OPINION: Why Not Me?

When ‘Saturday Night Live’ alumnus Al Franken, aka Stuart Smalley, wrote a 1999 faux presidential campaign biography called ‘Why Not Me?’ it is safe to say that not many readers thought Franken would actually be elected to the United States Senate nine short years later. 

He might not have taken it seriously, either. Having written satirically about the ease with which a person of less than ordinary qualifications, dumb luck and extraordinary ambition could master the electoral system, Franken apparently decided to give it a try in real life. And after a tortuous, seven-month long recount, re-recount, and re-re-recount process that endured a legal challenge all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court, Al was finally declared winner over incumbent senator Norm Coleman.

I thought of ‘Why Not Me?’ this week after the Pew Hispanic Center released findings from its 2010 National Survey of Latinos indicating that those living in the United States have no national leader. Conducted prior to November’s mid-term elections, the survey found that when asked to name “the most important Latino leader in the country today,” nearly two-thirds (64 percent) had no opinion at all: Nada. 

The person most mentioned by the one-third who indicated any preference was newly anointed Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor (7 percent). Chicago-area Puerto Rican-born Congressman Luís Gutiérrez is next at 5 percent, followed by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa with 3 percent and Jorge Ramos, the anchor of ‘Noticiero Univisión,’ the Spanish-language network’s prime time newscast, at 2 percent.     

It was Jorge’s inclusion in the top five that caught my eye. While there is no denying either his journalistic credentials, his enduring success or his commitment to pressing social issues like compassionate, comprehensive immigration reform, the fact is that Jorge’s audience, like that of his network, is primarily among the more recently arrived or older Latinos whose primary language is still Spanish.

Jorge aside, more to the point of Franken’s ‘Why Not Me?’ the question of why not Jennifer López; or Yankee slugger Alex Rodríguez; or quarterback Mark Sánchez; or Afghanistan Deputy Commander Lt. Gen. David Rodríguez, or Gloria Estefan; or Congresswomen Nydia Velázquez; or former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutiérrez; or actor/humanitarian Edward James Olmos; or funnymen Cheech Marin or George López; or one of the Díaz-Balart family of congressmen and news anchors; or Antonio Banderas; or César Millán, the dog whisperer or, indeed, the dog in ‘Beverly Hills Chihuahua’; or Senator-elect Mario Rubio; or one of the other newly minted Spanish Republicans; or powerful radio host Piolín; or, dare I, why not me?

The reason none of us polled even a paltry one percent is that we weren’t on the ballot. Further, unlike Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski, our constituents weren’t given the opportunity to write us in. No, the eight named candidates for National Latino Leader (NLL), including Sotomayor, Ramos, Villaraigosa, and Congressman Gutiérrez, included only New Mexico lame duck governor Bill Richardson, the heroic co-founder of the UFW Dolores Huerta, Tucson-area congressman Raül Grijalva and Janet Murguía of La Raza. 

All candidates were selected by the Pew Hispanic Center, and the fact that of the eight only Justice Sotomayor and anchorman Ramos were familiar to even a majority of poll respondents shows that the ballot could have been crafted more relevantly.

Still, Pew’s point is clear, although dated. There is no recognized NLL because until recently there was barely a recognized Latino community. It was only in 1980 that the U.S. Census declared the warring terms Latino and Hispanic to be essentially synonymous; including under the same broad ethnic banner all the disparate national sub-groupings from Latin America, the Caribbean and Spain; from Mexicans to Cubans to Argentineans. 

Yet, I routinely debate folks from the hood who insist that they’re Puerto Rican or Dominican rather than Latino. And when I suggest that we should adopt the informal ‘brown’ to describe our folk, the way African-Americans declared themselves ‘black’ back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, I still sometimes generate outrage from those who consider themselves white.

There are also differences on social priorities between those who are native-born or those who are immigrant. And while the percentage of immigrants is rapidly diminishing, those foreign-born still make up a whopping 53 percent of the entire U.S. Latino community, according to Pew.

But times are changing. While certain issues like immigration obviously impact some national groups more directly than others, over recent years a common identity has been emerging: A growing sense that we Hispanics are at least primos, cousins joined by our parents’ or grandparents’ language, historical antecedents, food, family traditions, parallel cultures and social strengths and weaknesses. 

Under the Hispanic umbrella there is a growing sense of shared destiny and common cause. As examples: about two-thirds of us believe discrimination against Latinos is “a major problem” according to Pew, up from 47 percent who held those feelings in 2002. The relative lack of educational achievement is considered a common denominator from coast-to-coast. 

Seven out of 10 Latino Arizonans oppose that state’s awful new immigration law, and two-thirds of the Latino vote went for Democrats in the mid-term elections, and so on.

Consensus on social issues aside, back to the lack of a National Latino Leader (NLL). César Chávez is the one most often cited as our Martin Luther King Jr. Indeed, it is common to see roadways, parks and community centers named after both historical giants in the same city or town, testament to America’s emerging ethnic sensibility. 

Yet I’m old enough to remember how both legends were attacked and denigrated during their life-times. I loved Saint César and made him my first guest of my first national talk show, ‘Good Night America,’ back in 1973. But I had to forgive him the fact that for a time he opposed illegal immigration. Look it up.  

Leading by example, a National Latino Leader will eventually be heard, if not necessarily heeded. If Stuart Smalley can get anointed, why not one of us? Joke aside, the leaders for our time will emerge when Hispanics with courage, powerful voices and clear visions of what our community can do for our country speak out. 

But as with Chávez and King, you may not recognize them when you see them.