News Column

The 100 Most Influential U.S. Hispanics, 2008

Sept. 30, 2008

Frank Nelson for HispanicBusiness magazine

As we present this year's 100 Most Influential, we are again reminded of the heights Hispanics have scaled as political and business leaders, beacons of education, world-class athletes, creative entertainers, administrators, and entrepreneurs. It hasn't always been easy, but these are the leaders who, through the force of their personality and their actions, have shown us that it can be done.

Our list of Influentials encompasses all parts of the nation, with many of our movers and shakers located in New York, Florida, and Texas. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that California, and Los Angeles in particular, has emerged as the center of U.S. Hispanic economic and political clout.

Our research efforts focused on the Golden State this year. More than half of our choices came from California, with 40 influential Hispanics chosen from Los Angeles alone.

According to the Census Bureau, California is home to 13 million of the 44 million Hispanics in the U.S., while LA County, with 4.7 million, has the largest Hispanic population of any county in the nation.
Hipantelligence, the research arm of Hispanic Business Inc., estimates current Hispanic spending power at $869 billion and likely to top $1 trillion in 2010, while California will account for more than one-fourth of it.

LA's Growing Political Clout
Above all, this year's list illustrates what a political powerhouse the LA area has become for Hispanics. The City and LA County are home to Congressman Xavier Becerra, Congresswoman Hilda Solis, State Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero, State Senators Gilbert Cedillo, Jenny Oropeza, and Alex Padilla, and Assembly Member Kevin de Leon, among others.

The City itself is home to a virtual "who's who" of influential Hispanics, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, and Los Angeles City Council Member Ed Reyes.

Hispanics National Insiders Wielding Influence

Meanwhile, on the national stage, the political clout of Hispanics is underscored by the appointment of Barack Obama's key strategist Federico Pena to the post of co-chair of Sen. Obama's campaign.

As the country moves toward November's presidential election, Mr. Pena, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation and Secretary of Energy, is leading Obama's nationwide Hispanic outreach, trying to woo the many Latino voters who supported Hillary Clinton in the primaries.

Tonio Burgos, chairman and CEO of Tonio Burgos & Associates, a New York-based firm specializing in strategic planning, lobbying, and public affairs, is encouraged by the progress he's seen Hispanics make.

Looking ahead to the election, he believes the Hispanic vote will prove decisive in a number of states. "There's no doubt -- Hispanics are now a significant voting bloc in this country."

Supervisor Molina, whose resume includes time spent as a state legislator and member of the LA City Council, is also heartened by the overall advancement of Hispanics who, she said, are "taking advantage of the opportunities available to them."

She's impressed by a "whole community of younger professionals," including lawyers and doctors, coming through universities, and says Hispanics are also playing a major role in this country's small business sector.

Hispanics tend to be very entrepreneurial and have a tremendous interest in developing and owning their own businesses, Ms. Molina said. "They're buying into the American dream."

This year's dramatic surge of Los Angeles as a sphere of Hispanic influence is not restricted to the political arena. A similar picture is unfolding in business, healthcare, education and law, in the media, entertainment and sports industries, and within nonprofits.

Among the healthcare leaders on this year's list, Cástulo de la Rocha is president and CEO of Los Angeles-based AltaMed Health Services Corp. which has been targeting Hispanic and other underserved communities for almost 40 years.

"Now more than ever, with the growing number of uninsured Americans, Latinos in particular continue to face significant disparities in accessing basic healthcare," Mr. de la Rocha said.

"We are passionate supporters of universal healthcare access and we will not rest until our advocacy succeeds in transforming our healthcare system into one that is truly universal and accessible to all people."

Latin American Trade Expansion

There are also signs that Los Angeles, already a major trading gateway to Mexico and Latin America, is positioning itself for an ongoing key role in a rapidly expanding global economy.

Census Bureau figures show Mexico accounted for 11 percent of all U. S. trade last year, with Latin America's share at 7.8 percent. Significant for a port city like Los Angeles, 2007 exports to Latin America grew a healthy 9 percent.

