Willie Velasquez would be proud of a Midwest leadership network growing its national prominence.
Consider it's the year 2025. What will be in store for the United States? Alternative fuel automobiles gracing the highways? New electronic devices that make work easier and leisure time more relaxing? At least 50,000 Hispanics elected to political office nationwide?
The latter is the forecast of the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute (USHLI) and it is confident it can make that come true. So far, the number of Hispanic elected officials stands at about 7,000, according to one of its founding members and president, Juan Andrade, and he's optimistic the number will grow. After all, Mr. Andrade has observed a positive transformation, one could say an awakening, in the Hispanic population that has served as the catalyst for USHLI. He and the three other founding members -- Rey Gonzalez, Hank Lacayo and the late Willie Velasquez have led a quiet empowerment of locally based Hispanics focused on voter registration and leadership development.
USHLI is a tax-exempt organization that does not endorse candidates in any type of election. One of its core goals is to target research on Hispanic political opportunities related to census counts. Other goals include becoming involved with redistricting, and "to ensure that Latinos can fairly and effectively elect candidates of their choice, conduct candidate training and campaign management schools, register voters and organize nonpartisan get-out-to-vote activities," according to Mr. Andrade.
"(Mr. Andrade) is not only one of the premiere political operatives in the Hispanic community in voter registration, but also one of the top scholars and motivators of Hispanic youth," said former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who was fresh from a trip to North Korea that ended his term. "He is probably responsible for raising the sensitivity of the Latino community in the Midwest more than any other human being. He perfected the techniques that are used to successfully lure Latinos to the polls."
The organization serves as a mobile training program for current and future Hispanic leaders by offering a series of leadership development programs, which includes civic education; college fairs for high school students; and training on how to formulate, implement and influence public policy. And they do all of this with a small staff of about seven to 10 professionals, plus 10 year-round paid interns with an annual budget of about $1.5 million.
Registering and Voting
Registering Hispanics to vote is an important part of the USHLI goals. Since its inception, it has registered more than 2 million Hispanics, according to U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.
"That means greater empowerment. It means elected office holders more and more coming from our community, or people who are more responsive to our community because they understand that we not only have a voice, but a vote," Sen. Menendez continued. "It's important to instill in the next generation of Latinos a sense of a commitment and engagement. It doesn't mean that everyone is going to run for public office."
The importance of the Hispanic community on the political front was underscored by Mr. Gonzalez, current chairman of USHLI: "We're the fastest growing (community) of the country and by 2040, projections are about one in three Americans will be Hispanic. We cannot afford to have Latinos not participating in the electoral process."
Mr. Gonzalez and Mr. Andrade remain the most active of the four founding USHLI members. Mr. Lacayo, 80, has devoted more than 50 years to the United Auto Workers, teamed with Cesar Chavez in his fight to gain farm-workers' rights, and served as the deputy campaign director and state coordinator for Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential election. He was the USHLI's first treasurer.
But always, the driving force behind USHLI has been to empower and educate Hispanics about participating in the electoral process. Before it became USHLI, the organization was called the Midwest Voter Registration and Education Project. It was similar to an already-established organization with Mr. Velasquez at the helm--the Southwest Voter Education Project.
"The idea was to (influence) our Latinos to register and vote, and Juan was pretty good at getting demographics information to organize the Latino community," Mr. Lacayo, who served as the organization's first chairman, said. "By and large, there was a lack of attention to our folks to make sure that they were at the table whenever things were happening."
A lack of Hispanic voters, elected officials and corporate executives was the main impetus for USHLI's inception.
"The (organization) was rooted in principles of civic engagement and political empowerment, research and educating the Latino community on the electoral process and educating the general public," Mr. Andrade said.
The Roots of USHLI
The seeds for USHLI were sown in Chicago. Mr. Gonzalez had been a regional director at the National Council of La Raza (NLCR) from 1979 to 1981. Mr. Gonzalez remembers USHLI's formative years as an exciting time. Time Magazine had just named the 1980s as The Decade of the Hispanics and "it was kind of the birth of the recognition of the growth of the Latino community," he recalls.
After college, Mr. Gonzalez left work at the steel mills and went to work for the Chicago Urban League, a program that helped open doors for women and minorities into the building and construction trade. He then began working as a regional director at the National Council of La Raza from 1979 to 1981. This is where he met Mr. Andrade, as well as Raul Yzaguirre, who currently is the U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republican and for 30 years served as the president and CEO of the NCLR.
Mr. Andrade went to the NCLR seeking funding for research that focused on the need to assess Hispanic political capability in the Midwest. Mr. Gonzalez offered him office space for his Midwest Voter Registration and Education Project. And from that seed USHLI grew.
The four—Mr. Andrade, Mr. Gonzalez, Mr. Lacayo and Mr. Velasquez--first met at a hotel at O'Hare airport in Chicago, and created USHLI as a regional operation in 1982.
"As a young person, close to 29 years ago, for me to be sitting at the table with giants from our community, it was tremendously exciting and powerful experience for me," Mr. Gonzalez said. They looked for sponsors in every sector--foundations, corporations, individuals and unions.
The first grant was from the UAW for $15,000 and the organization was born. Mr. Gonzalez's Illinois home was the legal address of the organization for close to 15 years. In time, Anheuser-Busch stepped up as its first corporate sponsor. Rockefeller and the Joyce Foundation soon followed.
"We weren't national yet, but certainly bigger than the Midwest and then years later we expanded our work to Florida to the southeast part of the country," Mr. Andrade said. USHLI became the official name in 1996.
