Kansas Latinos up their political visibility

Back in the 1960s, when he was a child migrant worker picking peas for 50 cents per 100-pound sack and living in fear that his Mexican-born parents would be deported, Elías García never imagined that one day he would be a leader of Latinos. And he never foresaw a time when the Latino culture would enter mainstream America with white teenage girls shrieking over Puerto Rican pop star Ricky Martin and Anglo presidential hopefuls greeting crowds on the political stump in halting Spanish. But that’s what has happened.

As chairman of the Kansas Democratic Hispanic Caucus, serving his second two-year term, García finds himself in a year in which candidates are wooing Latinos as the new swing voters, portrayed in the media as “the soccer moms of the 2000 elections.” The sheer numbers of a burgeoning population — Latinos are expected to represent one-fourth of the American populace by 2050 — command attention and respect. “Demography, in good measure, is political destiny in the United States,” states a Latino voting report put out by the Chicago-based United States Hispanic Leadership Institute (USHLI). And García is hanging his hopes for the future of the country’s Latino community not on the traditional Latino enclaves of Florida, California, and along the Mexican border but instead on the heartland.

“I think we (the Midwest’s Latinos) are gonna be the savior of this country. We’re gonna learn by other people’s mistakes, like California, like Texas, like those places that all this negativeness and all this social upheaval has happened in the last 10 years, in the ’90s, with this anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic, anti-Latino drama that has somehow embraced their whole states. I think we have learned from those lessons,” García says, sitting in his office at city hall in Topeka, where he handles civil rights complaints as executive director of the city’s Human Relations Commission.

If García speaks passionately about anti-Hispanic attitudes, it is because he knows what it’s like to be the target of racism and bigotry. He thinks back to his childhood and the shoddy way white Americans treated his family. “I was a kid, and kids know what’s right and what’s wrong. And you know it’s wrong when somebody’s cheating you in a store, calling you names, or when the Mexican seating is upstairs on the balcony as opposed to the main floor, when you see signs about Mexicans and dogs, and that sort of thing,” García says.

But that racism was not the worst of it. Nor were the backbreaking 18-hour days he spent hoeing tomato fields in Colorado as a teenager, hunched over the plants because bosses would not provide long-handle hoes. His darkest childhood moments were watching his undocumented parents be so distraught about their legal status that they were afraid to look anyone in the eye, García says. “That, more than anything, led me to where I am today in terms of my fighting for the rights of others so other people won’t have to go through that ever again.” Such memories pushed Garcia to succeed. He assembled mobile homes in a factory to put himself through college at Wichita State University, and now he has a master’s degree in education.

García’s quest to help other Latinos centers on state government. He points to a recent victory against what he calls anti-Hispanic legislation, the defeat of an “English-only” bill in Kansas. Twenty-five states, including Missouri and the heavily Latino states of Florida and California, have declared English their states’ “official language.” Latinos were able to defeat the Kansas bill, under García’s leadership, by building coalitions with other groups, like the deaf, who would also be affected by such a law, and military veterans who viewed the law as an infringement on basic rights. Now García is promoting a state bill sponsored by state Rep. David Haley, a Kansas City, Kan., Democrat, that calls for an independent study to determine whether police officers stop Hispanic and African-American motorists in disproportionate numbers. The bill dealing with racial profiling passed the House in late February.

García calls Kansas and surrounding states “the new seaports,” places that are drawing diverse groups of Latino immigrants — Argentines, Colombians, Nicaraguans, Cubans, Mexicans — who work as executives for American companies, attend universities, own small businesses, or work construction and labor in fields or meat processing plants. Some are documented. Some are not.

A state-by-state compilation of Latino voter information, The Almanac of Latino Politics 2000, recently released by USHLI, shows that Kansas’ Hispanic population, now more than 130,000, is expected to increase more than 100 percent in the next 25 years. (For Missouri, the current Hispanic population is approximately 82,000 with an expected 109 percent increase in the next 25 years.) The number of Kansas Hispanics of voting age is 90,900, or 4 percent of the total voting-age population, and the number who are American citizens is 54,500, or 3 percent, according to USHLI’s almanac, which USHLI leaders tout as the most comprehensive compilation of Latino political data to date. The challenge for García and other Hispanic leaders is knitting these diverse Latino groups together in support of common causes. García says “blood and roots” are the intangibles that link, for example, a fourth-generation, middle-class Mexican-American who doesn’t speak Spanish with a black immigrant from the Dominican Republic with a cosmopolitan Argentine who speaks Spanish with Italian rhythms that reveal that country’s ties to Europe.

The Latinos in the United States with origins in the 20-plus Spanish-speaking countries of North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean are like a family, García says, likening them to himself and his 14 siblings.

