Making progress in positions of power

Latino voting power is swelling in America. Still, even though two Latinos have been named to local government positions for the first time, don't expect a surge here yet.

According to Census Bureau projections, by 2050, one out of every four Americans will be Latinos – more than 100 million. The fastest-growing ethnicity in Americas, Latinos are surpassing blacks as the nation's largest minority group.

In Champaign County, the Latino population has grown from 1990's 3,485 to 2000's 5,203 to a 2004 estimate of 6,628, according to the Regional Planning Commission.

The city of Champaign's Latino population grew faster than Urbana's, more than doubling between 1990 and 2000.

Champaign City Council member Giraldo Rosales, elected in 2003, says that for all the growth in the Latino population, Champaign-Urbana lacks the urban environment that his ethnic group tends to find comfortable.

The area is decades behind Chicago in terms of Latino political power, said Rosales, who was born in Cuba and came to Chicago at the age of 7.

Minosca Alcantara, chosen this year to be the first Latina on the Champaign school board, says her ethnic group had nothing to do with her decision to seek a board seat.

Instead, "being a mother of kids that attended the school district was," she said.

"I was interested in promoting excellence and equity in the Unit 4 District schools. Since I see those factors as the responsibility of every citizen regardless of race, race was never part of the equation when I decided to apply for the position."

Rosales says Latinos are far from a monolithic, predictable group. People who came from Mexico tend to be Democrats, for instance, but Cubans have a strong conservative Republican streak that comes from their feelings about the regime of Fidel Castro.

Larry Gonzalez, director of the Washington, D.C., office of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, told The News-Gazette that Alcantara's story is not unusual in the story of Latino political power.

"In many towns, power starts with school board members, people getting engaged with their kids and the learning process. There's a huge potential for growth," he said.

Growing Latino power is a matter of mathematics as long as immigration continues.

According to the Roberto Hernandez Center at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Latino immigrant women have a fertility rate of 3.6 children; second-generation mothers have a rate of 2.5 children; and for third-generation women, it's 1.8 children. That is similar to the overall rate in the United States.

Gonzalez said the major parties cannot take Latinos for granted. "Most school board folks are non-partisan. They need to be harnessed by either party," he said.

Alcantara said political bodies "should be a microcosm of the nation."

"To some extent at least, it should mirror the population from which it is drawn. Since Latinos will represent the largest minority within the United States by 2050, achieving political representation will become paramount to bringing the issues that impact this population to the forefront," she said.

Issues that may attract Latino support include encouraging education and helping the family, she said.

"Most dual-language families, for example, are committed to bilingual education as a means of helping children (especially immigrant children) stay in school," she said.

Language is an overriding factor for Latinos, Rosales said. Some reject the label Hispanic because not all Latinos speak Spanish – Brazilians speak Portuguese, and throughout Latin America, Indian languages are still spoken.

That's even true in Chicago today, Rosales said. The city is not a melting pot where cultures mix into a soup. Mexicans, Dominicans and Cubans have their own neighborhoods, political leaders, churches, gangs and other institutions, he said.

A more overriding factor is the Roman Catholic church, Gonzalez says.

"It's an extremely large force. We still would not say Latinos are monolithic on the subject," he said. "But gay marriage in 2004 energized many people, and may have swung (Latino) voters toward (George W.) Bush."

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