(The following is a reprint of a column that was written by Latina Lista publisher Marisa Treviño and published in USA Today.)
Politicians have described Barack Obama as “inspiring,” a “leader” and a “visionary” of late. Indeed, he finds himself in an enviable position.
He has begun to establish himself as a leader capable of uniting not just blacks but the entire country. His political ascent has been remarkable and historic, yet Latinos have reason to watch wistfully.
It reminds us of what we don’t have: a leader of national standing who can unite us.
Last fall, a Spanish-language radio station in Dallas asked listeners to name a national Latino leader who was still among us. The callers came up empty but could name three black leaders: Jesse Jackson, Colin Powell and, of course, the senator from Illinois.
Why is no national Latino leader capable of commanding the same kind of following as Obama? One obvious answer is that Latinos are not a homogenous group. Cuban-Americans, for instance, have interests a world away from those who came to the USA via Mexico. Try finding one voice for these two groups.
And as with all public servants, we’re sometimes our own worst enemies. Former Clinton Cabinet member Henry Cisneros was a star in Texas, the next great hope for Latinos â€” until a scandal tripped him up. Former attorney general Alberto Gonzales was seen as a possible Supreme Court nominee until he became the face of controversial Bush administration policies. The few leaders who have garnered some national standing, such as New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, simply have not captured Latinos’ imagination.
Latinos sorely need a national leader to voice our concerns on the issues of education failures, a punishing economy, the housing fiasco and the arbitrary enforcement of immigration laws. We need someone who can bring people together on such diverse issues.
Latinos can plant the seeds now by actively identifying and grooming those men and women who show the potential and desire to pursue higher office. Find the Harold Fords, Condi Rices and Barack Obamas of our universe. As important, we need to break down the silos of the various leadership organizations that claim to prepare our leaders of the future. A coordinated effort could steer young talent toward established Latino politicians for mentoring.
From 1996 through 2007, the country saw a 37% increase in the number of Latinos elected. That’s the good news. The bad news: 68% of them held seats at either the municipal or school board level. These Latino upstarts need help finding the national stage.
As we’ve seen with Obama, it’s not how long a person has been on the national scene that matters, but how he/she breaks away from the pack and finds the kind of voice people are desperate to hear.