Karen Linares’s face contorted as she stared at the thick, rusted pipe and the bottle of brown water before her. The reddish-brown props used by an environmental panelist speaking about water politics at the second annual National Latino Congreso reminded Linares of water she’s seen in the numerous places she’s called home.
“The LA river water running by my house is full of filth,” said the 22-year-old Salvadoran-Chicana delegate to the five-day convergence of left-leaning Latinos held this past week in her hometown. “I saw the same brown water in El Salvador. In Tijuana you see the sewage trickling down the dirt roads,” she said. Asked what, if any, connection existed between the water she saw in her neighborhood and the water in her parents’ homelands, Linares answered, “Clear water runs upward where the money runs. Brown water runs down where poor brown people are.”
Asked how to resolve the water problems of the more than 588 million Latinos in the hemisphere, Linares responded by drawing from the deep well of the two-pronged–electoral and mass-based organizing–Latin American political culture now rooting itself in the United States: “I’m going to organize for the [California water bond] initiative. I also want to organize to help our people in the South.”
Listening to Linares, one hears echoes of the global citizenship that is thundering with increasing frequency from Canada to Patagonia. Flowing into and through Latino and Latin American political gatherings like the Congreso is a new Latino agenda, one that transcends the more nation-state-based “ethnic” politics of a previous era. Among the many resolutions passed by Linares and 1,500 other delegates were measures relating to a range of local and hemispheric issues: opposition to the Iraq war–the top concern for Latinos, according to polls; overturning Bush Administration travel restrictions to Cuba; opposition to the expansion of NAFTA or CAFTA; and support for several environmental initiatives.
Central to the new Latino agenda is the development of an electoral strategy to complement to the grassroots efforts for the 2008 presidential election, regarded by many to be the most important Latino vote in US history.
Congreso organizers like Antonio Gonzales, executive director of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, know that Democratic presidential candidates have won 248 or more electoral college votes in the last four presidential elections. He knows that this translates into Latinos wielding significant influence because most of them live in swing states.
If trends first seen in 2006 continue, he says, the Democrats can secure the 277 votes they need to win the presidency next year by simply winning Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, all sites of major Latino voting blocks. By simply adding Florida to the historic Democratic core, they get 275 votes.
To illustrate the new Latino politics, Gonzales points me back to what Linares and growing numbers of Latinos are calling “water justice.” He cited Latino support last year for California’s Proposition 86, a successful ballot initiative that increased funding for water and park projects.
“That proposition would not have passed without the 85 percent Latino support for it. They were decisive in its success,” he told me. “This was also the first-ever environmental bond initiative that lost white votes.”
Some of these same white voters were among the majority who supported Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot initiative that sought to deny health and education services to the children of the undocumented and which also launched the movement that inspired current immigrant-rights activism.
Immigration has been and continues to be at the heart of Latino politics. Congreso co-convener Oscar Chacon, leader of the Chicago-based National Association of Latin American and Caribbean Communities, an immigrant-led network of more than eighty organizations, links local immigration to global trade–only he views immigration through a much wider lens than that of the white voters who supported Proposition 187.
“NAFTA has been the main cause for more than 1.3 million Mexican campesinos to lose their livelihoods. Not surprisingly, the number of Mexicans who have emigrated to the United States rose 60 percent in the first six years after NAFTA,” said Chacon, adding, “We can only resolve immigration issues by addressing the bigger question of what is forcing so many people to emigrate in the first place. The first step is to stop expanding the same agricultural rules of NAFTA to Peru and other Latin American nations.”
Hemispheric concerns like Chacon’s will enter US voting booths in the upcoming elections. Poll after poll indicate that Latino voters, especially the immigrant voters who now make up half of all Latino votes and who are the fastest-growing voter segment, harbor profound concerns about the increased workplace raids, racial profiling, lack of immigration reform and other signs of ill-treatment of immigrants. Though most polls tell us that, like most (North) Americans, Latinos’ number-one political issue is the Iraq war, a Gallup poll conducted in July indicated that one-third of Latinos named immigration as their number-one issue.
Republican attacks on immigrants have helped galvanize the marching and voting army that may well realize the GOP’s worse fears. Most of the attendees to the Congreso were among the millions chanting a time-honored Latin American slogan, Ahorra marchamos, manana votamos–Today we march, tomorrow we vote.