Latino group sets out to mend inner divide
Arizona Republic
Feb. 2, 2005

Yvonne Wingett

Arizona's Latino leaders suffer from an identity crisis that has prevented the state's largest minority from making gains in education, housing and politics, say some, who blame widening generation gaps and weakening cultural bonds.

 The numbers say Hispanics are poised to become a powerful social and political force here and throughout the nation. What stands in their way, some believe: themselves.

 "There seems to be a lack of understanding within our own culture," says Mario E. Diaz, a Hispanic leader and political consultant. "We seem to be in our own silos. We all have the same objective: to succeed. But there's this wall between us, (between) the person who has been living in this country for years and the one who just moved here. We need to break down those barriers."

 The personal and political divisions among the Valley's educated and affluent Hispanics are rarely discussed in public, although they are quietly acknowledged in some of the Valley's most influential circles. But now, faced with what they perceive as anti-Hispanic sentiments from lawmakers and voters, some are putting party alliances and cultural differences aside.

 Hundreds of Latinos meet today in downtown Phoenix to launch an organization, the Arizona Latino Research Enterprise that will seek to answer a fundamental but perplexing question: Who are we?

 Los Angeles City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, the top Hispanic electoral hope to lead LA, will address the 11:30 a.m. luncheon at the Wyndham Hotel.

 Members of the group will spend the year clarifying where Hispanics stand on a wide range of issues through research, polling and a town hall.

They hope it leads to a greater awareness of the varied Latino communities, their nuances and ways to advance key issues from education to business and immigration.

 The attempt at self-definition comes at a critical time for younger Hispanic adults. Those younger than 40 are well positioned to lead but struggle with where they fit in and how to bridge the division between generations, say Diaz and Sal Rivera, founders of the group. The move also comes as they face an "anti-Latino" legislative agenda, a proposed English-only state and possibly a more restrictive version of Protect Arizona Now. 

At stake: improved public schools, housing, health services and political clout for the state's Hispanics, who number 1.3 million, a figure that grows daily.

 Their success, they say, depends on their ability to connect with those outside of their small, comfortable and ambitious cliques and reach the Latino who has been left out of the conversation.

 "This unspoken divide in our community is very real," said Alfredo Gutierrez, a Spanish-language talk-show host, longtime Chicano activist and former state senator and public-affairs consultant. "The crisis on top is, 'How do we fit into all of this? How do we not become irrelevant?' "

 If numbers are an indication, they aren't irrelevant. The number of upper- to middle-class Hispanics in Arizona is growing and will only strengthen with the population's continued growth, demographers and experts say. A tremendous surge in spending power, around $20 billion in Arizona, paired with increased median household incomes, are indicators of progress, says Earl de Berge of the Phoenix-based Behavior Research Center.

 But that progress often comes at a demoralizing and divisive cultural cost.

With the pressures and desires to become American, language and culture are left behind, oftentimes creating barriers with immigrants and first-generation Hispanics. They don't converse in the same language, don't relate to the same pop culture and their challenges are dramatically different. That rift, some say, has created the identity crisis. 

The Arizona Latino Research Enterprise is a mechanism to resolve it, says Alex Hernandez, owner of a pipeline company.

 The 31-year-old south Phoenix resident considers himself a "mainstream American." He's raising a family not far from where he grew up. He's active on the board for his kids' school. He's proud of the life he has built. He drives nice cars, lives in a beautiful house and says he's fortunate enough to be able to work hard. But with some Hispanics, the success has earned him the title of "sellout," he says.

 "You see it all the time," said Hernandez, who lives near Dobbins Road and 27th Avenue. "You start doing well, be the first one to go to school, and for your family, it's not the norm. It's the fear of us becoming something.

(They look at us) as sellouts and trying to be White."

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-4712.