Hispanic voters develop growing voice in city's political, economic affairs

The Hispanic population in the United States has been likened to a sleeping giant -- large in number, but not yet exercising a proportionate amount of political and economic power.

In San Antonio the giant is stirring. And the growing activism of Mexican-Americans here have brought them into a solic working partnership with the Anglo community to ensure that whatever economic prosperity the city enjoys will be shared by all.

That Hispanics have clout in San Antonio is no surprise. They make up a majority, 53 percent, of the population. However, for many years they have suffered the highest unemployment and lowest family income in the city.

San Antonio has long been the economic focal point of south Texas, serving as the major destination of job-seeking migrants from the rural and often poor US-Mexico border region areas. With few urban skills, many of these migrants joined the city's ranks of unemployed, or the large numbers of workers here that economists consider "underemployed."

Scarce jobs and low wages brought frustration and confrontation with the business community in 1977. Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS), a Mexican-American neighborhood organization, charged that a recruitment drive to bring more industry to San Antonio was making the city's low wage rates a key selling point. The San Antonio Economic Development Foundation, which ran the recruitment campaign, denies that charge.

While that conflict seemed at the time to mark a serious setback to the city's plans for economic growth, it is now viewed as a turning point.

"COPS made it clear to the city's power brokers that the Mexican-American community wanted certain things, and the business community quickly saw that the expectations could only be met with economic growth that emphasized good paying jobs," assessed Henry Cisneros, a city council member.

Mayor Lila Cockrell says it was a "shakedown period" and the city has emerged better off as a result. "The community is working with common goals now," she asserted.

Another developments in 1977 that changed the city was the implementation of a new system of electing city council members by district instead of at-large. It brought greater Hispanic political power because they are the dominant population in a number of neighborhood districts. Mexican-Americans now hold four of the seats on the 11-member city council, but have held a majority in the past.

The upshot of all this has been a Mexican- American population that is more active politically and thus more influential on economic matters.

Andy Hernandez of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project here says Hispanic voters now compose 40 percent of the city's registered vote, compared with 33 percent in 1974. He attributes the increased political participation to the new district election system, and to a "growing sophistication" among Mexican-Americans on political matters.

In organizing a recent voter registration drive, Mr. Hernandez was surprised to find he had a mailing list of over 300 Mexican-American community leaders, representing neighborhood groups of one sort or another. "Four years ago we had maybe 100," he said.

Organizations like COPS are using their clout to not only encourage the kind of high technology and manufacturing firms the city hopes to attract to San Antonio, but to bring more of those jobs into the inner city. Carmen Badillo, president of COPS, says this is needed to begin revitalizing neighborhoods and help focus attention on the need for better housing, public services, and schools.

Councilman Cisneros looks with approval on what he views as an upbeat attitude in the Mexican-American community. "They are optimistic and there is a new wave that is not concerned only with (political) power, but with attaining the (economic) tools to make life better."

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