By Elias Kamal Jabbe
LOS ANGELES — Appreciating the efforts of the past while striving for a better future was the principal theme of the annual Mexican American Legal Defense & Education Fund (MALDEF) gala at the Westin Bonaventure hotel in downtown Los Angeles on November 8 2012. On a night when legendary Latino leaders who passed away over the past 12 months—Lupe Ontiveros and Dr. Harry Pachón—were remembered, the continued emergence of Latinos in the US going forward was also highlighted.
Taking place less than 48 hours after Latinos made an unprecedented impact on the direction of American politics by representing ten percent of the total US electorate, the individuals at the podium throughout the gala focused on the theme of embracing Latino heritage while remembering to continue fighting for civil rights and more political representation in the US.
After gala attendees watched a montage video combining Ronstadt Generations’ rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” and images highlighting the long history of Latino civic engagement in the US, MALDEF President and General Counsel Thomas Saenz gave an introductory speech with a similar theme.
“History is important, as we remember and acknowledge all that has happened before in regards to the civil rights of Latinos in the US. But history is also particularly important this week, when it seems as though an awful lot of pundits a few days ago all of a sudden discovered the Latino vote,” said Saenz in a tone that was both solemn and sarcastic.
“And we welcome that discovery, though we will recognize that there is a long and continuous history of Latino voters having a critically important impact on the outcome of elections across the country.”
The celebration of Latino voters—71% backing President Barack Obama—making a huge difference in crucial states such as Florida and nationwide as a whole wasn’t limited to the stage. Gala attendees such as Andrenna Hidalgo celebrated the continued emergence of the Latino vote within California itself, a fact overlooked in the midst of the many discussions of swing states.
“According to CNN’s exit poll, Latinos went from 18 to 22 percent of voters in California between 2008 and 2012. Both presidential candidates also participated in forums on Univision, something that has never happened before. There was concern that Latino voter participation would decrease this year (and cause a decrease in the amount of effort politicians put into pursuing the Latino vote in the future as a result), but it increased and also played a critical role in the passing of Proposition 30 in California,” said Hidalgo, who currently serves as staff director at the University of Southern California Unruh Institute of Politics.
Bel Hernandez, an entrepreneur who is currently CEO of a media company called Latin Heat, echoed a similar sentiment. She declared that Latinos should continue making their voices heard and that “we can’t wait anymore.”
Discussion of a future in the US where Latinos have a stronger voice was balanced by acknowledgement of the sacrifices and efforts of previous generations. After the gala’s Master of Ceremonies Jordi Vilasuso highlighted 1968 as a critical year when MALDEF was founded in San Antonio and Latino high school students in East Los Angeles staged walkouts protesting discrimination and other injustices, Wal-Mart Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President Gisel Ruiz spoke about how her humble roots shaped her.
“We all have our personal history that defines who we are: mine started in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley where my parents met and fell in love. Both of them were from humble backgrounds, yet they had the determination to want more for their two daughters,” said Ruiz, whose company served as one of the gala’s primary sponsors.
“I am the daughter of two field workers. I am 42, I am a woman and I am a Mexican-American. And 20 years after beginning my Wal-Mart career as a management trainee in Ladera, California, I stand before you as the Chief Operating Officer of Wal-Mart Stores U.S. This is something most people would not have imagined possible. But it is possible: sí se puede.”
The Spanish language continued to remain in the spotlight after Ruiz ended her speech, thanks to the presence of bilingual educator and artist José-Luis Orozco. He used his acceptance speech for the MALDEF Lifetime Achievement Award for Leadership in the Arts as a platform to advocate for the children that he has taught languages to for decades. After reciting some of his lyrics that underscore the plight and potential of these children (“Somos los niños de barrios, los niños trabajadores…”), the Mexico City native reminded the audience that improved education was necessary in order to secure a better future for underserved Latino youth in the US.
“We need better schools and we need our kids to finish school: we have a 50 percent dropout rate in some parts of the country.”
Guatemalan-American lawyer Silvia Argueta—a former member of MALDEF who currently serves as Executive Director of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA)—also focused on the next generation when she stepped to the podium to accept the Excellence in Legal Service award. She cited the example of a young teenager named Maricela—an undocumented child of economic migrants who called her for advice on attaining authorization to work—while discussing how her team was pushing for comprehensive immigration reform via the DREAM Act.
“There are hundreds of Maricelas out there that haven’t reached out for help. The DREAMers are tenacious and they are our future leaders: we have to support them,” said Argueta, who also thanked her mother in the audience.
Political representation returned as the central theme of the gala’s final moments. After the late Pachón—a Colombian-American scholar who carried out decades of research on Latino integration into the fabric of American society—was honored in a montage video, his widow Barbara accepted the Excellence in Community Service Lifetime Achievement Award on his behalf.
Saenz then used his keynote speech to further discuss the future of politics and Latinos. While he saluted Latinos nationwide who made their presence felt at the polls earlier in the week, he also denounced the racist and hypocritical campaigns employed unsuccessfully by some politicians.
“Too many of the pundits think this is a matter of numbers and focus on the growth of the Latino vote. I think the true lessons lie not in the growth, but in the smartness and wisdom of the Latino vote. Here in California two years ago, we saw a failed Gubernatorial candidate who put out one message about immigration in English…and different, diametrically opposed messages in Spanish. We’d drive down the freeway and see a billboard announcing (one set of) views on immigration in English…Ten miles down the road in a different community, we’d see a Spanish-language billboard announcing something different,” said Saenz.
“We will not be fooled by linguistic foolery.”
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**Elias Kamal Jabbe is the Founding Editor of MulticulturalMatters.org