Sunday, April 8, 2001
Hispanic power moves ahead, holds back
By CLAUDIA MOSCOSO | News-Journal Staff Writer
DAYTONA BEACH — Buoyed by a census that shows strength in numbers, Hispanic leaders in Central Florida are gearing up to become a rising political force.
And Volusia County is no exception.
Deltona City Commissioner Jose Perez says it's time for the area's sleeping giant to wake up.
"This is the right time to turn things around" and place Hispanic candidates into "local offices, congressional seats, and who knows ... maybe someday a Hispanic president," said Perez.
"We need to start mobilizing our candidates very rapidly into those positions; we have the momentum, we have the numbers," he said.
Census figures released last week show that Hispanics passed blacks to become Florida's largest minority group. African-Americans remain the largest minority group locally, but Hispanic growth has surged.
In Volusia County, the Hispanic population grew from 14,840 residents in 1990 to 29,111 in 2000, a jump of 96.2 percent. In neighboring Flagler County, one of every 20 residents are now of Hispanic descent, after a 101-percent increase from 1,260 to 2,537.
Despite the Hispanic community's accelerated growth, Perez remains a strange bird, as one of only a handful of Hispanic elected officials in the two-county area.
Perez's immediate plan to empower the community includes organizing a meeting to explain the process of drawing political boundaries, also known as redistricting, to area residents. He also wants to establish redistricting committees and forge coalitions with groups that share common goals, such as African-Americans and Mexican-Americans, to create a stronger voice to lobby for such boundaries.
Perez's move follows a recent conference organized by the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute in Orlando. Community leaders from across Central Florida were told that redistricting could help make or break minority communities.
A manual distributed at the conference explains that the new political boundaries could dilute Hispanic political strength.
So, if Hispanics don't get involved redrawing political boundaries at federal, state and local levels, others will do it for them, the manual warns. And, in that case, life for Hispanics won't be much different in the future than it is now.
For instance, large Hispanic populations in Deltona, Pierson and Palm Coast could end up:
-- Cracked (dispersed among a number of districts);
-- Packed (grouped into one district when strong Hispanic representation could have been parceled into more than one district), or
-- Stacked (mixed with larger white populations in majority white districts).
Besides distributing the manuals, the Hispanic Leadership Institute offered free technological assistance.
Rodolfo Lopez, the institute's national field coordinator, said that during this post-census year, more than 100 communities in several states, including Florida, plan to do away with pencils and erasers. They will replace those tools with the institute's state-of-the-art equipment, "so they can draw districts that are fair and equitable," Lopez said.
In Central Florida, the institute's portable computer will be connected to the research center in Chicago. By pointing and clicking with a computer mouse, staffers meeting with community groups will be able to show participants which neighborhoods have large Hispanic populations. They also will be able to draw any political boundaries residents would like to see.
Perez has volunteered his computer expertise to assist the institute in launching that initiative. But he said it was too early to speculate on possible districts that would benefit Hispanics. He expects to have a better idea after getting a chance to use the institute's program.
Rising political tide may have to wait
Many Hispanics in Volusia and Flagler counties support Perez's basic premise -- having people from the community representing them in office. But they see many obstacles standing in the way.
Blanca Hernandez, president of the Hispanic Association in Deltona, said more Hispanic officials are needed at different levels of government, such as in the school district, the state and federal levels. At the city level, she would like to have qualified candidates running for office, regardless of race or ethnicity.
"I'm interested in having Hispanic candidates seeking political office, but overall I would like to have people who are qualified holding office, people who have an interest in helping the community at large and who also have knowledge of our culture and our needs," she said.
Hernandez said that Deltona's Hispanic community, which is mostly of Puerto Rican origin, is relatively young. Many couples work and raise children, and don't have time to pursue political aspirations. Other Hispanics came to Deltona to retire, and plan to do just that.
Hernandez said, "We have to wait (15 to 20 years) for a second generation" before seeing significant political growth in the Hispanic community. In Deltona, people of Puerto Rican origin don't have to contend with immigration problems because they were born American citizens, but other Hispanic residents face a different reality.
Alfredo Cortes teaches English to non-English speakers at Pierson Elementary School. He also works with parents in various after-school activities.
Cortes has found out that many of his compatriots, most of them from Mexico, are undocumented workers whose main priority is to find jobs in Northwest Volusia and put bread on the table. Cortes says that after many immigrants find steady jobs they devote all their energies to legalize their status -- something that can take years or even a lifetime.
He doubts many people will get to the point of having spare time to get involved in Pierson's social and political life. Usually, he said, if they reach that level, people prefer to move elsewhere to take on other jobs that offer better pay and working conditions.
Over the last decade, Pierson has remained a classic example of how a majority population can remain a political minority. Hispanics account for 62 percent of the town's 2,988 residents, and in 1990 they comprised 67 percent of the town's population. Yet, Pierson's Town Council consists entirely of white people, many of them fern growers.
Cortes doesn't have any indication that the balance of power will shift in the future.
Jose Carmona, a Palm Coast resident who teaches at Daytona Beach Community College, doesn't sound too optimistic about his community either.
Carmona, a resident of Cuban roots, perceives Palm Coast's officials as a "very tight-knit group in power."
"It's very difficult to break in," he said.
Carmona said his efforts to serve on two city boards have been unsuccessful. In one case, he said he was asked to provide additional information on the day the appointments were to be made. The other attempt also involved a request for information that Carmona said was too difficult to obtain in a short time frame.
He now has reached the point that he is discouraged to "even try again."
Palm Coast Mayor James Canfield said he wasn't familiar with Carmona's case, but that "there are different requirements for different boards," such as representation by business people and real estate agents. Canfield said he didn't know how many Hispanic residents serve on city boards, but "I think we could look into it."
Hispanic voters diverse, partisan
Gary L. Maris, a political science professor at Stetson University, said that in practice the idea that "you are best represented by a member of your group doesn't always hold."
Maris explained that Hispanics in Volusia and Flagler counties might not even support the same political candidate -- even if that person is Hispanic -- due to the diversity that exists within people of the same ethnicity.
One has to keep in mind, he said, that Hispanics come from diverse backgrounds and different Latin American and Caribbean countries and Spain. In the United States, Cuban-Americans have historically voted for Republican candidates while Mexicans have leaned more toward Democratic candidates.
Already Hispanics have played a major role in making Deltona the biggest municipality in Volusia County. The proportion of Hispanics in the city grew from 10.1 percent to 18.3 percent, reflecting an increase from 5,139 to 12,747.
Perez believes Hispanics hold the community's future in their hands. When that future will be realized is the question.