Manny Espinoza, CEO of the Los Angeles-based Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting, predicts that trend will continue. "Latin American trade is still in its infancy and can become a lot bigger," he said.

Education Is Still The Key

For hard evidence about the importance of education, look no further than this year's list. All our influential Hispanics have either graduate or college degrees. Correspondingly, every person on the list reported household income of $100,000 or more.

Yet, every leader we interviewed stressed the critical need for better access to higher education, and a system that encourages young Hispanics to stay in school longer and go on to college.

"Education, education, education," said Miami Mayor Manny Diaz when asked where attention needs to focus in helping Hispanics move forward.

"I worry about America overall," confided the mayor, who was born in Cuba and raised in Miami. "I'm concerned about the high number of Hispanic students dropping out. It's up to 50 percent and that's frightening." He also expressed concern about the correspondingly high Hispanic incarceration rate.

Mayor Diaz made it clear that he does not believe this country is making the educational investment needed to create opportunities for Hispanics. He argues that the problem has grown so bad it cannot be solved at the local level alone. "The federal government needs to reassume some responsibility for what's happening," he said.

Jorge Castro, CEO of investment management company Lombardia Capital Partners, headquartered in Pasadena, California, says any failure to fully integrate Hispanics could jeopardize the future business competitiveness of the United States.

Singling out what he calls a "crisis in education," Mr. Castro said the poor number of Hispanics graduating from college could leave the country at a serious disadvantage. "That's a huge area of concern for me, as a Hispanic and as an American."

Monica Garcia, president of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education, has her finger closer to the pulse of education than most people. And as head of a district in which 73 percent of students are Hispanic, she shares many of these concerns.

While recognizing huge strides towards inclusiveness for Latinos in such areas as politics and business, she says the nation's public school system remains "extremely challenged in providing quality programs and support".

Ms. Garcia argues the case for a national agenda to ensure students can rely on education for access to jobs, healthcare and all the other components of a secure and prosperous future. "The answer is always in education and schools," she said.

Hispanics are also feeling some serious headwind elsewhere: 61 percent of respondents say they've encountered discrimination, and not one person rated government diversity programs as "very effective" or even "effective."

Preparing For The 'Jobs Of Tomorrow'

Influential Hispanics rate access to capital and economic development as top priorities in any national Hispanic agenda.

Mario Hernandez, president of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation, is in the business of attracting companies and new jobs to this heavily Hispanic part of Texas.

He believes Hispanics are gaining a better understanding of the economy's growth occupations and becoming more adept at slotting into areas like information technology, financial services and computer security ... "the jobs of tomorrow."

Among only 22 women on this year's list, down from 34 last year, Irma Munoz is founder and president of Mujeres de la Tierra, an environmental social action community organization in Los Angeles.

"When I look at the Hispanic community, I see it now as the mainstream," she says. "In many cities we are the majority and we're participating in all aspects. ... I will hopefully live to see a Latino president or vice-president."

While Ms. Munoz still believes that more Hispanics should be in boardrooms and executive offices, her biggest disappointment remains the tension and racial conflict staining relations between the Hispanic and African American communities.

Optimism And Growing Hispanic Influence

Another prominent Latina, Margaret Lazo, senior vice-president of human resources at NBC Universal Cable and Television Entertainment in Los Angeles, regards the booming Hispanic population as a major influence in the world of media and entertainment.

She says NBC wants to reflect its audience, which means not only having Hispanics in front of the cameras but also in key behind-the-scenes roles such as writers, producers and directors, all of which looks sure to increase the future ranks of influential Hispanics.

Although some issues identified above are serious and immediate, many feel that with those describing them now in positions of influence, solutions are not far behind.

Much optimism is being generated by the belief that these leaders can and will make a difference. With Los Angeles leading the way, the major communities in America are being influenced by Hispanics at all levels.

Check out a copy of our October issue for the list of 100 Influentials, with a special section singling out 40 of the most influential entrepreneurs, educators, and politicians in L.A. Or check it out here, or on's Ranking Channel or Magazine Channel.

For more of Hispanic Business' signature lists, please see the Ranking Channel

Source: (c) 2008. All rights reserved.

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