One of the enduring myths--and legitimate hopes--of democracy in the United States is that anyone, no matter their background, can grow up to be president. Last Sunday, USA Today's weekend insert, USA Weekend, carried a cover story that explored the rising political power of this country's fastest growing ethnic group and asked, "Who will be the first Hispanic President?"
The day before, the Triangle witnessed another telling display of Latino political clout, as the eighth annual La Fiesta del Pueblo opened in Chapel Hill. Both the Democratic and Republican parties showed up to court North Carolina's burgeoning Latino population.
The GOP was represented by its Orange County branch, and made the best of it under difficult circumstances. The Republicans' booth was equipped with bilingual voter registration forms and political tracts. "We feel that the Republican party's views are the mirror image of Latinos'," said Jesse Torres, a Mexican-American party activist who works as the chief financial officer at a Chapel Hill consulting firm.
But the Democrats made the strongest showing. Sen. John Edwards, the Kennedy-esque North Carolinian who is already considered a leading presidential contender for the 2004 elections, showed up to praise the gains of area Latinos. Barbara Allen, head of the N.C. Democrats, made the rounds, and spoke of the rising tide of Latino voters: "Whenever they become citizens, we're there to register them [to vote]." Latinos, she said, are on the verge of a political breakthrough, "and we want to be right there with them."
At the local level, the Democrats are pinning their hopes on a candidate who, as it happens, decided to throw this party in the first place. John Herrera, who is running for a seat on the Carrboro Board of Aldermen, founded La Fiesta in 1994.
Herrera, a 37-year-old Costa Rica native, has a distinctive campaign style: He's earnest but soft- spoken, solicits opinions as often as he gives them. Not only is he a driving force behind local Latino empowerment, he's also a bona fide progressive who is campaigning on his record of grassroots organizing.
He's volunteered with a slew of local and state cultural and social service organizations, but probably has gained his most useful experience at his day job. As vice president of Latino-Hispanic affairs at the Self-Help Credit Union in Durham, he has spearheaded efforts to integrate Latinos into the local economy.
Now, he says, the Latino community wants a place at the political table. Herrera says the festival he started has served as both a celebration of Latino culture and "a multicultural event, a vehicle for community integration," and he describes his candidacy in the same terms:
"Hopefully it will open a lot of doors, and raise the hope that if a Latino can be elected to a municipal office in North Carolina, if we do that, that means a Latino can be elected to be president of the United States one day."
A Herrera victory would indeed be a groundbreaking political step for the state's Latino community. He would be the first first-generation Latino to be elected to a municipal office in North Carolina.
With the latest influx of Latino immigrants, community organizers have made significant strides toward securing workplace safety, access to health care, and economic stability. But Latino involvement in state and local politics pales in comparison to their accomplishments in these other areas.
Figures from the 2000 census and election put the challenge in perspective. Between 1990 and 2000, the numbers of N.C. residents who identify themselves as Hispanic or Latino jumped from 76,726 to 378,963--from 1.2 to 4.7 percent of the state population--according to the official count. But the census number is viewed by many local Latino leaders as an undercount. The true total, they say, is closer to 500,000.
Whatever the actual total, the census brought a new appreciation for the size and import of the state's Latino population. The numbers, released last spring, prompted some rosy assessments of the community's political prowess. Newspaper articles spoke of the "growing political pull" and "increased leverage" of N.C. Latinos.
But the 2000 elections told a different story, at least in terms of voter participation. There's no precise data on how many Latinos voted, in part because voter registration forms did not list their ethnicity as a category, but there are indications. According to an exit poll conducted by ABC News, less than one percent of North Carolina voters identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino.
"North Carolina has had this amazing and phenomenal growth in Latino population, but there's lots of things that have to happen for that growth to translate to political clout," says Rosalind Gold, research director for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, based in Los Angeles. The organization keeps a nationwide database of first-generation Latinos who are elected to office, and it lists only one in North Carolina: state Rep. Danny McComas, a Republican from Wilmington who was born in Puerto Rico.
But this fall's local elections are viewed as a potential watershed, with Latino communities finding some strength in numbers and gaining practical experience in how electoral politics work.
"Everybody's excited," says Matty Lazo-Chadderton, who serves as both a co-chair of the Hispanic Democrats of North Carolina and the Latino affairs assistant for state Sen. Marc Basnight. "There's a momentum right now."
