July 18, 2008


Obama and McCain in San Diego

Free Beer and Dog Tags at the NCLR Expo

By Jorge Mariscal

Strolling across the convention center with her granddaughter, Dolores Huerta, who made history with Cesar Chavez over forty years ago, received an occasional greeting from those who recognized her. But most of the well-dressed Latino and Latina 20- and 30-somethings hurried past her on their way to free salsa lessons sponsored by Ford or free beer provided by Miller Lite.

Like the dozens of recently arrived immigrants and long-time permanent residents on their way to the free workshops on citizenship, they had no idea that they had just rubbed elbows with one of the major figures of U.S. labor and civil rights history.

If Barack Obama symbolizes “post-civil rights” politics, the Latino Expo at the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) conference held in San Diego last weekend was the embodiment of a post-Chicano Movement universe in which unions, mass mobilizations, and social critique are relics of a long gone era.

The NCLR Expo was a corporate-funded orgy of mainstream Hispanic identity and culture. Outside the convention center, misguided Minutemen and others angry about the immigration mess clung to the deluded belief that NCLR was a “leftist” or “separatist” organization.

With virtually no remaining links to the Chicano and Puerto Rican militancy of the Vietnam War era that typified its founding fathers Herman Gallegos, Ernesto Galarza, and Julian Samora, the NCLR today is the brainchild of former director Raul Yzaguirre and the top-down corporate vision he imposed on the organization in the late 1970s.

On the floor of the convention center, those with the flashiest displays received the greatest attention. Dozens of Latino and Latina youth crowded around the U.S. Army booth where soldiers clad in fatigues printed out personalized dog tags in exchange for the young person’s personal contact information.

Across the aisle, young Latino Marines in dress blues invited children from 8 to 18 to do pull-ups on two improvised bars. An attractive young Latina Marine barked “Aguanta, aguanta” as she encouraged a young girl to do one more pull-up.

Photo by David Maung.

At the far end of the hall were the booths for those minimally funded volunteer organizations that quietly do their work day after day in real communities. Noticeably absent were displays devoted to education. Book vendors were nowhere to be found and only one or two colleges were represented.

Two young couples in formal wear danced stylized waltzes near the Wal-Mart display as the PA system announced more free beer at the Heineken booth. Recent arrivals mingled with careerist Hispanics three or four generations removed from the immigrant experience. Somewhere in the bowels of the convention center, actual community workshops were taking place. But the public face of the conference was all pan y circos (bread and circuses).

Not far from this carnival of 21st-century Hispanic consumer capitalism, presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain made their final stop in the month-long tour of mainstream Hispanic advocacy organizations. By the time they arrived in San Diego, both had already visited the annual meetings of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).

The notion that any of these groups represent the hopes and aspirations of the majority of working-class Latinos is laughable although the lobbying clout of all three groups within the Washington, D.C. beltway is undeniable.

The Obama campaign’s outreach to the Latino grassroots has been sporadic at best. Anxious appeals for Spanish-speaking volunteers from non-Latino field directors working in swing states like New Mexico and Nevada suggest that the campaign is still far from establishing an effective infrastructure. Apparently, California is considered a sure win. The latest national polls show Obama winning the Latino vote over McCain by almost 40 percentage points.

On Tuesday, many disappointed conference goers complained that whereas McCain spent several minutes after his speech responding to questions from the public (even handing his microphone over to local immigrant rights activist Enrique Morones), Obama left immediately and refused to dialogue with the audience. Instead, staffers in his campaign held a 3-hour information session for selected NCLR members.

As La Prensa San Diego pointed out last week, many Latinos in California are beginning to feel frustrated and somewhat taken for granted. In San Diego, Latinos hoping to volunteer for Obama are hard pressed to find an office or even a contact person. Cuauhtemoc Figueroa, Obama’s national director for Latino outreach, promises to ramp up efforts very soon. But the danger for the Obama camp is that because of its lingering neglect of key regions Latino support could soften and turnout in November might decline.

Although the mainstream media has yet to grasp the fact, the so-called Hispanic vote is as fractured a conglomeration of interests and values as the nation itself. The NCLR convention reflected the most powerful segment of the Latino community, one that is at home in a world controlled by the corporations and their handmaiden the co-opted two-party system.

But unless that system is challenged from below nothing will change for the majority of Latinos no matter who the system’s latest charismatic front man might be.

Obama’s vote for the border wall, his recent lurch to the right on several issues, and the fact that in his NCLR speech he neglected to mention the occupation of Iraq, the targeting of Latino youth by military and Border Patrol recruiters, or the prison system that is devouring Black and Brown children probably will not affect his huge lead with the Latino electorate.

The question for progressive Latinos (some of whom still call themselves Chicana, Chicano, or Boricua) continues to be how best to pressure Obama and the Democrats from outside the seductive corporate vision promoted at the NCLR’s annual conference.

Jorge Mariscal is a veteran of the U.S. war in Viet Nam and Director of the Chicano/a~Latino/a Arts and Humanities Program at the University of California, San Diego.

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