Despite the fact that he has a history of supporting policies that have an adverse effect on Hispanics, the president is trying to play on the diversity of the Hispanic community to win support. His cinco de Mayo speech last May in San Antonio and Vice President George Bush's high profile at the recent Hispanic Voter Registration conference in San Antonio are examples of this.
But while there may be diversity within the Hispanic community, there is also a pronounced sense of unity. Certainly Mexican-Americans are different from Puerto Ricans, who are different from Cubans. Nonetheless, the term Hispanic is more than a convenient tag. It implies pride and a common identity. Further, this diversity is a unifying bond and gives access to various geographical and political regions across the United States.
Puerto Ricans, living on the mainland, are largely concentrated in the Northeast, where they have begun to exert more influence in the area's politics, economics and culture. Mexican- Americans have begun to influence politics demonstrably in the Southwest. The cultural influences have always been there, but the political influences have never been as positive; four newly elected Mexican-Americans joined the 98th Congress; the governor of New Mexico is Mexican-American, as is the mayor of San Antonio, who has been named to the president's ennewly formed Commission on Central America. Cuban-Americans have for the last 20 years been making their presence felt in south Florida.
Despite some differences on issues, a common linguistic and cultural bond has brought Hispanics together. The term Hispanic refers to a common background and common interests. The National Hispanic Voter Registration Conference was an example of this awakening among Hispanics of these common interests.
Although this sense of unity is in some ways a recent phenomenon, it has been building for the last two decades. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which started out with five members in 1976, now has 11 members. It is symbolic of the search for common ground among Hispanics. The caucus is made up of Puerto Ricans and Mexican- Americans, but it effectively represents the entire community.
There are different perspectives among caucus members, but there is an increasing awareness of the number of issues that Hispanics share. Even if there is not always a consensus of the members, discussion is maintained.
Perhaps the initial reason for the new sense of unity among Hispanics was practical. Most Hispanics suffer economically in comparison to the majority community. In addition, most have been confronted with prejudice and discrimination at some point in their lives.
The Census Bureau says there are approximately 14.5 million Hispanics in this country. The actual number may be as high as 20 million. This is more than a 50 percent increase over the 1970 official figure, representing a real potential for political power.
Voter registration drives like the San Antonio Conference represent a realization of this potential. There is some evidence of success in making Hispanics aware of the potential their vote represents.
There was an increase in voter turnout for the 1982 congressional elections with Rep. Bill Richardson, a caucus member, receiving a 71 percent Hispanic voter turnout in his district. New York's 18th Congressional District, which is 51.5 percent Hispanic, had a dramatic increase in voter participation, from a low of 11 percent in 1974 to 46 percent in 1982. The national average was 39 percent.
This growing strength and unity, however, should in no way be interpreted as a challenge to the black community. Hispanics and blacks have a great deal in common, including a higher-than-average unemployment and poverty rate. The recent coalescing of the Hispanic, Black and women's caucuses in protest of Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds' remarks on affirmative action, the president's new appointments to the Civil Rights Commission and the show of unity of the Black and Hispanic communities in opposition to certain aspects of the Simpson- Mazzoli immigration bill are illustrations of similar issues confronting the two communities. Harold Washington's election as Chicago's first black mayor was a result of Hispanic and black voter support.
Hispanics are awakening to their new strength and common identity. Like other ethnic groups in the United States, they are aware that there is more to be gained by joining hands than by bickering over petty differences.
The president may have just become aware of the power of the Hispanic vote, but those who have understood and developed that potential will not be easily swayed by public displays of affection. Hispanics will respond to those who respond to them.