“We’re a large family, right? And we dog each other. You know, some of the biggest, meanest fights I’ve ever been into were with my brothers and my sisters, right? And I can fight with them, I can cuss them, I can do this, I can do that to my brothers and sisters, but nobody else had better. I would go down defending them, to this day. So that’s what it’s like,” García says. That filial spirit is what García says will help leaders rally Latinos around immigration issues, labor issues, education, affirmative action, and local, state, and national Latino-friendly candidates.

“Hispanics will elect the next president of the United States — most definitely,” García says, smiling when he talks about the tactics that politicians have used lately to win support from Hispanic voters. García points out that Texas governor and presidential candidate George W. Bush and brother Jeb Bush, governor of Florida, both Republicans, counted on traditionally Democratic Latino voters for their wins. On a campaign stop in south Texas before he was elected to his second term as governor, George W. Bush referred to himself as “Jorge” Bush and handed out buttons and stickers inscribed “Juntos Podemos,” or “Together, We Can” in Spanish. García calls such tactics “very effective but harmless.”

“It’s a courtship of sorts, and in any courtship you want to make the person you’re courting feel better or feel good or feel special. What you have is (candidates) risking — it’s a risk, right? If you’re trying to say, ‘Buenos dias. Como estas? Muy bien,’ well, that’s not gonna come out like that. It’s gonna come out ‘Buenows deeas,'” García says, chuckling as he contorts his impeccable Mexican accent into a gringo drawl. “You know what I’m saying? And it just gets a roar from the crowd, from the Hispanics, but it endears at the same time. It says to them that you’re trying to outreach, you’re trying to communicate, you’re trying to show that you want to establish contact. And certainly that goes a long way.”

Politicians’ embracing Latino voters is common in heavily Latino areas and will become a familiar phenomenon in the Midwest as well, says Dr. Juan Andrade, president and co-founder of USHLI, which organizes voter registration and education drives and Latino leadership training. That’s because, he says, political analysts predict that in the 2000 presidential election, the states with the largest number of electoral votes will be split down the middle between the candidates, with Texas and Florida going to Bush, and California and New York going to Vice-President Al Gore.

“With two major electoral votes on each side, the battle has to shift to a new place, which is, in my opinion, the Midwest,” Andrade says. “The Midwest is where the election is going to be decided.” In historically bipartisan states, statewide elections can be decided by margins as small as 5,000 votes, Andrade says. Hispanics could play a major role in those swing votes, he says, pointing out that Hispanic voter registration has increased 164 percent nationally over the past 20 years, compared with 31 percent in the general population. Hispanic voter turnout has increased 135 percent in that time period, and 21 percent in the general population.

García says one congressional race in particular will increase Latino visibility in the Midwest. The Kansas Democratic Hispanic Caucus is backing Carlos Nolla, a Latino attorney from Wichita who is running against Republican U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt for the 4th District congressional seat Tiahrt has held since 1994. García calls the conservative Tiahrt, who grew up on a farm in North Dakota and puts forth a wholesome “family man” image, posing in softly lit photographs of himself, his wife, and their three children on a Web site, a “JFK Jr. kinda guy — good looking, young, very articulate, charismatic — an easy sell.”

“It’s a David and Goliath thing. (Nolla is) running against Todd Tiahrt — (there’s) a lot of special-interest money there, an incumbent, a big war chest. I think we can make a statement. I think that’s what Nolla is, to be quite truthful. We all want him to win, and we all are gonna do everything we can to help him win. But I think the most important thing that he will do is make a statement that the Latino influence in Kansas politics has arrived. And it’s gonna scare the hell out of Todd Tiahrt,” García says. “Mainstream candidates like Tiahrt, right-wing candidates with special interests, are the candidates who underestimate the Latino community.” Tiahrt was spending time with his family and could not be reached for comment, according to a spokesman.

Nolla, whose parents are from Puerto Rico, is counting on the support of Latino voters. “I do see the Latino community as a sleeping giant that is awakening,” Nolla says, stressing that as Latinos become assimilated into life in the United States, more of them want to be active in their communities and run for office. Nolla says that at a federal level, education is an important issue. In particular, he wants to decrease class sizes so students get more individual attention. It’s the key, he says, to lowering the high school dropout rate and the teen pregnancy rate among Latinos.

García says that leaders like Nolla and himself are needed to navigate this new territory as Latinos grow in numbers, gain political power, and assimilate as Americans.

“These are exciting times,” García says. “We’re about to cross the threshold, and I think that it is really going to be imperative that we have solid, sound, reasonable leadership in our community that’s going to help us build bridges to the mainstream and allow communication and dialogue and education on both sides.”

Contact Allie Johnson at 816-218-6783 or allie.johnson@pitch.com.

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