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Rey Guerra: Latinos in Houston 2012

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

Rey Guerra

White, Black, Asian, or other, if you live in Houston, you’ve more than likely adopted aspects of Latino culture into your own, it’s inevitable.

In statistically the most diverse city in the United States, Latinos are 44% of the population.

You personally probably know how to say a couple of words in Spanish. You have a couple of friends who are ‘Hispanic.’ At the very least, you love Mexican food.

Most clubs have Latin night, clientele at salsa dance studios all over the city are of non-Latino origin, the Dynamo just built a new stadium, fajitas were invented by Mama Ninfa right here in Houston, and even the fabled Texas Cowboy hat has its origins in Latin America.

Latinos, their customs, their language, and their food, very much influence the social culture of Houston. Latinos, however, have not had nearly the influence on Houston’s civic/political culture…until recently.

Remarkably Underrepresented
Latinos are 44% of the population of the City of Houston, yet currently 0 of 4 County Commissioners (0%), 0 of 5 surrounding US Congresspersons (0%), 2 of 9 HISD School Board Members (22%), and only 2 of 16 Houston City Council Members (12.5%) are Latino.

Latinos in Houston are as underrepresented as they have ever been and recent elections are no cause for optimism. Former Commissioner Sylvia Garcia lost a close re-election race in historically Latino Precinct 2 in 2010. An extremely qualified Bolivar Fraga lost in his bid to win an At-Large City Council seat in 2011. In fact, Latinos have been the largest ethnic group in Houston since 2000, but have not won a city-wide race since the 90’s.

Anti-Latino Policy
Despite the overwhelming population growth in Texas, all indications are that anti-Latino rhetoric and sentiment in Texas is intensifying. At the beginning of the 2011 Texas Legislative Session, over 70 anti-Latino bills were introduced–on the first day alone.

Despite not being able to fund education or balance the budget, Rick Perry put two anti-Latino bills at the top of his Legislative Agenda. Not content, minutes after the Supreme Court gutted Arizona’s SB1070, the Governor announced his intention to pursue the “show me your papers” provision of the law in the upcoming Legislative Session.

Anti-Latino policy is prevalent here locally as well. Harris County Commissioners Court is in the middle of a court battle in their attempt to eliminate the only Latino opportunity commissioner’s precinct via redistricting.

Despite community outrage and without much notice or stated reason, HISD recently shutdown Kaleidoscope Middle School, a Texas Exemplary Status school
serving recent immigrants, low-income, and Spanish-speaking residents.

Harris County even went so far as to ban piñatas at nearly 3 dozen of its parks.

Reason for Hope
There is evidence, however, that things are changing.

Communities are organizing. Dozens of Latino and non-Latino organizations and small businesses joined together in advocating for and winning two new Latino-opportunity districts (A and J) during the City of Houston redistricting process.

Houston’s Mayor is an advocate. Mayor Annise Parker has been extremely inclusive of all communities in Houston, and her willingness to listen to the voices of her constituent communities has led to her presiding over some great victories for the Latino community, including COH redistricting, Harrisburg’s METRO underpass, and the designation of Rufus Cage Elementary in the East End as a protected historical landmark.

Candidates are targeting Latinos. Both Mayor Parker and Council Member Mike Laster looked to emerging Latino leaders to be treasurers of their campaigns. Non-Latino candidates Gene Wu and Erica Lee have been overt about their advocacy for Latinos and Latino issues.

Candidates continue to run. Silvia Mintz, Mary Ann Perez, Julia Maldonado, and Cindy Vara-Leija are a few of the names of Latinas currently on the ballot. All are extremely qualified and would represent all communities well.

There’s even evidence of increased voter turnout. A group of civically minded individuals and organizations recently hosted a Tacos and Votes event that drew the 2nd highest turnout of any precinct in Harris County during the Saturday of early voting (and the event was broadcast globally by NPR); Impressive considering that the area in which it was held has historically been one of the lowest turnout locations for Latinos in the County.

