Hispanics the Challenge Ahead

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The integration of the ever-growing Hispanic population into the American mainstream will pose a challenge to US society far greater than the civil-rights explosion of the 1960s -- perhaps as great as any since the Civil War.

This is the conclusion after touching base with the three main components of the Hispanic community as it is at present -- at least 12 million officially, but probably closer to 20 million if every head were counted.

It is the Mexican component that will eventually force a still quiescent federal government and national public opinion to come to grips with what is happening every day to increase the Hispanic part of the whole population. In oversimplified terms -- and despite the flotilla of refugee boats pouring into Miami at the moment -- the Cuban component is finite and manageable, the Puerto Rican component certainly less so. But as for the Mexican component, it is hard to see where it is going to end.

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Mexicans are coming into the United States at an estimated rate of 1 million a year -- nearly all of them illegally. (Among Hispanics, as already noted, the phrase "illegal aliens," particularly on Anglo lips, is distasteful. The preferred description is "undocumented aliens." Mexicans and Chicanos ask how on earth they can be "illegal" or "alien" in a land once theirs and still dotted thickly with Spanish place names.) No Hispanic with whom this writer talked thought that the Immigration and Naturalization Service could stop the flow -- despite the minimal strips of wire fence and the helicopter patrols. In border areas the INS is hardly the most liked of public agencies and is talked about bitterly as "La Migra" (from "migration").

Not only is there a common border 2,000 miles long, defying complete control -- short of something like the Berlin wall. But on the south of that border is Mexico, which has one of the highest birthrates in the world and is expected to have a population of 204 million by this time next century. The US population, according to World Bank estimates, will have leveled off at 271 million four or five decades earlier. Between now and then, these two lands are locked geographically cheek by jowl, the one (despite its newly discovered oil and gas) likely to have a chronic poverty and unemployment problem, the other still offering more economic promise and opportunity than almost any other place on earth.

Henry Cisneros, a Chicano member of the San Antonio City Council and tipped as the city's next mayor, summed it up. "Nothing," he said, "can offset the strength of the pull of the US."

His proposed solution to the growing tensions likely to result along the US-Mexican border is a 25-year, joint US-Mexican strategy "to reduce the differentials to a roughly common level on both sides of the border." This would mean, he explained, a joint funding of the development of water supplies, roads, and industries on the Mexican side of the border. There is no alternative shortcut, he insisted. Asked if this might not, in Mexican eyes, smack of an intrusion of American colonialism, Mr. Cisneros said the best way to ensure against this was to let US Hispanics have a significant role in developing and carrying out the plan.

Mr. Cisneros happens to be an example of the tenuous entry of Hispanics into the political arena. Nationally, they have little clout as yet. In Washington, there are only six Hispanics in the House of Representatives (compared with 15 blacks), and there are none in the Senate. Such congressional representation as there is, is still little more than tokenism. At the moment there is no Hispanic governor of a state. There is not Hispanic on the Los Angeles City Council, and in New York no borough president is at present Hispanic. Miami has a Hispanic mayor, and two others are on the City Council, but there are none in any of the perhaps more important Dade County (Greater Miami) elective offices.

Yet it is at these local levels that the effective and lasting political breakthroughs are going to be made. As Jan Jarboe, a San Antonio journalist, said, such changes in her city are setting the pace for the whole Southwest --and perhaps farther afield.

Hispanics -- with the notable exception of Cubans -- have not until now played much of a part in elective politics by turning out and voting. None of it seemed relevant to their daily needs and worries, particularly when the people they were often asked to vote for were not fellow Hispanics. But organizations like the United Neighborhoods Organization in Los Angeles and Communities Organized for Public Service in San Antonio have made the connection for the man and woman in the street. Neither UNO nor COPS, incidentally, endorses candidates, but both organizations oppose gerrymandering to the disadvantage of Hispanics and go to great lengths to get on the record the stands of candidates contesting elections -- naturally with the emphasis on bread-and-butter issues with particular meaning for Hispanics.

