december coverChanging of the Guard

About ten years ago, not long after I moved to Texas to launch a syndicated column and write for the Dallas Morning News, I went on local public television and wound up in a generational firefight. I’d been invited to join a discussion about Latino politics, past and present, alongside two middle-aged Latino leaders who cut their teeth in the Chicano Movement of the 1970’s.

One of these veteranos was Jose Angel Gutierrez, the founder of La Raza Unida---an independent political party that challenged both Republicans and Democrats to do more for Latinos by running candidates in state and federal elections. Gutierrez was considered part of the “big four” of Latino leaders, along with Cesar Chavez, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, and Reis Tijerina. When the party was over, most of the La Raza Unida faithful loyally folded back into the Democratic Party. These days, Gutierrez teaches at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he enjoys rattling nativists with comments about how white Americans are “wetting their pants with fear” over changing demographics.

I’m no stranger to provocative comments myself, but I enjoy aiming them at both the right and the left. And I got on Gutierrez’ bad side when I said that while the last generation of Latino baby boomers has the benefit of experience, they also carry around anger and bitterness since “all the experiences are bad.”

Offended, Gutierrez tried to put me in my place.

“All I can say is that it’s too bad the [Texas] Rangers aren’t here,” Gutierrez said. “Because what you need is a good ass-whuppin’, boy!”

I love telling that story. Gutierrez and I are now friends, not withstanding our occasional political differences. But at our first meeting, we couldn’t have been further apart, and much of what separated us had to do with when we came of age. The generation you belong to can be as impactful on your character, values, and worldview as your race, class, religion, upbringing or family.

And so it is that the nation’s 47 million Latinos must reconcile an interesting paradox when it comes to age. In our families, we respect the elders. But, in politics, we worship at the altar of youth.

Many political historians trace the birth of Latino political power to the “Viva Kennedy” clubs in the 1960 election. John F. Kennedy---a mythical figure in many Latino households---was just 43 when he was elected president. A generation later, Henry G. Cisneros was just 33 when he became the first Mexican-American mayor of San Antonio. Federico Pena was 36 when he was elected Denver’s first Latino mayor in 1983 and Xavier L. Suarez was 37 when became the first Cuban-born mayor of Miami.

Elsewhere in the political world, you’ll hear candidates attacked by more seasoned opponents for---in the zinger that President Ronald Reagan hurled at Democrat Walter Mondale in one of their debates in 1984---their “youth and inexperience” But youth and inexperience aren’t automatic disqualifiers for many Latino voters. Perhaps they understand better than most that politics is a young person’s game, and they naturally assume that most young candidates have more energy, optimism, and daring than those who have been in the game for the last twenty years.

And so now that Barack Obama has been elected president of the United States many Latinos have begun wondering aloud about whether their turn will soon be at hand and whether there is a young “Latino-bama” out there who will one day make history as the nation’s first Latino/a president.

There are certainly some strong prospects on the bench. I’m talking about smart and charismatic young Latino/a elected officials from around the country who may well have bright futures and many more barriers to shatter before they’re through. What makes them tick? How do they see their place in the world? And, just as importantly, what makes them so different from earlier generations of Latino elected officials?

This isn’t just idle curiosity. As we embark on what I’ve called the Latino Century, great things are expected of the nation’s largest minority, and the generation expected to deliver on much of it is the so-called Millennial Generation born between 1982 and 2001. We may also see quite a bit of accomplishments from those at the tail end of Generation X, born between 1961 and 1981.

Previous generations, such as the “Greatest Generation” that fought World War II (1901-1924) and the “Baby Boomers” (1943–1960) broke the mold for what Latino leaders consider credible, marketable, and electable. They couldn’t always produce the proper prototype, but the blueprints they left behind are helpful for those who follow. You need someone who inspires Latinos without threatening non-Latinos. You need someone who appreciates one’s ethnic background without being totally defined by it. You need someone who isn’t bitter over how Latinos have been treated in this country but also doesn’t gloss over that fact in order to be accepted by the mainstream. And, last but not least, you need someone who combines the sunny optimism of where we want to go as a people and as a country with an appreciation for where we’ve been.

