In the midst of the greatest cultural and political crisis it has possibly ever faced, the U.S. Latino community is lost, constantly reactive in its positions and increasingly out of sync with itself at a time when it most needs strong, consistent and visionary leadership.
As the presidential primaries constantly belch some of the most anti-Latino rhetoric in history, we are left to ask: Where is a Latino Jesse Jackson when you need him?
The consequence of maintaining our leadership status quo will allow the cultural bullying to further devolve. It’s time to put our creative minds together and conduct a national search for a dynamic leader that will help us change history for the better.
- Manny Ruiz
This question will be a major topic of discussion in Miami this week at Hispanicize, the largest annual gathering of Latino bloggers, journalists, marketing execs and entertainers in the U.S.
Our community needs a unifying leader because U.S. Hispanics have a $1.2 trillion collective buying power but little to show for such economic muscle in terms of respect and dignity as Americans. Never has there been a greater need for somebody to make the case that when you demonize Latinos you are undermining the very demographic that will carry the American brand well into the future.
Repeating Same Script and Mistakes
As this crisis rages, what is most disturbing is that our collective community of more than 55 million – nearly one-fifth of the total U.S. population – is becoming dangerously numb to the almost daily race-baiting attacks splattered all over TV and in social media.
The usual Latino reaction, of course, is to direct our anger at Republicans. We blame Donald Trump or even the slightly more affable Ted Cruz for stirring anti-Latino hysteria across their whistle stop campaign tour of the nation. But Latinos’ image problem is hardly a Republican Party creation.
The presidency of Barack Obama has equally failed to improve Latinos’ perception. When he leaves office next January, he will own the almost Trumpian-type claim of having deported more undocumented Latinos than any other president before him, earning the dubious title of “Deporter in Chief.”
As the presidential election cycle continues to churn, and in the case of Latinos, burn, one can predict the next mistakes we will make as a community. Trump or Cruz will become the Republican villain and Hillary Clinton (or Bernie Sanders) will put a full court love fest for the growing Latino vote. Our activists, Spanish-language media, nonprofit leaders and celebrities will do the usual Democratic Party two-step and the vicious cycle of truly accomplishing nothing that’s lasting for our community will wash, rinse and repeat.
The Political Process Has Repeatedly Failed Us
The biggest mistake our community makes is investing enormous energy and belief in a political system that has repeatedly failed it. Yes, we have a Supreme Court justice, three U.S. Senators, 30 U.S. congress members, two governors and a potential presidential candidate — but none of this has made America more accepting of us.
Now more than ever before we NEED to stop whining and reacting to the continuous indignities being tossed about us and we need to find and anoint a unifying, national Latino leader ala Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson or even Al Sharpton, who will live, breathe, walk, talk and stand for our dignity as Hispanic-Americans.
Some Say a Unifying Leader is Impossible
There are many among us who think this is impossible. We not only haven’t had a Cesar Chavez-type leader since his passing 33 years ago but we historically also have a tendency to see leadership in a collectivistic fashion.
U.S. Latinos are extremely diverse, arising from more than 20 countries, and many leaders are needed throughout the USA to advance the rights, education and career trajectories of our ranks. But what I’m proposing is one leader should be entrusted to corporately represent us in a fashion that would get us heard.
Yes, Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Salvadorians, Peruvians and Venezuelans all have differing world views, opinions and needs, and this is a formidable challenge, but it can be achieved. We can do this if we Latino leaders bet on the power of unity, if we apply creative principles to work together and if U.S. Latino leaders from different nationalities come together to agree that the dangerous circumstances afoot in our country require that we figure this thing out right now.
The African-American Community as Our Model
If we want to keep things real, let’s briefly survey the incredible clout that our African-American brothers and sisters have amassed because it is instructive and inspirational.
For starters, despite the president’s historically poor support for Latinos, Obama is still rightfully a big achievement for the African-American community — and for all Americans who value diversity, including Latinos. OK, maybe that part of the comparison is not even fair because Obama is president of the United States.
But the much better comparison is what is anecdotally evident everywhere you turn to in our national culture and conscience. It doesn’t take a scientist to see that despite some lingering inequalities with the justice system, the African-American community today is very strong and more united than ever before civically, politically, culturally in entertainment and in journalism.(Even the cast of Saturday Night Live, a show that has rarely had any Latino cast members, currently features five very talented cast members out of 16 that are African-Americans).
As Latinos we applaud the strides that our African-American brothers and sisters have made but we should take a page from them too. The history of African-Americans is a witness to what can be achieved when you have a strong, moral voice to represent your collective community’s aspirations, rights and dignity. Before their deaths Martin Luther King and Malcolm X both served as strong lightning rods to empower Black Americans and, in the past 50 years, that torched has been carried on most notably by the likes of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Once he retires, Obama and his family will almost surely rightfully inherit part of that mantle.
A close African-American friend of mine recently put the cultural impact of Jackson and Sharpton in the Black community this way: “A lot of us may not like them but when they raise hell about something, watch out because everybody unites behind them.”
I asked him what were the odds that Trump would have been invited to host SNL if he had claimed Black Americans were rapists like he did of most Mexicans. “Oh, that simply wouldn’t have happened! There is no way in the world Jesse or Al would have allowed that to happen. No way.”
Over breakfast the other day, a respected Latina leader told me that a consortium of Hispanic leaders recently met in San Francisco at the same time that Jesse Jackson was in town to harangue Silicon Valley tech giants to hire more minority employees.
Jackson walked out of his Silicon Valley powwow with a bounty of assurances. The Latino leaders couldn’t even secure a meeting.
Our Leader Has to Be Fully Devoted
All of which brings us back to our community’s core problem: we aren’t harnessing our power and are instead over-depending on politicians.
The political parties have proven time and time again to be the false hope for Latinos because politicians generally cannot – and probably legally should not – serve the interests of Latinos. We have political-related Latino institutes that are grooming the next generation of Hispanic American leaders but these times call for a different leader than the ones that are continuously being fed into the Democratic and Republican political machines.
One would say this special leader is probably inside one of the many great civil rights or non profit organizations that serve our community. That’s likely true, but if that person must be employed to do this, they clearly cannot perform this role because what we need is someone who is singularly devoted to the idea of a fiercely independent movement.
Leaders from nonprofit and civil rights organizations are important pillars of our community who do great work but if they were to assume this role they won’t be successful because they cannot serve two masters: the nonprofit institution and the broader interests of Latinos. Nonprofit organizations leaders can’t play this role effectively because corporate and political interests will automatically short-circuit the boldness, credibility and fierce independence that a unifying, fully-sold-out-to-the-cause leader needs to have. The same conflict of interest situation plagues elected officials. They can’t serve two masters and do this the right way.
To unite and harness the full untapped power of the mighty Latino community, to galvanize the many coalitions that must be built, to get down into the deepest trenches of the Herculean task at hand, to consistently call things out as plainly as they must, our Latino community should find a person who has a one-track mind. His or her full attention and allegiance has to be razor-focused in a way that keeping a duo-job in a nonprofit, business, an entertainment career or political office cannot.
As Latinos, let us do more than have empty talks because the consequence of maintaining our leadership status quo will allow the cultural bullying to further devolve. It’s time to put our creative minds together and conduct a national search for a dynamic leader that will help us change history for the better. Our community deserves this and we must do this NOW.
Manny Ruiz is the Cuban-American CEO of Hispanicize Media Group, the parent company of the annual Hispanicize event that is the nation's largest annual gathering of digital creators, journalists, marketing execs and entertainers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @MannyRuiz on Twitter.