Political Clout Focus of La Raza Convention

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The National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights group, holds its annual convention in Los Angeles this weekend. Representatives from thousands of organizations will discuss Latino clout at the voting booth, coalition politics and the growing Hispanic middle class.


This is DAY TO DAY.

Coming up, we visit a rustic spot in Los Angeles where the donkeywork is done by, well, donkeys.

I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick.

First, this weekend, more than 20,000 people are expected to participate in the annual conference of the National Council of La Raza. La Raza is the largest Latino civil rights advocacy group in the United States.

BRAND: Immigration is the big topic, but event organizers hope to cover a lot more issues at the conference.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this preview.


The offices of many of the country's most prominent Hispanic organizations are unusually hushed today. Many of the staff and virtually all of the organization's top executives are on their way to Los Angeles for the National Council of La Raza's annual conference.

La Raza began as a small Mexican-American civil rights organization in the southwest, about 35 years ago. Today, it's a national advocacy group that aims to represent all Latinos and their concerns.

This is an especially significant year for their meeting, says La Raza president Janet Murgia, as Latinos have begun to realize their potential political clout, and the importance of cooperating with each other.

Ms. JANET MURGIA (President, National Council of La Raza): And I think nothing crystallized that more than the recent marches, where we saw Mexican-Americans marching with Salvadoran-Americans and Central Americans. And that's a real sign that our community has evolved, because we can find the common values and realize, that when we come together, we can advance all of our community.

BATES: Los Angeles was the keystone for many of the immigrants rights demonstrations that caught the nation's attention this spring.

Antonia Hernandez is president of the California Community Foundation. It's a position that places her at the nexus of power and philanthropy in LA. She grapples daily, with many of the problems that will be discussed at La Raza's conference, because, she says, Los Angeles is a microcosm of American society.

Ms. ANTONIA HERNANDEZ (President, California Community Foundation): What makes LA challenging, and yet what makes LA and southern California exhilarating, is the fact that every piece of the world is in this place.

BATES: In a nice piece of synergy, the host city boasts the country's most prominent Latino mayor, a particular point of pride.

Antonio Villaraigosa was elected by a coalition voters, but Latino effort put him over the top.

The merging Latino clout will draw a number of political heavyweights to the conference, in the next few days. Saturday features a Café con Clinton, where conference goers can visit with the former president.

And not to be outdone, the Bush administration is sending Karl Rove. And Kansas Senator and possible presidential hopeful, Sam Brownback, will also address the group.

Janet Murgia.

Ms. MURGIA: To be courted by both parties is something that we haven't necessarily been accustomed to, but I think it's something that we're seeing as a real opportunity, to hold both parties accountable and to challenge them on the issues that they are addressing, with regard to the Hispanic community.

BATES: The most prominent issue up for discussion, is immigration, specifically the immigration of undocumented Mexicans.

Cesar Perales is president of the New York-based Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. He says the debate over Mexican immigrants affects the entire Latino community, no matter where they're from.

Mr. CESAR PERALES (President, Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund): The issue of immigration is very much tied in with ethnicity. Puerto Ricans, who are native born citizens, are feeling a form of discrimination that they have not felt for some time, because of this anti-Latino backlash.

BATES: The backlash, Perales says, comes from larger America's realization that Latinos will eventually be the dominant ethnic group in the U.S. Because of that demographic change, there have been growing tensions between Latinos and other ethnic groups, particularly African Americans.

Antonia Hernandez says this is a public conversation that's way overdue.

Ms. HERNANDEZ: It's very hard for two poor communities, competing for jobs, for space, for opportunity. We have to talk about those openly, and find common ground.

BATES: One of the places this delicate subject will be discussed, is a huge town hall on Tuesday afternoon, between leaders from the black, Latino, and Asian communities, and moderated by PBS host Tavis Smiley.

La Raza president Janis Murgia hopes the benefits of that discussion will be lasting ones.

Ms. MURGIA: There are underlying tensions, and there are some areas where there is confusion about how an Hispanic community and an African American community, and Asian Pacific American community, and any communities of color, can come together and work together. It's going to be a very important town hall, and I think it's an important issue for us to talk about here, and have people take away and take to their communities, after they leave the conference.

BATES: Delegates will have a chance to apply those skills after Tuesday, when the conference concludes.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Los Angeles.

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