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Latinos and the Progressive Movement

The Hispanic communities’ civic engagement present opportunities and challenges for the progressive movement.

The Americas Project at the Center for American Progress hosted an event entitled Latinos and the Progressive Movement yesterday to discuss civic engagement by our country’s Hispanic communities and the opportunities and challenges posed by that engagement for the progressive movement. The discussion included Paul Glastris, Editor in Chief of The Washington Monthly; Wade Henderson, Executive Director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights; Cristina Lopez, Deputy Executive Director at the Center for Community Change; Lori Montenegro, National Correspondent for Telemundo; Cecilia Muñoz, Vice President of the National Council of La Raza; and moderator Dan Restrepo, Director of The Americas Project at the Center for American Progress.

Restrepo opened the discussion by highlighting the profound demographic change our country is undergoing as a result of the growth of our Latino population. He noted the ways those changes manifest throughout popular culture and everyday life and raised the question of whether we will see parallel changes in the arenas of civic and political engagement. With mass demonstrations across the country this spring, Hispanics proved their ability to mobilize for civic engagement. Although questions remain as to the long-term ability of Latinos to engage in effective civic engagement, as this population grows larger and stronger, it is crucial that progressives work to build a relationship with our Latino communities.

Panelists warned, however, that Hispanics can feel alienated from the progressive movement and its agenda because it includes issues to which many do not feel connected. Cecilia Muñoz explained that while Latinos tend to agree with progressives that the government should have a strong role in the economy, they are, however, also “socially conservative.” Paul Glastris agreed, remarking that Latino immigrants of the “older” generation are especially disinclined to vote for progressive candidates. Lori Montenegro called into question the monolithic manner in which non-Hispanics tend discuss the Latino communities and urged progressives to understand the diversity and sophistication of our country’s Hispanic communities.

The panel also discussed the so-called “black-brown divide” stemming from tensions between African-Americans and Latinos. All agreed that although relations among national leaders and groups have improved markedly during the past 20 years, work remains to be done at the local level. That work, Wade Henderson and other panelists noted, transcends potential divides between Hispanics and African-Americans and encompasses the need for our society as a whole to wrestle with issues of race and ethnic identity.

It also requires soul searching within Latino communities. “We discriminate against each other,” said Lori Montenegro, citing bias in the “Spanish language media,” which she thinks is too quick to associate African-Americans with crime and other negative phenomena. Cristina Lopez also attributed the tensions on competition for jobs between Latinos and African-Americans.

Glastris expressed concern that conservatives “will exploit the black-brown divide” for political purposes, and all panelists agreed that the tensions could thwart the ability of Latinos and African-Americans to work together for progressive change. Glastris and the others on the panel advocated that African-Americans, Hispanics, and members of the broader progressive movement need to continue their work together on behalf of immigrant rights and other issues of common interest.

Proposals for comprehensive immigration reform may have died in Congress, but Glastris urged attendees to pressure legislators to change the system. Comparing today’s immigrant rights movement to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, he said that often illegal immigrants have no more rights than “indentured servants” and America’s undocumented immigrants must have more power in the workplace.

Cooperation between the Latino and African-American communities and the progressive movement as a whole is also possible on other important issues. African-Americans and Latinos often have no choice but to send their children to inadequately funded schools, for example. “It’s fifty years after Brown, Henderson said, “and the schools still suck.” Montenegro added that Latinos can work with other ethnic groups on an array of issues including healthcare and worker’s rights. “Their agendas,” she said, “are not that different.”

Clearly there is room for the Latino communities within the broader progressive movement; now is the time for progressives to think seriously about and speak to the issues of central importance to Latinos.

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