GROWING like crazy and hungry for power, the Hispanic population in the United States has found an ally in - or at least an overlapping of interests with - Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Mexico's president visited Chicago, home to this nation's second-largest Mexican-American community, Wednesday and Thursday while in the US to negotiate and promote a free-trade agreement.
Latino leaders here said before Mr. Salinas arrived that they would use his visit to urge legal Mexican-American residents to become naturalized US citizens.
Voter registration drives are uncovering ``an overwhelmingly large number of permanent residents ineligible to vote because of a lack of citizenship,'' says Daniel Perez of the Los Angeles-based National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. NALEO concentrates its efforts in the states with the largest proportions of Hispanics, which it calls ``the big nine'' - Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Texas.
In Chicago, where Hispanics are 20 percent of the residents but only 8 percent of the voters, NALEO recently opened an office to do nothing but encourage naturalization.
The United Neighborhood Organization, a predominantly Hispanic group, plans to launch a naturalization drive in Chicago late this year. The Salinas visit, UNO executive director Daniel Solis said, would be an opportunity to talk about the effort. The Mexican president would ``understand that this is going on.''
``We don't necessarily want him to comment on it,'' Mr. Solis said, ``because we recognize that it would be very difficult for a president of another country to encourage citizens to naturalize elsewhere.'' Especially when the purpose is political, he might have added, although the Mexican consul here has endorsed the effort.
``Just making that information available, and [Salinas's] being there in the audience, is going to send a strong message to the Mexican constituency in the city that it's a positive thing for people to become naturalized,'' Solis said.
UNO executives say that naturalization could result by 1994 in 160,000 new Hispanic citizens. If historical patterns hold, 80 percent will cast ballots in elections, while turnout among other citizens can be much lower. ``A naturalized citizen is a better voter,'' says Bill Gilseth, director of UNO Southwest.
The drive is being delayed until fall to take advantage of the expected change in naturalization from a judicial to an administrative procedure.
``If we had to rely on a judicial naturalization process, the court system here in Chicago probably couldn't handle more than 20,000 cases a year,'' Solis says. But under the coming system, UNO could fill a football stadium ``and naturalize them all in one swoop.''
The US-Mexico trade talks come as state legislatures, scrutinizing population data from last year's decenniel census, prepare to redraw political boundaries. City councils, county officials, state senators and representatives, judges, and members of Congress will be elected from the new voting districts.
Hispanic organizations, citing blatant past discrimination, want to make sure those boundaries are drawn to create Hispanic majorities wherever possible.
``Of course, this is a political process in which we have to form some coalitions,'' says Orestes Aguillon, research director at the Midwest-Northeast Voter Registration Education Project in Chicago. MNVREP wants to ``give ammunition to our representatives to be able to enter into meaningful tradeoffs with other groups.''
Even though redistricting will be the focus of MALEO's June national conference, the organization is so excited about free trade that it has invited Salinas to be the keynote speaker.
``He is a vital part of what we are trying to accomplish,'' says Mr. Perez, MALEO's director of media relations. Free trade, he says, has the potential to reduce illegal immigration by improving conditions south of the border. And that would help Hispanic elected officials, for whom undocumented workers pose a dilemma.
``If I'm a Mexican-American office holder, and Mexican people are coming into my community illegally, though they can't vote for me, though they have no political say, culturally I am obligated to these people,'' Perez explains.
Wednesday night, during his speech here to the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Salinas received a burst of applause when he remarked that ``today we want Mexicans to remain in Mexico.''
Copies of his speech contained the additional comment that ``our principal objective is to export products and not the labor offered by Mexican workers.''
But with US labor unions arrayed against a free trade pact, ``I'm not sure that it's going to pass,'' Solis says. Meanwhile, the Hispanic community is focusing on redistricting.
Nationally, the Hispanic population grew 53 percent during the decade, passing the 22 million mark. NALEO reckons there are 4,003 elected Hispanic officials in the US. That's ``a scant 1 percent'' of total elected officeholders in the US, Perez says. ``There's a long way to go.''
In Illinois, Hispanics represent four Chicago wards, two state representative districts, and one state Senate district. ``I would predict that if there's fair redistricting that we would at least double our representation across the board, and also pick up the first Hispanic congressional district,'' says Reuben Castillo, regional director of MALDEF.
Illinois will lose two congressional seats in redistricting. Republicans have already given up one and expect Democrats to give up the other. Chicago would be the logical place to create a Hispanic district, but a meeting of eight Chicago congressmen called by Rep. Dan Rostenkowski found none willing to lose his job. So they concluded that a Hispanic district could not be created.
Chicago Hispanics were outraged, but their cause is far from lost since it's the state legislature that by June 30 must produce new maps. The governor and speaker of the house have endorsed creation of a Hispanic congressional district.