SAN DIEGO — Barack Obama’s sizeable opinion-poll lead among Hispanics over John McCain was reflected in the reaction to their speeches to the 5,000 participants in the National Council of La Raza’s annual conference here July 11-15.
“Obama spoke to all the important issues to our community. It was a very good speech that helped connect him to the Latino community,” said Raul Yzaguirre, who served as NCLR’s president from 1974 to 2005.
Obama touched on a range of key issues in his speech, including the Iraq war, immigration and community empowerment. However, according to many participants, McCain fell short in a number of areas.
“Incredibly, McCain did not even address the issues of the war in Iraq or his policy on health care. On immigration it was more of the same: secure the borders and no stop to the raids,” said Angela Sambrano, an NCLR board member and director of the National Alliance of Latin-American and Caribbean Communities.
NCLR Vice President Cecilia Muñoz said “There’s a confusion about where he stands substantively” on the key question of immigration.
NCLR celebrated its 40th anniversary at this gathering. It started as the Southwest Council of La Raza in 1968. This year, its thousands of delegates came from every region of the country, represented Central American, South American and Caribbean communities as well as Mexican Americans. In plenary sessions and workshops the majority of leaders and participants were women, with hundreds of youth leaders from around the country.
Irene Godinez, 26, of Raleigh, N.C., who leads statewide public policy advocacy for the organization El Pueblo, said she thought “McCain was diplomatic and stressed his priorities like border security, cushioning it by saying the immigrants were ‘God’s children.’”
But a significant language difference gained Godinez’s attention. “I noticed McCain spoke of serving American children while Obama stressed everyone,” she said. “This is important for me because our Legislature just passed a law excluding undocumented students from community colleges.”
Health care advocate Teresa Quezada, vice president of Mujeres Latinas of Modesto, Calif., took a more critical tone. “McCain’s speech was a cop-out. We need to address the reality, like the financial strain and drain of the war in Iraq costing trillions of dollars. McCain didn’t address issues dear to my heart like health care and child care. Obama did.” She added angrily, “McCain said he opposed immigrant bashing, but he stressed ‘criminals and drugs’ coming across the borders time after time. That’s really bashing to me.”
Seventeen-year-old Joshua Messick-Vega, from the Kansas City, Mo., Guadalupe Center and a participant in NCLR’s youth leadership program Escalera (ladder), said he preferred Obama over McCain because Obama “comes from the common people, not higher ups — he knows where we are coming from.” Messick-Vega said he had preregistered to vote in November, when he will be 18.
Cindy Haslam, 18, a recent graduate of Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, said she preferred Obama because “he has roots like mine and he supports the Dream Act” (a proposed law enabling undocumented students to attend college).
A clear indication of Obama’s appeal to Latinos is his emphasis on mass voter registration and getting out the Latino vote. He told NCLR, “Make no mistake, the Latino community holds this election in your hands. I need your advice and expertise. I need you to organize people, to knock on doors, make calls and register voters. Talk to your friends and family, co-workers and neighbors and make sure they cast their ballots on Election Day.”
McCain acknowledged the tendency in the multi-ethnic Latino community to vote Democratic, saying he intends “to compete for your vote.”
Janet Murgia, president of NCLR, made clear that empowering Latinos this election year, especially youth, is a top priority. She also called for fighting immigrant- and Latino-bashing with grassroots action and coalition building.
Former president Yzaguirre echoed the sentiment. “The issue of the media has to be a big issue for us like education, health care and housing,” he said. “We have to confront Lou Dobbs, Rush Limbaugh, O’Reilly and right-wing radio.”
He added that electing a Congress to return the public airwaves to serve all the people and not just the huge monopolies is a critical fight. “We have to find the ways to tell our story.”