Celebracion 2017 panel explores future of Latinos in politics
NHI alumni, brought together to talk about the future of Latinos in politics, spoke for 2 1/2 hours for an ambitious, successful Saturday morning panel serving as a highlight of Celebracion 2017. The panel, under the Nieto-de Leon Lecture Series banner, brought together former, current, and aspiring elected officials along with doctors and doctoral students who specialize in politics.
The panel, moderated by University of Texas at Austin professor and Educational Leadership and Development Chair Dr. Victor Saenz, included:
Texas State Rep. Mary Gonzalez (75th District)
Former San Marcos Mayor Daniel Guerrero
U.S. Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York’s 14th District)
U.S. Congressional candidate George Rodriguez (Texas’s 32nd District)
Queens College professor (in Urban Studies) Andres Bernal
El Paso Community College professor (in Communications) Arthur Soto-Vasquez
Kresge Foundation consultant Dr. Dali Martinez
The morning began with the panelists, thinking about the future of Latinos in politics, talking about personal experiences in politics that have brought them to the present.
Guerrero revealed that he won his first mayoral election by just 41 votes, with a campaign he embarked on with the question “What’s the worst that can happen?” in mind.
Rodriguez drew his inspiration to run from NHI, hearing himself tell students, “You can sit on the sideline and watch the parade of life go by, or you can join in,” and then determining he needed to enter a very competitive field in Texas’s 32nd District—one of the precious few true swing districts in the nation.
Ocasio-Cortez, noting that one of the first skills you should develop is to tell your story, talked about a father born in the South Bronx like her, a mother born in Puerto Rico, and a belief that the 2018 and 2020 election cycles are the one chance working-class people (and, by extension, Latino people) have to access the levers of power.
Gonzalez spoke of being recruited to run for a Texas State Representative post by Annie’s List to run in the 2012 election after foregoing politics for becoming a professor at Southwestern University. But, in asking herself questions she asks her students—”What about the world do you want to change?” and “What truly changes the world?”—she found motivation to run, and after an unusual race that she won, she is preparing to run for her fourth term representing a section of El Paso County including her hometown of Clint as well as colonias on the U.S./Mexico border.
The panel covered considerable ground over the course of the morning, including the necessity to sometimes compromise—be it with political opponents or business interests—to make gains for the community. Guerrero spoke of developments in San Marcos he agreed to, which preserved green space and generated revenue that would improve his city, even though they weren’t universally popular. Gonzalez talked about voting for the budget in the most recent Texas legislative session; while she wasn’t in agreement with the entire budget, she was proud of specific provisions she’d fought to insert into the budget to improve the lives of her constituents.
The entire panel was particularly animated about issues of engaging and empowering voters and how they related to the future of Latinos in politics. They discussed “decades of work of disempowerment” that has displaced some Latinos. Rodriguez and Ocasio-Cortez spoke of their campaigns, which have bucked conventional wisdom about voter outreach; both candidates are working to expand the number of voters who make their voices heard. NHI founder and president Ernesto Nieto weighed in with a theory of three kinds of voters — a “reactive” one voting out of fear or anger, an “associative” one voting out of loyalty to labels, and an “investor” voter which should be the model for how voters approach the community affected by the election.
Of course, lessons learned from NHI guide all the panelists, be they public servants or educators, and be they reflecting on past mayoral terms and legislative sessions, or contemplating the present. And Ocasio-Cortez perhaps expressed that best in assessing the tribalism existing in today’s politics, noting, “The gas that fuels tribalism is fear. The antidote for that is hope and love. I practice a politics based on love.”
Celebracion 2017 was sponsored in part by State Farm, DishLATINO, Union Pacific, Winston & Strawn LLP, and the Roy G. Kerr Foundation.