You have to understand, it wasn't the numbers that made this conference remarkable. It was los numeros. As in 14 percent of the U.S. population by 2010, to surpass African Americans as the largest U.S. minority. As in nearly Four Hundred Billion Dollars in annual consumer buying power. Those numbers.
Yesterday at the fourth annual Nuestra Gente (Our People) U.S. Latino Awareness Conference, issues filled the cavernous Ronald Reagan Building even if there were under 150 folks. So although the conference was small, and although the agenda was a tad scattershot, there was a certain swagger behind it. A kind of raising of the collective brown fist, along with a peek to make sure people were paying attention.
We are powerful, we are strong, ignore us at your own peril, and by the way, thank you for being here. It is part of the Latino double reality. A group poised to become the largest minority in the nation dialoguing on issues of pride, identity, representation. A nascent coalition and folks who've been around for a long time. Bilingual and Spanish-only, soccer moms and Latino Urban Professionals. Generation n. "Are you listening?" Estan escuchando, they asked yesterday.
(And by the way, they are waaay over gringos who know a few words of Spanish, comprendes?) What they've been ready for is a bigger piece of the pie. And now they are finding the muscle to grab it.
"Did you know that 37 percent of Hispanics are under the age of 18?" asks Luis Vasquez-Ajmac, president of Maya Advertising and Communications, which sponsors the Nuestra Gente conference. He calls the 18-to-30-year-old Hispanic population Generation n (en-yay) and says he's developing an English and Spanish television show, to be shown on Channel 30 and Channel 9, specifically to target this group.
His message to advertisers: You can't paint with that broad, immigrant, illegal-alien, gangbanger brush. "If you do, you'll miss me," Vasquez-Ajmac says.
"We Latino consumers must begin to demand our visibility as Americans," says Emilio Delgado, who for 28 years has played the shopkeeper Luis on "Sesame Street." "What do we want? We want more Latinos in media. . . . Given our numbers, we want a piece of the action."
All morning, panelists hammered home messages of empowerment based on the numbers. Don't settle for less, Anna Maria Arias of Latina Style magazine exhorted. Demand top advertising dollar. Resist being called "the sleeping giant," George Herrera of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce said. "We've been here."
They invoked the spirit of Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Gloria Estefan and Henry Cisneros. And of course, they invoked the numbers. Numbers that folks are wielding, getting the hang of, kinda like superpowers. There's the power to demand accountability and the power to command media attention. There are larger, more policy-oriented national Hispanic conferences, among them the National Council of La Raza, the Mexican-Amer- ican Legal Defense Fund, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Still, Nuestra Gente doubled its media coverage from last year, securing radio, local TV and a hometown newspaper.
Among the conferees, there was a great deal of support for the recent NAACP call for a black- and brownout of television networks that don't put more minority faces on television. "We're all over these kinds of goals," says Vasquez-Ajmac. Alfred Ramirez, president of the National Community for Latino Leadership, also supports the goal of minority representation in television, but cautions it shouldn't be a zero-sum game. "We want to avoid a divide-and-conquer. . . . There is enough to go around for everyone," he says confidently.
Over lunch, Latina pop singer Patty Cabrera, voted one of People magazine's most beautiful people in 1996, entertained the crowd. Being Hispanic these days is seen as so "hip," she said dismissively. "Now because it's cool, people want to claim it." Still, she encouraged the audience, even the gringos, to think of themselves as one big "familia."
There were whistling and ululating and enthusiastic cries of "Esa!" ("that's it") during a performance by the Maru Montero Dance Company. During an especially up-tempo number, one of the lead dancers pulled Dick Reingold, general manager of WUSA Channel 9 and the conference's "Amigo" award winner onstage, and he did a painful merengue.
Still, the audience was generous and appreciative, giving him Latin love for the effort. There had been networking and enough media attention to call the afternoon a success. They could afford to be gracious.
After all, they had the numbers on their side.
CAPTION: Former surgeon general Antonia Novello, left, and George Herrera of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce at the Latino Awareness Conference.