Bearing that in mind, if you’re trying to handicap this race and come up with the name of the Latino-bama, some early prospects to keep an eye on over the next ten years or so are Andrew Crespo, the first Latoino elected president of the Harvard Law Review; NALEO chair Rafael Anchia; Arizona lawmaker Rebecca Rios; Senate candidate Marco Rubio; and Texas state representative Joaquin Castro (see sidebar, below).

As they say in the Bible Belt, that is already enough to say grace over. But there are two other Latino leaders that are worth paying special attention to. On the surface, they couldn’t be more different. One is a Democrat, one a Republican. One is in the Southwest, and the other in the Northeast. One serves in state government, the other in local government. And yet I found that these two have more common than you might think.

Marilinda Garcia, 26, was elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives in 2006. A cum laude graduate of Tufts University, she is also an accomplished artist who plays the harp and studied at the New England Conservatory of Music. A low-tax Republican who lost her reelection in November 2008, she won her seat back five months later in an April 2009 special election after a colleague resigned. Garcia is currently pursuing a Master’s in Public Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Julian Castro, 35, is the recently elected Democratic mayor of San Antonio. A graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Law School, Castro earlier served four years on the San Antonio City Council. Compared to Barack Obama as early as May 2005, Castro is---along with his brother, Joaquin---a protegé of Henry Cisneros, who now serves as a consigliere to a new generation of Latino leaders.

Garcia grew up in the Boston-area, near the members of her mother’s extended family who hail from Italy. But when her parents made up their minds to provide their children with a slower pace, they realized a move was in order.

“We decided to jump the state line and ended up in New Hampshire,” Garcia told me.

She is the middle child of an accomplished brood---her older brother is a doctor, her younger sister an accomplished flutist who just left for Rome on a Fulbright Scholarship. She also credits her parents---especially her mother---with giving her the political bug.

“My parents were involved in politics, in terms of how it affected their daily lives as citizens,” she recalled. “My mom was fairly active in the trenches. She’d go to rallies when presidential candidates would come to New Hampshire. And I would go along with her, so I remember being quite young and holding up signs for a political candidate, or going to help out in the phone bank or stuffing envelopes.”

At first, Garcia acknowledges, she wasn’t always able to articulate what she liked about one candidate or another. “Then, going into college, I became more sophisticated and started exploring my own beliefs and political leanings,” she said. “And while I was there I joined the Republican club at Tufts.”

Next hurdle: Convincing herself she could be a candidate. “The idea to run for office had never crossed my mind,” she said. “Upon graduation, at 23, I found that I would be working part-time and I wasn’t really convinced about what I wanted to do for grad school right away, so I figured I’d take a year off and work and figure that all out. At the same time, the November 2006 elections were coming up...

“And I ended up talking to a friend of mine who knew a lot about the various districts and who was running, the demographics, etc. And so when I asked him what looks like a tough race and where should I volunteer, he said: ‘Why don’t you just run yourself?’ And it completely took me aback. I thought, ‘Oh no. Why would I do that?’ I had never considered it.”

But consider it, she did. She ran and won. She lost her re-election in 2008. But she ran again in a special election in 2009, and she won her seat back.

Garcia has a very unique background, as she explained. “My mom was born in Italy,” she said. “My dad was born in Nebraska but grew up in Albuquerque, NM. He’s fifth-generation, something like that. My grandmother’s side of the family is Spanish, from Spain. And my grandfather is at least part Mexican, and we’re not sure about the rest. My dad doesn’t even speak Spanish. When he was growing up, there was a slap on the hand if you spoke Spanish so his parents didn’t teach him Spanish.”

Given all that, I wondered what she thought of being interviewed for a Latino magazine, and how she felt about being referred to as a “Latina leader.” Garcia didn’t hold back.

“I have to say that I view it in the same way I would if I got a call from a youth magazine or a women’s magazine,” she said. “That is something that is inherent in what I am. You know, my last name is Garcia. I am Latina.”

Still, she is a Republican and today there are plenty of Latinos out there who consider that label to be synonymous with “anti-Latino.” So I was curious about how her fellow Latinos in New Hampshire react to her, and her politics.