In San Antonio, COPS and the Southwest Voter Registration Project (SVRP) campaigned successfully to end at-large voting in city elections and substitute for it voting by neighborhood. As a result a once all-Anglo City Council (in a city where Hispanics outnumber Anglos) now has five Hispanic and six Anglo members. Willie Velasquez, head, of SVRP, told Nuestro magazine: "One hundred twenty counties are being targeted [in 1980] for lawsuits involving gerrymandering. With the increase in voter registration, we are going to make the greates electoral impact this country has seen."

George Pla, deputy head of the East Los Angeles community Union (TELACU), a Chicano organization helping establish industries and small businesses, confirmed that effective Hispanic political development would have to start from the precinct or grass-roots level and not be based on an ambitious individual's desire to build up a personal following. There is, Mr. Pla said, "a tremendous need for national leadership . . . but it has not yet emerged. It will take time." The one quasi-political figure in the Hispanic community with national recognition by Anglos is Cesar Chavez, leader of the farm workers union in California. But as many Hispanics point out, even he is hardly representative of the average Hispanic, who is a city-dweller and not a farm worker.

Marcelino Miyares, a Cuban-American businessman in Chicago, said the Hispanic community is in the 1980s "entering its takeoff stage. If the takeoff is successful the full impact will be felt in the 1990s -- politically and economically."

Active politically already in national party politics is the president of TELACU, David Lizarraga. He is also chairman of Hispanic American Democrats, which held its first annual national convention in Denver in December. He said that probably 95 percent of Hispanics who vote, vote Democratic. He pointed out that nevertheless there is a National Hispanic Republican Committee, under the chairmanship of Fernando Oaxaca. He said he and Mr. Oaxaca are agreed on one thing: Hispanics must be in both parties, if the best overall interests of Hispanics are to be served.

From party politics to jobs. One of the fears of Anglos, particularly working-class Anglos, is that the rising tide of Hispanic immigration -- particularly the "undocumented" arrivals from Mexico -- will rob US citizens of jobs and put an unjustified burden on public funds and the taxpayer.

Hispanics challenge this. They make three main points: (1) Hispanics, whether documented or not, would not find jobs in the US if there were not a whole category of often menial occupations that today's US citizens are unwilling to take up; (2) US employers, regardless of their public utterances, ofter prefer Hispanic -- more precisely, undocumented -- labor; they collaborate , Hispanics allege, with the disliked "Migra" to recruit it or, before payday, to be rid of it; (3) undocumented workers are not usually a burden on public funds, for the simple reason that they are generally too scared to collect welfare or unemployment benefits. In fact, some Hispanics argue that these workers represent a net financial gain to the US, not least because they do not claim or collect income-tax refunds.

A sensitive issue at the moment, particularly in Texas, is the acceptance of the children of undocumented workers in public schools. Local authorities have ruled against it and are enforcing their ruling.

The moment one touches on schools, he runs head on into the ever-growing controversy over bilingual education. Anglos view it with increasing concern. The vast majority of Hispanics want it continued and view any Anglo criticism of it as an expression of Anglo prejudice and as an onslaught on Hispanic culture and identity.

What is bilingual education?

It is instruction in their mother tongue of students who are deficient in English, conducted with federal funds. It started with an Act of Congress of 1968, intended to help non-English-speakers get more speedily into the US mainstream. For an obvious reason -- their numbers -- the foremost beneficiaries of this law are Hispanics. Mr. Miyares in Chicago estimated that as many as 65 percent of the Hispanics in the US do not speak or are not fluent in English. The original aim of the 1968 legislation was to provide federal funds to attack this deficiency -- at least at the school level. Its promoters saw it as a bridge to be left behind, once the mainstream was reached.

However, a 1974 Supreme Court ruling directly related to bilingual education has been interpreted as making bilingual education a means for its beneficiaries to maintain their separate linguistic and cultural identity. Denial of bilingual education is seen by many Hispanics as an expression of prejudice against them. But many non-Hispanics see the program as delaying arrival in the mainstream and producing too many Hispanic children not even minimally educated in either English or spanish. A debate on this issue is already joined. It could eventually burst through nationally to become as disruptive an issue as busing is in programs for equal education for blacks.

