Major Parties Cast About for Ways to Attract Latinos

This week, Sen. Mel Martinez was named as chairman of the Republican National Committee. His appointment is meant to draw more Latinos to the GOP. But commentator Daniel Hernandez says that kind of thinking shows that while the Republicans — and the Democrats — want more Latino voters, they don't really understand how to attract them.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This week President Bush named a new head for the Republican National Committee, Senator Mel Martinez. When he starts the job in January, his tasks will include fundraising for the party and outreach to potential voters.

Commentator Daniel Hernandez says that Mel Martinez will have to stretch pretty far to reach him.

DANIEL HERNANDEZ: The White House figures I'm supposed to be super excited that Mel Martinez is the new chairman of the Republican National Committee. After all, I'm Latino and so is Mel. A White House political director seemed to have this reasoning when she told the L.A. Times that Martinez was chosen because he will be able to - as she said - communicate with the fastest growing population in a way they can relate to.

How can I relate Mel Martinez? Because both our names end in z?

I can't think of anything else I might have in common with the man. Martinez is from Florida, a Cuban American. I'm from California, a Mexican American. We don't eat the same food. We don't listen to the same music. And we don't even speak the same form of Spanish. My Spanish is an anglicized Mexican Spanglish. His is Cuban Spanish, which I find lovely to listen but incredibly difficult to understand. It has this aversion to the use of certain consonants.

Our group's political leanings are no less different. Cuban Americans in Florida tend to be rabidly anti-communist and conservative. Many Mexican Americans, particularly in the South West, are pro-labor, pro-immigrant and fond of Che Guevarra t-shirts. On top of that, I can't begin to imagine how different Cuban Americans in Florida are from Dominicans and Puerto Ricans in New York, or Salvadorans in Washington, D.C. I have enough trouble dealing with the differences between Mexicans from Jalisco and Mexicans from Vera Cruz.

Latino voters are a segment of the electorate that is diverse, rapidly growing and fiercely independent. And the White House's pick of Martinez is another sobering reminder of how hopelessly naïve the country's political leaders are when it comes to understanding and reaching out to the largest minority in the country.

Our leaders, Democrats included, continually expect us to back someone for their skin color or surname before backing them for their positions and accomplishments. It's appalling and a little embarrassing that they still write off our intelligence in this way.

Latinos, all sorts of them, voted for Democrats not because that party ran an army of candidates named Lopez, Ramirez, or Quiñones.It was because of our concerns with the economy and the war in Iraq. And because the Republican Party this year embraced the most divisive and hateful rhetoric against immigrants since the Irish, Jewish and Chinese migrations a century ago. Trust me, Latinos were listening.

But I can guarantee leaders of both parties that many of us did so with a fair amount of cynicism. We will never forget, for example, that some Democrats ran harshly anti-immigrant campaigns. Yet, we swung in their favor for now. Or as Mel might say -

(Speaking foreign language)

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Daniel Hernandez is a staff writer for the LA Weekly.

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