"We probably have done more research on Latino voting trends than anyone else in the country," Mr. Gonzalez said. "The more successful we became the more in demand we became."
There already was "a thirst by Latinos in the country for assistance and help with their voter registration and voter education programs," Mr. Gonzalez said. "There was a growing sentiment around the country for Latinos to become involved in the political process, run for political offices, and determine our own destiny."
That thirst would be whetted with the advent of USHLI's annual conference.
The Annual Conference
Now in its 29th year, the idea for the first USHLI annual conference came not long after the organization's inception. The founders held the first conference in Chicago in November 1983. The conference began as 1 1/2 days and then it grew to three. The focus was on topics such as education, youth, voter registration, candidate training, how to run a successful campaign and how to use the media. They had a goal to attract 300 participants--674 showed up.
"Of the estimated 275,000 participants we have had in our leadership development programs to date, over 100,000 have attended our national conference," he added.
The highlight of the inaugural conference for Mr. Andrade was having then newly elected Mayor Harold Washington, the first African-American to hold that office in Chicago, as a key speaker. Mr. Washington told the crowd that, if it were not for the Hispanic vote, he would not have been elected.
"Our vote had never been acknowledged at that level, anywhere in the Midwest or in most places around the country," Mr. Andrade recalls.
The second year, the USHLI board booked a locale for 700 and ended up with 1,500 people. According to Mr. Gonzalez, at the height of the conference, just before Sept. 11, 2001, they drew a crowd of about 10,000. From these conferences, the new leadership within the Hispanic community came of age.
Helping Train Leadership
For Eduardo Garza, 35, the USHLI conference was his first taste of the organization's influence. He was 12 when he first met Mr. Andrade, whom he recognized from his stint as a political commentator on ABC-7 television.
"The theme has always been about leadership, culture, education and empowerment," said Mr. Garza, who is the recipient of the Dr. Juan Andrade Scholarship for Young Hispanic Leaders.
Mr. Garza eventually became a member of the conference planning committee, then an intern for USHLI through his college years and eventually became an employee of the organization.
Another product of USHLI is Janet Padilla, 31. She was first introduced to the conference her freshman year of high school. Now she said she feels a responsibility to give back to her community.
"The conference is a wealth of knowledge and resources. They run so many different sessions and in every session you basically have a pool of role models and leaders in our community that you have access to," she said. "This was all new to me. After that first year, I attended a good 12 years straight."
A notable conference speaker and a current USHLI board member is Henry Cisneros, who became mayor of San Antonio, the second Hispanic to reach that office in a major metropolitan city. Cisneros also served as the 10th secretary of housing and urban development in the administration of President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1997. Mr. Cisneros has known Mr. Andrade for 25 years and is the recipient of USHLI honors.
"Our relationship has been quite intense for a long time," Mr. Cisneros said. "USHLI is the most impressive Latino organization in the country in terms of mobilizing young people. Since the late 1980s, I have observed Juan Andrade's efforts to develop young people by recruiting them from around the nation to leadership development courses and literally as many as 10,000 young people at some meetings."
Gaddi Holguin Vasquez, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture, in Rome, Italy, and the first person of Hispanic descent to head the Peace Corps, also has been a guest speaker at USHLI's conferences. He fondly remembers that Cesar Chavez was being honored at the first conference he attended.
"I was overtaken by the level of participation, the level of enthusiasm and energy and taken by the amazing leadership of Juan Andarade, who has had an amazing journey in life, but also the fact that he has maintained this organization and taken it to some real levels of accomplishment," Mr. Vasquez shared. "One of the great dynamics of USHLI is the fact that it brings young people of all ages together with role models and mentors and individuals who are leaders in their own right to share their experience, to inspire and motivate them to dream big dreams."
Hopeful, but Not Satisfied
Since 2000, USHLI has published four editions of The Almanac of Latino Politics. It's a comprehensive survey and analysis of national Latino voting patterns and trends, plus a detailed survey of Latino voter registration, voter turnout and voting behavior in all presidential elections since 1976.
"It's referred to as the bible of Latino politics," Mr. Andrade said.
For Mr. Vasquez, the almanac helps celebrate the fact that Hispanics have made substantial progress and "that's evident as recently as this election," he said. "Our vote is the ultimate equalizer. It doesn't matter where you sit on the social economic ladder in American society. At the end of the day when you step into that ballot box, you are an American citizen casting a vote," Mr. Vasquez said.
For Mr. Gonzalez, maintaining the organization's grass-roots effort is key and one he intends on holding true to.
"People have a tendency to focus on the presidential election. Well, the reality is where you get better schools, better sanitation, better quality of life for you and your family is local politics and so a grass-roots strategy is what makes sense," he said. "(People at the local level) are the ones with the enthusiasm, passion and compassion, and the work ethic to get things done."
With the recent 2010 election, the United States saw the first Hispanic female become a state governor, but Mr. Andrade still isn't satisfied. A recipient of the Presidential Medal--one of only two Hispanics to receive the honor--Andrade plans to continue his efforts to promote leadership within that Hispanic community.
"We're still seriously underrepresented. There are still cities that are trying to elect their first (Hispanic) city council member and school board," he said. "We should be electing second-generation members of city council. I'm not satisfied at all, but we know what we do works but it's going to take a lot more work and we're going to need more help in getting the job done."
Considering he was working in the fields at age 4, during a time when the government made it nearly impossible for his father to vote in America, he has come a long way and brought with him new generations of Hispanic leaders.
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