A surge of Hispanic power

Michael Posner May 14 1984

A surge of Hispanic power

Michael Posner May 14 1984

A surge of Hispanic power


Michael Posner

April was the driest month. Not since 1885, when Bexar (pronounced “Bear”)

County began keeping records, has South Texas had so little rain. Oldtimers claim that there was a worse drought during the Civil War, and few Texans are willing to challenge them. In 30 days it rained exactly 0.11 of an inch.

Farmers scanned the skies anxiously for clouds. Forecasters hopefully quoted the odds on “precipitation.” And local politicians spoke carefully of solutions—new surface reservoirs and, possibly, rationing. Last week was particularly upsetting.

For two days heavy grey cumulonimbus clouds smothered San Antonio, the county’s major city, bringing the promise of rain. But they produced only a fine mist that dried on impact. As a result, San Antonio paid little attention as the Democratic presidential candidates, former vice-president Walter Mondale, Senator Gary Hart and Rev. Jesse Jackson, breezed through town. They were campaigning for the May 5 Texas caucuses, a complicated electoral process that will ultimately send 169 delegates to the party’s national convention in July. By late Saturday, Mondale appeared to be headed for another convincing victory. Victories in' Ohio and Indiana on May 8 would virtually assure his nomination.

Even non-Texans concede that no Democratic challenger can defeat President Ronald Reagan in November without carrying Texas. The unwritten corollary is that the state itself cannot be won unless South Texas, too, is taken. And in South Texas, a great swath of sunbaked territory stretching from the Rio Grande Valley north to San Antonio,

now the nation’s 10th-largest city, no voting bloc is more important than the Mexican Americans.

Two decades after passage of the historic Voting Rights Act, which eliminated poll taxes and literacy tests among other devices intended to restrict ethnic voter registration, Hispanics have finally begun to recognize the power that flows from the ballot box. Latinos in South Texas are registering _ to vote in numbers far outstripping any past effort. “It’s like a renaissace in Chicano politics,” said William Velasquez, director of the South West Voter Registration Project. “It is a deep, deep movement.”

The statistics confirm that conclusion. In 1982 Hispanic votes were largely responsible for the upset victory of Democratic Gov. Mark White over the incumbent Republican, William Clements. Mexican-American

turnout in that election was 86 per cent higher than it had been four years earlier. For the first time in memory, as many Latinos as whites marked ballots.

The explosion of Hispanic power, said San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros—at 37, among the most youthful and most skilful politicians of any color in the United States—is “one of those dynamics in which two plus two equals five. One success,” Cisneros told Maclean ’s, “demonstrates the stakes you hold in the process. And that almost guarantees your next success, and it multiplies upon itself.”

By almost every calculation the 1984 election is expected to add to Latino voting strength. San Antonio native Velasquez, 39, who once helped Cesar Chavez organize migrant workers in California, predicts that registration projects will add more than a million new MexicanAmerican voters to the rolls by the fall. One San Antonio group, Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS), recently completed a voter drive by registering 16,000 Latinos in three weeks. Last week’s Texas caucuses provided

even more evidence of Hispanic participation. Eight years ago 271 Chicano delegates attended the Democratic party’s state convention. Last week, despite complex rules that discouraged turnout, Velasquez estimated that at least 850 Mexican Americans would attend the statewide parlay.

Cisneros himself is an example of the extent to which Hispanic self-assertion has been accepted by the old Anglo establishment. Twenty years ago San Antonio’s Henry B. Gonzales became the first Mexican American in Congress by relying almost exclusively on the Chicano vote. “The doors were not open to him,” said Fernando Pinon, editor of the Roman Catholic weekly El Visitante Dominical. “So Henry B. burst them open by rallying the Hispanics.”

Last year, when Cisneros was elected to his second term, he won 95 per cent of the vote. In fact, the city’s entire council was re-elected—a tribute to the remarkable racial and ethnic consensus that governs the city.

There is no mystery about why Hispanics are only now beginning to realize their political potential. For years poll taxes, at-large elections and gerrymandered districts diluted Latino voting strength. Repeatedly discouraged, Mexican Americans simply declined to vote. One 1969 University of California study found that about 67 per cent of Hispanics believed that their franchise was useless. “It was a machine vote,” said Velasquez. “They voted Democratic, but the streets still weren’t paved, and the schools were no better.” In his wood-panelled office in San Antonio’s Petroleum Commerce Building, Velasquez sketched a diagram on a yellow pad. One series of dots represented the streets on which the city’s councilmen lived. Another—some distance away—symbolized all of San Antonio’s substandard thoroughfares. “Look at the effect that has on people,” he said. “That’s why we are like we are. And those things do not change until you change the electoral system.” Even now nearly half the teachers in the Edge-

wood School District—the poorest in the state—have no college degree.

In 1974 Velasquez launched the South West Voter Registration Project. The first 254 cities he studied contained voting districts whose boundaries were designed to deny Mexican Americans political power. One county, Medina, had

not bothered to redistrict since 1896. Eventually, Velasquez filed 67 suits. About nine of them are still outstanding. The rest, Velasquez says, have all ended satisfactorily. Thirty Texan cities still hold at-large elections, but 15 years ago there were 48.

Velasquez’s registration drives have been aided by COPS—an alliance of parish-based, grassroots activists dedicated to improving the lot of Mexican Americans. In another setting the issues COPS chose to spotlight might have seemed marginal or mundane. But in the barrios of west San Antonio, where most Latinos live, unpaved streets and

inadequate storm sewers constituted perpetual hazards. Frequently, flash floods literally washed away homes and closed schools. On the edge of a growing metropolis, many San Antonians were living in Third World conditions. “Blessed are those who mourn,” said Father Tim McCloskey, associate pastor at St. Timothy’s Church, quoting scripture. “Denial of opportunity is one of the tools of organizing.”

Begun in 1974, COPS proved adept at mobilizing armies of housewives and volunteers on the community’s behalf. The church’s role was pivotal because it gave legitimacy—the imprimatur of trusted authority—to the enterprise.

Relations between COPS and Mayor Cisneros remain cordial but cool. He is tall, confident and commanding—the family name means guardian of swans—and his main focus is on running a city that, for all its sudden growth, remains one of the nation’s most backward, underdeveloped and least educated. A few blocks away from the lovely Paseo del Rio, the tree-lined river walk that winds through downtown San Antonio, stretch vast tracts of substandard housing and ill-equipped schools. Civic leaders are anxious ^ to build a new high-tech o Silicon Valley linking 2 San Antonio and Austin, = about 130 km northeast, E but it is not clear that E Texas’s education levels S will permit it. Said Admirai Bobby Inman, chairman of a 15-member consortium that is trying to create an advanced generation of computers in Austin: “The public education system is the Achilles heel.” San Antonio is only part of the ethnic mosaic. The mayors of Denver and Miami are also Hispanic, as is the governor of New Mexico. Together with blacks, Hispanics now account for almost one-third of the electorate. With one eye on the weather, Bexar County only toyed with last week’s caucuses. But by November, Democrats and Republicans will be courting South Texas, as though the outcome of the election depended on its vote. And it just might.