Latino Leaders Shift To Meet Needs Of Evolving Community

Latinos living in the United States say they do not have a national leader, according to a new study by the Pew Hispanic Center. When asked in an open-ended question to name the person they consider "the most important Latino leader in the country today," nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of Latino respondents said they did not know. Host Michel Martin talks with Representative Charlie Gonzalez, the newly elected chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, about the study's finding and his new role in the caucus.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

A new museum offers an interactive take on the American Jewish experience. We speak to the new head of the National Museum of American Jewish History. It's opening to the public next week. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, we hear from the newly elected chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Democratic Representative Charlie Gonzalez of Texas. We're talking with him as he takes the helm of a slimmed down Hispanic caucus. But we also want to talk with him about a new study that shows that Latinos living in America say they have no national leader.

Recently, the Pew Hispanic Center asked Latinos an open-ended question to name the person they believe to be the most important Latino leader in the country. Sixty-four percent said they did not know. Another 10 percent said no one. A few names were generated, including Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor and Congressman Luis Gutierrez. But both names were recognized only by 7 and 5 percent of the people respectively. We wanted to talk about that.

So, Congressman Gonzalez is with us now. Thanks so much for joining us and congratulations on your election.

Representative CHARLIE GONZALEZ (Democrat, Texas): Well, thank you very much. Glad to be here.

MARTIN: I want to talk about you, of course, and your agenda for the caucus. But I want to start with the Pew Poll findings. Now, obviously, this question is annoying to some people on its face because they say nobody talks about the most important, you know, white leader of the country, okay. So I'll just stipulate that. But having said that, do you think it's a problem that there is not a person whom a large number of Latinos recognize as a national leader?

Rep. GONZALEZ: I think in a perfect world it would be good to have some truly recognizable acknowledged leaders at the national level to unite and galvanize a diverse population. Even though it's a minority, it's diversity within diversity.

And so as much as you'd like to have that, that's really the problem in identifying one or two national leaders. Because you really have the Puerto Rican Latinos obviously that may view their leadership differently than, let's say, the Mexican-American Latino population, or the Cuban-American and so on. So that's inherent in who we are. And I think it may complicate that particular wish for having one recognizable Latino leader.

MARTIN: And, you know, to that point, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, a little slimmed down from what - in the next Congress, a little slimmer than it would be in the current Congress. There are 22 members. There are five new Hispanic Republicans voted to the House, one in the Senate. But the Hispanic Caucus at this point in time is only Democrats. The Republicans decided some years ago to form their own group back in 2003. Why is that? And is that one of your goals for your leadership to try to reunite the caucus, or is that - has that train left the station for good?

Rep. GONZALEZ: It's really not our decision other than we'll make the proposition in the outreach because I think that's necessary for many reasons beyond just minority status and such, because we really need to be coming together on certain issues that we believe benefit Latino communities throughout the nation. And this is not going to be a Republican or Democratic issue. It really is what is in the best interest of our communities. So we're going to be doing the outreach.

I cannot speak for the new members, but I'm hoping that they're open to the dialogue and the communication. Now, having said that, I do want to point out the Congressional Hispanic Caucus is bipartisan. If Republican members decide not to join, of course, that would be their decision. And that has been the history in the past few years.

MARTIN: I understand your point. So it's not closed, it's open. But at this point, the decision is being made by the Republican members not to join. I take your point. So tell me just a little bit about you - a six-term member. You are the son of the late Henry B. Gonzalez, who served for so many years from the San Antonio era. He had quite an amazing story in his own right. Why did you want to chair the caucus at this time?

Rep. GONZALEZ: It's a real challenge, first of all, and it's a tremendous opportunity individually. But I think the challenge that it presents, especially in the political environment in which we live today, where immigration has been used as a wedge issue for the past few years. We have to get beyond that and understand the ramifications of some of the extreme language when it comes to discussing that particular issue. It's not all about immigration, but it does come to the forefront, we know that.

But on education and health, where we were making so much progress, we just have to make sure that we don't turn, you know, back or have a reverse direction on a lot of, what I think have been incredible advancements in the past few years on those fronts, and losing much of that to the political rhetoric surrounding the immigration debate.

MARTIN: Then to that point, I want to talk about the DREAM Act for a minute. Just to refresh everybody's awareness, the DREAM Act is legislation that would give a path to legalization and citizenship for students who are here without proper authorization if they arrived in the country before the age of 16, have been in the U.S. for five years, have graduated from high school and completed two years of college or the military.

Now, President Obama, Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid have all said that they want to bring this issue up during the lame duck session. Handicap this for us, does this have a chance?

Rep. GONZALEZ: Well, I believe it has a chance in the House. I can't speak for the Senate. You know, this was tried before and it failed. And we have a handful of Republican Senators that had been supportive of the act in the past, but are no longer supportive because of the changed political climate in their own political lives.

And what I mean by that is that I think, where in the past they would've been able to support a reasonable piece of immigration legislation, which is piecemeal in nature, it's not comprehensive. But I think they basically fear opposition in their own primaries from someone to the right of them on the particular issue, because it does resonate in certain populations.

MARTIN: So is that going to - that's not going to change, though, is it?

Rep. GONZALEZ: You know, you're elected to make difficult decisions. I've always said, look, if we were elected just to name courthouses, I mean, why show up? Why even seek the office? Why not sometimes just do the right thing? It poses political risk, but it should define your career. And if there's consequences to it, I think you've earned the respect of just about everybody. And that's just the cost of doing the right thing.

MARTIN: If the bill does not go forward in this session, what do you do come January?

Rep. GONZALEZ: Well, you see, I actually anticipate that someone in the Republican leadership may not be supportive this year because that would give the administration some sign of success on the immigration front. Next year, though, I do believe the Republican Party is going to have to do its own outreach to Latino populations in preparation for the 2012 elections.

I also believe that it will come in the form of - I don't know how you water down the DREAM Act, but you do that by watering it down somewhat, and also adding other features that might be attractive to other members of the Republican Party. And so I see that that actually will happen sooner or later in some different form. Again, it will be a political instrument on the part of the Republicans to do their own outreach to Latino communities, recognizing the importance of the Latino vote in the 2012 presidential election.

MARTIN: And, finally, before we let you go, we have just a couple of minutes left. What else? What are your priorities? What are your other priorities going forward, given that you are entering a changed political landscape here. The time you were - you've been in the majority for the last couple of years. You're now a minority. A minority within the minority, if we can say that. So, what are your other priorities for the caucus? What do you think you can accomplish?

Rep. GONZALEZ: I'm glad you pointed that out because we are a minority within a minority. What makes us, I think, have some influence, if the minority caucuses, the tri-caucuses come together on those issues, because minorities historically suffer disproportionately when there's an economic downturn, when we don't invest in health care, when we don't invest in education.

We're the ones that suffer. I think all Americans suffer, but more so minorities. So I think it's really finding this common ground among the minority caucuses, making our desires and wishes known and making sure that the Republican agenda doesn't exact tremendous cost and damage to what I've already referred to as great advances on the education and health side of legislation.

MARTIN: All right. Congressman Charlie Gonzalez is the newly elected chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. That's an all-Democratic group at this time. Although as Congressman Gonzalez points out, it is open to members of the other party if they choose to join. He represents the 20th district of Texas, which includes the city of San Antonio. He was kind enough to join us from member station KSTX in San Antonio. Congressman Gonzalez, we hope you'll come back and see us. Thank you so much for joining us and Happy Thanksgiving to you.

Rep. GONZALEZ: Thank you so much.

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