Moving Forward
It’s been said that the Latino community in Houston today has more energy and more momentum than it’s had in over 30 years; since the days of Ben Reyes, Leonel Castillo, and the murder of Joe Campos Torres.

What’s been most impressive to me is that energy and momentum exhibited by today’s Latino community isn’t necessarily in coalescing around a candidate or a specific issue. It seems to be happening organically, out of a sense that is at times anger, at times hope, and at other times a need for simple fairness.

Throughout history no community, including the oppressing community, has benefited when such a large percentage of its population has been the target of such harsh repressive behavior.

The tide seems to be turning. More and more leaders in Houston and across the country are targeting the Latino community. President Obama’s recent memo
providing relief to undocumented youth has galvanized thousands of Houstonians. Houston’s diverse communities are more and more working together to resolve common issues.

The Latino community in Houston, for its part, is responding. Given the demographics of Houston and the current anti-Latino climate in Texas and across
the country, there has never been a more important time for Latinos in this City.

Dr. Rey Guerra is an engineer in the renewable energy field and is the Chair of the Greater Houston Civic Coalition, a group dedicated to resolving social, economic, and civic issues through education, training, and advocacy.

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  1. Mainstream says:

    I take fundamental exception to the premise of this guest column, that Hispanics are only “represented” in government when a Hispanic person serves as their representative on city council, in the state legislature, etc. Does this mean that none of the whites or blacks or Asians in the districts of the Hispanic officeholders he cites are receiving any representation in government?

    First, while Hispanics may be 44% of total population, when you remove children under the age of 18 unable to vote, and non-citizens (whether legal or illegal/undocumented), the figure is closer to 20% of our community. So there is a rough proportionality, related to residential patterns in the presence of Hispanic persons serving on HISD and city council. Notably, the article omits mention of the roughly proportional representation by a state senator and state House members who are Hispanic.

    Second, this business of counting people who are “Hispanic” gets into an area of identity politics which is offensive to me, but advocates like Dr. Guerra always seem to overlook Hispanic persons who are conservative or Republican. So he omits noting that 100% of the county treasurers in Harris County are Hispanic. Why does he get to decide that Helena Brown does not qualify for his quota to be counted among the Hispanic members of city council, when her mother is a Guzman Garcia? Does he even know that Judge Natalie Fleming is Cuban-American by heritage? And is Jack Moorman, who grew up with Hispanic friends and neighbors and is married to a Latina, any less a valid “representative” of Hispanic interests in his community than the Latina he displaced?? Who gets to decide this? Dr. Guerra? or the individual voters of all ethnic heritages who actually live in that district?

    Third, as Hispanics/Latinos meld into the broader community, it is hard to draw ethnically separate districts, even if this was a desirable process. But isn’t this social integration a good thing?

    Isn’t it time to move beyond race-based politics?

  2. Eyeroll says:

    It’s interesting how Rey Guerra bemoans the under representation of Houston Hispanics in elected office when he OPPOSED a qualified Latina for Houston City Council District J last cycle in favor of the white Anglo male. So maybe in his next post Guerra can tell us WHY he says one thing and does another. People like Rey Guerra hold Latinos and especially Latinas back because they want to be important without doing the hard work. They sell out, like he sold out, and rationalize the hypocrisy. To quote George W, “Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.”

  3. Mainstream says:

    Another ironic wrinkle about all this analysis. From time to time a Hispanic person wins office, but is not the preferred candidate of the Hispanic voters in his or her district. Jessica Farrar is an example. When she first won office, it was because the white voters of the district preferred her to Brian Quintero, while he was the candidate who won the most Hispanic voters’ support. Of course, this is likely also true of Orlando Sanchez in his victories countywide for Treasurer, and the various GOP Hispanic judges like Guzman, Alcala, Medina, Fleming, Velasquez, and may be true for Mayfield (in the future). But I have not confirmed this by reviewing the precinct level data.

  4. […] for federal crop insurance.” ….  Neanderthals: “Harris County even went so far as to ban piñatas at nearly 3 dozen of its […]