Several statewide organizing efforts point to the potential of the Latino vote. The state Democratic and Republican parties have formed Latino outreach committees. Since 1998, the governor has had a permanent and influential Latino affairs office. And in January, El Pueblo, a Raleigh-based advocacy group, launched the state's first Latino lobbying campaign in the General Assembly.
Nolo Martínez, director of the Governor's Advisory Council on Hispanic-Latino Affairs, says that recent immigrants' best shot at political representation will be at the local level, at least for now. "When we look at the political power or influence of the Hispanic community, I see it more in the local elections, and even in representation on a number of different boards and commissions," he says.
"There are cultural factors that will influence the participation," Martínez adds. Many recent immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries, he says, at first resented being labeled as simply Latino, with no acknowledgement of their country of birth. "Suddenly we were grouped and we didn't like it, we felt like we lost identity," he says. "But then we realized that this identity gives you some political influence in a democracy. It's kind of like an awakening of how the political process works."
This awakening is tempered by the fact that while many North Carolina Latinos have been involved in local and state politics for years, those who have not yet attained U.S. citizenship are shut out of the ballot box. The community will have to wage a vigorous campaign to help recent immigrants become citizens, a prerequisite for voting.
Some recent developments have set the stage for greater Latino voter participation. A federal law mandates that in elections where 6 percent or more of the local population speaks a language other than English, ballot instructions in that language must be provided. Carrboro, which charted a 12 percent Latino population in the 2000 census, is the first and only municipality in the Triangle to qualify for Spanish instructions.
And the state board of elections will soon take a step that will help quantify and mobilize the Latino political base. For the first time, "Hispanic/Latino" will appear as a category on voter registration forms, providing confirmation of the community's potential at the polls.
But genuine political empowerment will take more than just greater numbers of citizens and better ballot access, Gold says. "A parallel process has to occur: There needs to be building of the Latino political infrastructure, leadership development and candidate recruitment."
If that process is indeed beginning to occur in the Triangle, it's due in no small part to the work of John Herrera. He's done far more than create the state's largest Latino festival. He also co-founded El Centro Latino, an advocacy center in Carrboro that opened last year, and has served as president of El Pueblo in Raleigh, as a board member for El Centro Hispano in Durham, as a board member of the North Carolina Arts Council and as a commissioner on the Orange County Human Relations Commission.
Herrera's signature career accomplishment was launching the Cooperativa Comunitaria Latina de Credito (Latino Community Credit Union), North Carolina's first Latino-focused financial center, on West Main Street in downtown Durham.
After 14 months of operation, the credit union has approximately 2,500 members and $8.7 million in assets, and is being used as a model for similar institutions around the country. Last year, the project garnered Herrera an Independent Weekly Citizen's Award.
For all his work among recent immigrants, Herrera says he doesn't want to be pigeonholed as simply "the Latino candidate" in the Carrboro race.
"I want to represent all voices in Carrboro," he says, "not just the immigrant, not just black and white, but gays and lesbians, the elderly, youth, homeowners, renters, business folks and environmentalists. That diversity is what I love about living in Carrboro."
Herrera's political platform is composed of three planks: promoting diversity, greater citizen involvement in town government and coalition building to address the challenges facing the town. This talk of building coalitions isn't just lofty sloganeering for Herrera; it's a necessity. He recognizes that he can't win without bringing several constituencies on board: the emerging Latino bloc isn't large enough to carry him into office.
And Herrera's years of organizing in the Triangle have convinced him, he says, that "creative partnerships"--involving "the county, state, private, public, nonprofit, for-profit" interests--are the best ways to make policy.
In his campaign, Herrera is stressing support for stronger air-quality measures, a greenways program, more and better public transportation and affordable housing and a "Buy Carrboro" campaign to buoy local businesses.
Those themes have played well in the past in Carrboro politics. If he wins, Herrera's race could act as a catalyst to draw larger numbers of Latinos into local politics.
"If Latinos in North Carolina can see a leader and support that leader," says Martínez of the governor's office, "they will sense the importance of becoming part of the system."
"We're thinking North Carolina has a real opportunity," Gold says. When Latino political assimilation comes, she predicts, it will be a natural step, born of shared interests:
"What will probably be happening in North Carolina is the same thing we see in communities around the United States. People are realizing that the issues important to the Latino community are the same that others value: education, a good economy, quality of life and safe neighborhoods. Those are the dreams that are shared by everyone else in North Carolina."