“I’m probably considered a traitor,” she said. “I think I’ve read that before somewhere. But again, here they’re assuming that because my name is ‘Garcia’ I’m a traitor to the Latino cause because I’m not out there advocating for it or whatever. … It’s not as if I don’t care. But to be honest, you can’t blame me. I was raised…I identify as an Italian more, really because I grew up with my Italian relatives.”

And yet she’s not running away from being Latina, either. “I accept it,” she insisted. “I’m proud of it. And it’s great. But I would just ask that people work with me, accept my strengths and weaknesses, and educate me as to how I can best be a positive influence however I can.”

Another person who is having an influence is the new mayor of San Antonio, Julian Castro. I asked him how he related to his ethnic background, and how he thought his experience compared to those of earlier generations.

“I was able to get through my education and get into the working world without feeling the sting of discrimination,” he said, “understanding that it’s not completely gone but seeing the glass as half full and not half empty and understanding that people of all different backgrounds can work well together.”

In fact, Castro said, while he’s proud of his ethnicity, it doesn’t define it or what he would like to accomplish as mayor.

“There are a lot of experiences that shape how I think about my agenda for San Antonio,” he said, “the fact that I’m relatively young, the fact that I went away to school, that I’m a young father, that I’m a lawyer. So there are experiences that tug on me that are just as significant if not more than my ethnicity.”

If Castro really is as “post-racial” as he seems, then he’s in sync with how he sees San Antonio.

“It’s a city that has been built up by people from different cultures and backgrounds over centuries,” he said. “And it’s a place where people from different backgrounds work well together. They live together in a way that doesn’t happen in too many other big American cities. There’s harmony here. We’re also a city that looks like the future of Texas and the nation demographically. That’s very powerful. Other big cities can learn a lot from the experience that San Antonio has had in blending cultures and backgrounds.”

And just what does Castro hope to accomplish as mayor?

“Like most other mayors in the United States,” he said, “first and foremost, I’d like to focus on economic growth and creating job opportunities. Second is enhancing the quality of life here, giving vibrancy to the city. Then we’re going to raise the profile. It’s the 7th largest city in the United States. But, in some ways, it’s invisible in the national conversation about cities that are going places.”

I also asked what advice he’d give to the folks who run the national parties, in they want to be relevant in the years to come. “Embrace new ideas,” Castro said. “Embrace demographic changes that are affecting the country. Look for those opportunities to include folks of different backgrounds in leadership. As long as they do that, whether it’s the Democrats or the Republicans, they’ll be prepared for the future.”

As for earlier generations of Latinos, Castro seems to have an understanding of what his achievements represent to them. “I think there’s a certain pride that is there,” he said. “I think that my success and my brother’s success was exactly the kind of thing they were working for their whole lives. They want to see young people get well educated and accomplish things and be leaders in their business community and in government.”

But do they really? Recalling my exchange with Jose Angel Gutierrez, I asked Castro if he agreed that this earlier generation of Latino leaders could be famously intolerant of other points of view from fellow Latinos. His answer surprised me.

“The older generation had an experience that deeply affected them,” he said. “So it’s understandable that they have strong perspectives.”

I hadn’t thought about it that way. Still, I wish those “strong perspectives” were channeled toward helping groom future leaders, instead of trying to keep them in their place.

A few weeks later, I had breakfast with the Castro twins in Los Angeles, where they were attending the annual NALEO conference. Before we had finished, a couple of older women---attendees at the conference, who had come from Texas---approached our table to pay their respects to the wunderkinds.

Before you know it, everyone is hugging everyone. As the women turn to leave, one of them tells the brothers: “Que Dios les bendigan.” How about that? I guess that I was wrong. You can’t generalize about the last generation, any more than they can generalize about us. Some will be supportive. And “May God bless you” beats an ass-whuppin’ any day.


Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a contributing editor to LATINO Magazine, an editorial board member of the San Diego Union-Tribune, a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group, a weekly commentator at CNN, and the author of A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano (Bantam). Contact him at: