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Opinion

US Latinos have no single leader. And that's a good thing.

We used to have César Chávez – because he was all we had. Now Latinos rally around no one unifying figure because we are an increasingly diverse population choosing our own leaders, Hispanic or not. That's the mark of self-determination and true progress.

By Raul A. Reyes / December 7, 2010



New York

César Chávez loomed large in my childhood home. Like virtually all Mexican-American households in the late 1960s and early 1970s, my entire family observed his boycotts in support of the United Farm Workers. Even as a kid, I knew Mr. Chávez was "one of us," and he was fighting for justice. This made up for the fact that I went years without eating grapes.

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Since then, the nation's Latino leadership has evolved. Or has it?

Recently, the Pew Hispanic Center released the results of a nationwide bilingual survey of Latinos. Asked whom they considered the most important Latino leader today, 64 percent said they didn't know; 10 percent said "no one." Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the third most-popular answer. She was mentioned by 7 percent.

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Pew noted that Hispanics do not have a unifying figure comparable to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, or Chávez in his heyday. This led many in the media to speculate that the nation's largest and fastest-growing minority group is suffering from a lack of leadership.

No leader doesn't mean no leadership

Nothing could be further from the truth. For Hispanics, our lack of a national leader has less to do with our need for such a figure and more to do with our maturation as an electorate.

A generation ago, there were far fewer Latinos in the US and most were concentrated in California and the Southwest. Besides the relatively small Cuban population in Florida, Hispanics were overwhelmingly Mexican, either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Chávez emerged as the preeminent Hispanic leader because there were no Hispanic governors, members of Congress, or senators. In championing the farm workers, Chávez filled the leadership void of his time and became the face of our nascent civil rights movement.

Today, we Latinos are not as homogenous as we once were. While we share a common ancestry, we have differences rooted in religion, citizenship, degree of assimilation, preferred language, education, income, and political affiliation. What's more, Hispanics are dispersed all over the country. Between 2000 and 2008, the Hispanic population in Georgia rose by 80 percent. In Minnesota, it rose by 86 percent.

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