Uneasy Black-Latino Ties a Factor in Calif. Primary

In California, nearly 3 million Latino voters are expected to play a crucial role in the heated battle for the Democratic presidential nomination between front-runners Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois. It's no secret that race will be a factor in who gets that vote. How exactly it will play out, however, is a complex matter.

On a recent campaign swing through Los Angeles, Clinton headed straight for the heart of the city's Latino community. Accompanied by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is co-chairman of her national campaign, Clinton stopped at a popular taco restaurant, smothering her chips with hot sauce in an apparent attempt to bond with the Latino lunch crowd.

The latest field poll shows Clinton leading Obama 3-to-1 among California Latinos. Not only does she have Villaraigosa's backing, but she also recently won the endorsement of Latino icon Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez.

In terms of reaching potential voters, the legacy of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, doesn't hurt.

"To me, it's the ultimate, to see a woman up there," says handyman Art Gomez of East Los Angeles. "It would be like if Kennedy were still alive, his wife would take the presidency. Something like that."

Barack Obama, on the other hand, remains relatively unknown to some Californians. In some cases, an absence of knowledge breeds confusion.

"I don't know, man, it's like the weirdest thing I ever seen," says Gomez. "I mean, like we're fighting over there in the Muslim world and we got a candidate that's Muslim. That, like, trips me out."

When told that Obama is not Muslim, Gomez is startled.

To help introduce himself to California Latinos, Obama recently visited DJ Eddie Sotelo, better known as Piolin. On his popular morning radio show, Sotelo convinced Obama to sing in Spanish.

It was not the first time Obama used Spanish to reach potential voters. Standing in front of crowds of Latino workers, Obama has been known to chant the traditional Chicano rallying cry, "Si se puede!"

Obama has his own endorsements from Latino leaders. And Latino voters have shown their enthusiasm in innovative ways — in one case, remixing a reggaeton song in his honor.

Still, Obama may face a barrier in California beyond name recognition: the sometimes uneasy relations between Latinos and blacks. It's an attitude of distrust expressed bluntly in Los Angeles by one caller to NPR member station KPCC.

"I've had friends, individuals [who are] blacks, and we've gotten along fine. But as a community I just don't trust them," Daniela, a caller from Mar Vista, shared with listeners. "To have a black president would, I don't know ... what that would do. I don't know, the black community would just rise up and would feel like it owned the entire country!"

How years of simmering tensions between California's Latinos and African Americans will play out in the presidential race is a hotly contested matter.

"Many Latinos are still reluctant to vote for an African-American candidate, period," says Jaime Regalado, a political science professor at California State University, Los Angeles.

"A lot of it's based on, let's be frank, prejudicial, racial stereotypes and feelings. I had them in my own family, with my dad. So they're not far removed," he says.

Black leaders are also aware of the cultural divide.

"We've seen gang violence, we've seen crime, fights between Latinos and African-American students in the schools," says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, author of The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House.

Blacks and Latinos have been struggling for limited resources in schools, jobs, health care and other services in neighborhoods they share, he says, and if it spills over into the voting booth, Obama is in trouble.

Not everyone is convinced.

"I think it is utter and complete nonsense. Latinos, in fact, vote for blacks all the time!" exclaims Antonio Gonzalez, who leads the nonpartisan Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. "Is there tension based, in some places ... on transitions in communities? Yes. I don't think, though, this reflects itself in the electoral arena. Far more unites Latinos and African Americans than divides them."

Obama points to his large Latino support in his home state of Illinois. And in California, some young Latinos identify with him more than with white candidates.

"I don't know really much of his politics, but just 'cause he's black — just being Hispanic, I'd like to see other people of color," says Elia Beltran.

Younger Latinos now make up half of all new registered voters in California. How they decide to vote could make a huge difference for Clinton or Obama.

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