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.
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.
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.
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.