The Failure of National Latino/Mexican American Organizations
With all of the hype around Latinos these days, how could Arizona have happened? I thought we had power. One-third of Arizona is Latino and its neighbor California is the land of milk and honey – the favorite destination of politicos of all colors. Over fifty percent of Los Angeles is Latino; its mayor is Mexican American as is the mayor of San Antonio, Texas.
Arizona’s war on Mexican Americans does not make sense, especially in the light of the growth of the Latino population that now numbers 50 million. This nightmare seems out of place. Alabama maybe, but Arizona?
It is time that we try to find answers and admit our weaknesses. The most obvious flaw is that Arizona has exposed a weakness in Latino and Mexican American organizational infrastructure.
A partial answer as to why Latinos are so ineffective is that the Latino population is having growing pains. It has grown dramatically in the past fifty years, going from a regional to a national phenomenon. This transformation has out stripped the capacity of traditional organizations such as the League of United Latin American Citizens and the American GI Forum to deal with this change.
Presently there are only two organizations that could be called national and they came about in 1968 with the founding of the Southwest Council of La Raza and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Their express purpose was to build a national presence for Mexican Americans. The SWCLR was the brainchild of Drs. Julian Samora and Ernesto Galarza who along with Herman Gallegos sold the project to the Ford Foundation.
Almost simultaneously MALDEF was formed in San Antonio, with a $2.2 million five-year grant from the Ford Foundation to implement legal services program. From the beginning Ford monies shaped the SWCLR and MALDEF.
In 1973, the SWCLR changed its name to the National Council of La Raza, and moved its headquarters to Washington, D.C. In the early days Ford micromanaged both organizations, controlling them by doling out funds.
For instance, at key junctures Ford threatened to withhold money if the organizations did not follow its advice. These organizations were fragile at first passing through precarious times.
In 1975 NCLR expanded its mission to include non-Mexican American Latino issues. Ironically, its dependence on Ford and other foundations lessened to the point that by 1980, the NCLR was for a time almost exclusively funded by the federal government, which created another set of problems, most noticeable of which was the influence of the powerful Miami cabal. Its trajectory changed as did its constituency.
Ford also shaped MALDEF. Ford fashioned its paradigm after the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1909 and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., established in 1937.
As Ford became more vested in the Civil Rights establishment, its own scope broadened to include the Mexican American. It funded the important University of California Los Angeles study of the 1960 Census. But even then it selected a non-Mexican American, non-expert in the field to head the project.
Ford knew little about Mexicans. Its playing card was its experiences with the NACCP. Few of its program officers had field experience or knew much about Mexican Americans.
As the Mexican American and Latino populations grew so did their dream of a national organization.
In 1968 the Mexican American middle-class was small and lacked a history of philanthropic giving. In other words, it did not have a network of donors to support a national agenda. Mexican American community organizations also lacked a communication network. Politically speaking Spanish-language media had no other purpose but to entertain, depending mostly on an immigrant Spanish-speaking base.
Even today I cannot name a single Spanish-speaking TV or radio station or, for that matter, English language station devoted to the political education of “Latinos,” which in the Southwest meant “Mexican.”
It is only until recently that some academic presses have begun publishing Mexican American and Latino related research. A notable exception is the Pew Hispanic Center.
An infrastructure that dots the “i’s” and crosses the “t’s” was and is totally lacking.
As mentioned, the weakness of the Ford strategy of building Mexican American national organizations (i.e., nation building) was that it was based on its Black experience. Ford bureaucrats failed to take into account that the Black community had a politicized base forged by history and the fire of the Civil Rights Movement.
The Mexican American community lacked this infrastructure and indeed lacked a well-defined middle class.
Because of this lack of understanding, Ford’s social engineering experiment failed. Blacks and Mexican Americans were minorities but they had different histories and different needs.
Again, the corporate takeover of Arizona exposed these structural weaknesses. It was obvious that Mexican Americans and Latinos were vulnerable and incapable of taking on these corporate vampires.
