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.
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As Latinos have become geographically and culturally diverse, a new generation of leaders has appeared, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois. These politicos owe their election not to their heritage but to their ability to deliver on promises to all voters, regardless of ethnicity. They also tend to be known regionally, not nationally.Skip to next paragraph
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Greater political engagement
At 47 million strong, the sheer size of the US Hispanic population makes it impossible for us to rally around a single leader. Justice Sotomayor is probably the closest we will come to a unifying figure, but she is not a leader. She is a role model.
Hispanics no longer feel the need for a leader of our own because we are assimilating so successfully. During the 2008 primaries, I took it as a sign of progress that Latinos overwhelmingly viewed Hillary Rodham Clinton as "one of us," just like my parents' generation used to feel toward Chávez. This shows we have joined the mainstream of society, and that's a good thing.
The midterm elections provided an interesting snapshot of Latino voters. Latinos turned out in record numbers for Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, which helped save the Senate for Democrats. Although two Hispanic Republicans were elected as governors – Brian Sandoval in Nevada and Susana Martinez in New Mexico – both did so without strong Latino support. Meanwhile, in Florida, Republican Marco Rubio sailed to a Senate victory buoyed by both the tea party and Cuban-Americans. How's that for a diverse electorate?
In the old days, Chávez was a common cause for Latinos because he was all we had. Now, with Latinos more politically engaged than ever before, we are choosing our own leaders, be they Hispanic or not. That's true self-determination – and César Chávez would be proud.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and columnist in New York City.