Hector Flores was a first-grader in Dilley, Texas, when the renowned civil rights attorney Gus Garcia came to town to fight discrimination in the state's education system.
It was the late 1940s, and Mr. Flores and other Mexican-American children were attending segregated schools. Mr. Garcia, who headed the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), demanded – and ultimately won – equal access to education for Hispanic children in Texas. And Mr. Flores, who was among the first Hispanics in Dilley to attend an integrated school alongside Anglo students, has viewed Mr. Garcia as a hero ever since.
Today, Mr. Flores is facing new challenges to building on that legacy. Elected national president of LULAC in June 2002, he heads an organization that, according to some detractors, is struggling to remain relevant amid a slew of new Hispanic advocacy groups, many with issue-specific agendas.
Founded in 1929, LULAC quickly became a powerful voice for U.S. Hispanics on issues ranging from civil rights and education to immigration and health care. The main challenge it faces today is changing with the times, says Benjamin Marquez, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin and author of LULAC: The Evolution of a Mexican American Political Organization.
"There's been an explosion of organizations representing Latinos of all nationalities," he says. "They're more specialized groups – Mexican-American Democrats, Republicans, architects, nurses – that have their own political organization. I think it's very difficult for a multi-purpose organization like LULAC to survive in a market like that."
Antonia Hernandez, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, says much of LULAC's work remains unfinished.
"The issues in the Latino community, unfortunately, remain the same – poverty, lack of employment opportunities, lack of educational opportunities, need for greater participation in the political process, immigration," she says. "I think that galvanizing the younger folks to participate in organizations like LULAC is very important and I think that's where their strength is."
LULAC has never been particularly strong as a centralized organization, Mr. Marquez notes. Composed of more than 700 local councils with a total of about 150,000 members, the group didn't establish an office in Washington, D.C., until 1996.
Since it is primarily an organization of local volunteers, its national budget is only about $500,000, according to LULAC's fiscal office in El Paso, Texas (though the LULAC Institute, which handles the group's convention and other events, has a budget of $1.5 million, and LULAC National Educational Service Centers have a combined budget of $5.3 million). In comparison, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has an annual operating budget of $26 million and roughly 500,000 members, according to the NAACP's communications office.
"The strength of LULAC is its membership – the fact that they have representatives from all over the country," says La Raza spokeswoman Lisa Navarrete. "That's what's given them their staying power over the years."
LULAC continues to enjoy considerable name recognition. Polls show that the most well-known Latino organizations are LULAC and United Farm Workers, Mr. Marquez says.
"We have a remarkable history," says Mr. Flores. "And yes, we've stumbled and sometimes we've even fumbled the ball. But we're still at it. We're still in the game."
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