In fairness MALDEF has been singular among the national organizations and has brought numerous suits to protect the civil rights of immigrants and further the equal protection of the Latino community.
The failure of MALDEF was to realize that Arizona is a different animal and litigation cannot be run out of LA or San Antonio. Further, litigation alone does not cut it because the courts have for over forty years failed to enforce the U.S. Constitution.
In a conversation with then MALDEF attorney Mike Baller in the 1970s I pointed out the weakness of Ford’s strategy and the need to build local support networks.
MALDEF had started out with close community ties but Ford in the late 1960s yielded to the pressure of San Antonio Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez that it sever ties with the local Mexican American Youth Organization and their progressive allies who were at the time being viciously red-baited. After this point, Ford almost exclusively worked through Mexican American elites.
In the process the community’s influence waned. Ford’s interference was similar to when it forced African American organizations and Black studies programs to sever ties with Black militants.
Once more, Arizona totally exposed the fallacy that Latino national organizations and elites are capable of protecting Mexican American interests. Simply, they cannot sustain the ugly trench warfare conducted by national corporate elites and their paid shock troops. In Arizona, these corporate vampires control the media, the Tea Party, the Republican Party, the schools, other Medias of communication and also the guns.
Using the worse kind of racist propaganda, they have demonized the Mexican and Mexican American as the enemy. The corporate vampires have taken over the prisons and privatized public institutions converting them into cash registers whose objective is not to teach, not to rehabilitate, but to cash in.
Arizona also debunks the myth of a democratic society, showing the total failure of the Left, which includes elected officials, left of center magazines such as The Nation, the Democratic Party, along with national organizations of all colors.
I do not blame these organizations alone; I also blame Mexican American Studies and Mexican American scholars who have failed to make a case for their discipline.
In this I blame game I hold people such as myself accountable. When is the last time that we have cut a check to MALDEF or Save Ethnic Studies? I blame myself for not being able to explain Mexican American studies to liberals. I have heard colleagues, veterans of the anti-war and anti-nuke movements, tell me that they can support the fight against SB 1070 because it is against racism but not HB 2281 because Mexican American Studies is nationalistic. What a crock!
I blame myself for continuing to support their causes without fighting back! But truth be told, I support progressive causes because it is the right thing to do.
With the left, however, it is an “Anything But Mexican” mindset.
The left correctly supported the Civil Rights Movement and opposed the wars in Vietnam and the Middle East but when it comes to Mexicans, it nitpicks at motivations. Even in the cases of Guatemala and El Salvador the American Left hedged.
I am getting myself worked up but let’s take the case of the teachers’ organizations. Tucson is a clear example of a gross violation of free speech, the disparate treatment of a specific group, the denial of teacher and student rights and the censorship of books. Even so, to date not one national teacher organization has supported Tucson – not the National Association of Education, not the American Federation of Teachers, not the American Association of University Professors.
The other day I received a phone call from an NEA member urging me to send a donation to President Barack Obama. It was vital to reelect him, she said. I responded that I was not voting because Obama had done nothing to bring about a resolution in Tucson. She felt betrayed.
With the Left it is always their issues, their interests, this attitude is historic.
Who do we blame? Ourselves. If we do not have strong national organizations it is because of our inattention.
In closing, the struggle has not been kept alive by people such as myself, or even the lawyers or the politicos in Tucson. The teachers have sacrificed their jobs, but if we win it is because students are fighting back! They have refused to take direction from the adults, taken over the school board and just this last month held a Freedom Summer where students from all over the country converged on Tucson. They did not wait for Ford to tell them how to do it.
¡Qué víva la justicía! ¡Es ahora o nunca se salva la patria!
[“It is said that Juarez wavered when the time came to sign [Maximilian’s ] the death warrant … Lerdo…uttered these fateful words: “Ahora o nunca se salva la patria!”]
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