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Over the years, across the multi-generational arc of the Latino community, a common question has been heard: Where are our leaders?
This has been manifested in many ways. For example, we are so diverse as to defy the very idea of unity. What does a college educated Argentinean have in common with a Guatemalan farm laborer? They may not even speak the same language. It follows that no one leader could ever claim to speak for all of us. If so, does that make us less of a community?
But when leaders arise, we have not been kind to them. Often we are more willing to stab them in the back than get behind them. The old saying that no lid is needed for the basket of Latino crabs (since we yank each other down) is all too true. To draw from personal experience in the world of publishing, my worst critics, litigants, and nay-sayers have all been Latinos.
Even if are our own worst enemies, why do we find it so difficult to stand up for each other? A case in point is some of the vicious anti-immigrant rhetoric spewed by the current occupant of the White House. Again, some of my most heated arguments about these insults have been with Latinos rationalizing what was said, or even agreeing with it. Why did our leaders not stand up for us?
Apparently, they were too busy shooting themselves. In recent weeks, two of the most mainstream Latino advocacy groups, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC), have lined up in circular firing squads. The facts in each case are unique, for to paraphrase Tolstoy, all unhappy families are so in their own way. Yet in both cases, a long-serving leader resigned amid threatened litigation and wild conspiracy theories. While LULAC staff members revolted against their president, at the USHCC there were allegations of fraud, sexual harassment, and blatant conflicts of interest.
None of this was remotely of interest to the vast majority of Latinos around the country, who are largely unaware of such organizations claiming to represent them. But it provided considerable gossip for the Latino activists, lobbyists, and journalists in Washington, DC known as the Cucaracha Circuit. In the time of Trump, these organizations have struggled for relevancy, having little or no access to the White House. Is the only choice between irrelevancy and embarrassment?
But as all this was happening, a true leader emerged. The tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL where 17 teachers and students were brutally gunned down, shocked the nation. While elected officials offered only “thoughts and prayers,” a group of students who survived took action, and demanded a ban on assault weapons and other gun control measures. One of the most poised and visible was Emma Gonzalez, the Cuban American teenager profiled by Roberto Santiago (p. 12).
At the massive March for Our Lives rally in Washington, DC on March 24, attended by nearly a million people, Emma took the podium: “Since the time that I came out here, it has been 6 minutes and 20 seconds, the shooter has ceased shooting and will soon abandon his rifle and blend in with the students so he can walk free for an hour before arrest,” she said. “Fight for your lives before it is someone else’s job.”
She and her fiercely committed, media-savvy classmates remain undaunted despite being dismissed by lawmakers and demonized by NRA supporters. Most recently, our favorite bigot in Congress. Rep. Steve King (who once compared the calves of young Mexican immigrants to canteloupes) insulted her Cuban heritage. One might ask, “Have you no shame?” but we already know the answer.
The contrast between Emma and her Cucaracha counterparts is laughable. The Parkland students are not Gen X or Millennials but Gen Z, the generation that will be running things before long, so the outlook is good in the years to come. A change of the guard is always welcome, so the departures at LULAC and USHCC might lead to positive change at these and other advocacy groups. But the lesson to be drawn for Latinos is that we must look for leadership where we can find it. Our leaders will emerge in response to the challenges we face as a community, just as did Emma, if we have confidence in ourselves. #NeverAgain