Noel Epstein, national education editor of the Washington Post, in a study published by George Washington University, has written: "Ultimately the debate [ will] have to return to the overriding question: Is the national government responsible for financing and promoting attachments to ethnic languages and cultures? [Will] federal intervention result in more harmony or more discord in American society? [Will] it lead to better or worse relations between groups? Better or worse relations within groups? More democracy or less? Greater separation or greater integration? What is the federal role?"

None of the Hispanics with whom the writer talked, as he moved from one community to another, wanted the right to bilingual education withdrawn. There is a general desire to preserve cultural identity. Ernie Cortes, a remarkable Chicano community worker in Texas, is no exception to this general pattern. Bu t he speaks for what seems to be the main current in the Hispanic stream when he says: "English as the language of the US is a reality to be faced. It is the language of power." Mothers encountered in the Chicano community in San Antonio reflect this when, one after another, they say they have always been vigorous in encouraging their children to master English.

If there are Hispanics taking a harder line in the direction of making Spanish a compulsory second language in the US, the writer thought he detected them among the more committed and intense Roman Catholics, priests and laymen, working at the grass roots in Hispanic communities, and among Puerto Ricans in the Northeast.

One of the responses in every community to the criticism that bilingual education has produced more-poorly rather than better-educated Hispanic children was that it has never been given a fair trial -- mainly for the reason that good teachers are not available. Mr. Cortes summed it up: "Bilingual education makes sense only if you use the time and the money to attract good teachers."

To the question whether bilingual education and insistence on the maintenance of a separate cultural identity might in time produce a Hispanic quebec (meaning a demand for Hispanic separatism) in the US, the response everywhere was an amused negative. "Let me know," said one community worker, "when you find your first Hispanic wanting to make Spanish a compulsory language in any area in the Southwest." (He knew of course that the Quebec separatists in Canada have already made French compulsory in their province.) And Mr. Miyares said that a "Hispanic Quebec situation" was unlikely to develop, because Hispanics are not going to stay put in a restricted Us geographical area forever. Their gravitation toward the heartland in Chicago is evidence of that.

And yet, back in Boston -- which two centuries ago fed so much into thought to produce the unique blueprint on which the United States was founded and has so far forged ahead -- the writer finds himself asking whether the very size of the Hispanic influx might put at risk that original concept.

There are even more sweeping questions. Are we or are we not seeing the resumption, after three centuries, of a clash in the Americas between two originally European cultures to shape the future of the New World? In that first clash long ago, the Anglo-Saxon won over the Latin, although the Latin had preceded the Anglo-Saxon to the Americas -- the French in Canada and the Spanish in all three parts of the hemisphere. Coexistence in the Americas has not erased all the distinctions between the two, nor their latent rivalries. Each group still feels itself superior to the other, the Anglo-Saxons because of their efficiency, technological superiority, and commitment to democracy, the Latins because they have heart and sensitivity and preserve traditional religious values.

Yet, which is the tradition that attracts like a magnet? It is still the United States, admittedly born out of an Anglo-Saxon culture, but in fact representing mankind's first successful effort on earth to establish a republic on the basis of universal principles. The US is still far from Utopia, yet it nevertheless offers the best hope on the planet for developing that better and healthier and happier society mankind yearns for. That happens to be the dream of Hispanics, as their flocking into the republic indisputably proves. The record of the US over two centuries shows that it has prospered -- and prospered best -- when it has consciously striven to be loyal to the universal principles enshrined in its Constitution. It survived such travail as the Civil War and went forward to greater strength and glory, because of commitment to those principles.

The economic and political drawing power of the US for those previously outside the experiment (because they were beyond the border) is directly related to all that. Does not Latin America as a whole have as much mineral and natural wealth as the US? Does not neighboring Mexico in particular have the promise of recently discovered reserves of oil and gas? Yet this is what Hispanics are deserting in their hundreds of thousands for an alternative in the US.

This writer's concluding thought is that those coming to the United States in search of the dream will destroy its possibilities if, in the process, they fail to recognize the peculiar nature of the solid foundation from which both the promise and fulfillment arise. No less destructive could be failure of those who have inherited the foundation to guard it and protect it as the basis on which the union has so far met and overcome every onslaught it has had to face -- both from without and, more important, from within.

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