American dream come to life. His critics say that if he is confirmed as the first Latino judge on the powerful Washington, D.C., appellate court, Estrada would not reflect their policy interests and values.

The debate has fractured the U.S. Senate as well as Latino interest groups, stalling the vote on his nomination made nearly two years ago by President Bush.

Senate Republican leaders, who failed last week in a bid to end the filibuster of Estrada's nomination, scheduled a second vote today. The first vote fell five short of the 60 needed to end the filibuster, and there is no indication the new tally will change.

But Republicans have pledged to periodically call for such votes to spotlight that Democrats are thwarting a Latino nominee to an important post. Their hope is that pressure from the Latino community will grow, causing enough Democrats to switch positions and end the filibuster. Estrada would then be expected to win an up-or-down vote on his nomination, which requires only a simple majority for approval.Such pressure might yet emerge, but in interviews conducted Wednesday in this heavily Latino city, residents' opinions reflected the broader divide over Estrada. While some echoed Garza-Mansur's disdain, others were ready to accept the nominee.

Fifteen years ago, Ana Moreno left her home in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, to start a new life here. She now owns a beauty shop where she charges $6 for a haircut, allowing herself one day of rest a week.

Similarly, Estrada started over as a teenager when he left Tegucigalpa to join his mother in New York. Ivy League degrees followed, as did job offers from high-powered law firms.

Moreno, 30, tilted her head as she considered whether this privileged path led him away from understanding what it means to be Latino in the United States. "America is a good country because you get a chance to make a new life," she said. "I'm not sure if he knows what it's like for people like me. I hope he does. We need people in high places to help us."

There was no ambiguity at Galleria Foods, a mom-and-pop hamburger stand painted a bright mint-green, crammed with students waiting for an after-school snack.

Whether Estrada represents Latino interests has no bearing on his ability to sit on the federal bench, said owner Daniel Garcia, 46. "The issue should be what's best for Americans, not what's best for Latinos," he said. "If he's qualified to be a judge, then let him get on and do his job."

Garcia's wife, Janie, agreed. "I'm sure he worked hard to get where he is," she said, ambling toward the kitchen to help flip the burgers. "We should be proud of him for what he's accomplished and not try to knock him down."

At this point, getting a Latino toehold into the top tiers of the federal judiciary may have to be enough, said Martha Ybarra, 58. Though she's unfamiliar with his political leanings, Ybarra said Estrada is an important symbol of Latino progress.

"It's hard to say how he'll be as a judge, but at least we'll get our foot in the door," said Ybarra, an account manager at her father's print shop.

Pilar Chapa sighed when the comment was repeated in her office at a neighborhood arts center. Forget symbolism, said the 40-year-old music teacher. It would be a fleeting victory compared to the long-term effect of a seriously conservative Latino judge on an influential court. "Once he's in, he's in for life," Chapa said. "It will pit us against ourselves." The fighting will divide us."

Garza-Mansur agreed. "We have pride and want to see Latinos succeed, but he could screw up everything we worked so hard for."

At a local community center, Billy Jenkins leaned back from a dated, well-used desktop computer. "People should have learned a lesson when they let Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court," said Jenkins, who is black. "It's not enough to be of the same race if you're not of the same mind."

A center supervisor who knew nothing about Estrada was curious if others did. "Hey, do you know who this guy is?" she called out, walking from room to room. Heads popped up from behind books, couches and computers. Never heard of him, they said. Andy Hernandez, a political science professor at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, wasn't surprised. Like Americans everywhere, people here are consumed with the war and the economy, he said. To the extent that it comes up at all, the Estrada dust-up is viewed as politics, he said.

"People understand that George W. Bush will nominate a conservative," Hernandez said. "But shouldn't we be able to know what kind of conservative we're going to get? This is a debate about policy, not race."

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