SAN DIEGO — What a mind-blowing experience it is these days to be Latino and living in the United States.
The nation’s 52 million Latinos look around the world and see endless opportunity, power and influence. Yet, closer to home, they see closed doors, glass ceilings, little power and even less influence.
Which reminds me. Now that a Latino – Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina – has been elected pope for the first time in the 2,000-year history of the Catholic Church, do you suppose that President Barack Obama could find just one Latino to serve in his second-term Cabinet?
Despite reports that Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, is Obama’s choice for secretary of labor, there has been no official announcement. The top three available Cabinet posts (State, Defense, Treasury) went to white males. Once again, for Obama, Latinos are an after-after-after thought.
Not only that. Putting Perez at the helm of the Labor Department would be an insult to Latinos. First, the job is small potatoes as Cabinet posts go. Next, a Latino has already occupied this space. Obama’s first labor secretary was Hilda Solis, a Mexican-American. So, unlike having a Latino pope, there is no history being made here. And finally, Perez was responsible for trying to prove that Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz., violated the civil rights of Latinos. The case was dropped before last fall’s election, which didn’t sit well with Latinos.
Of course, Cabinet positions are only one example of where Latinos in the United States get the short end of the stick. They’re shortchanged by the school system, treated as scapegoats in the immigration debate, ethnically profiled by law enforcement officers, deported in record numbers by the Obama administration, written off by Republicans, neglected by Democrats, ignored by Hollywood, left out of the media, overlooked in a black-and-white paradigm, and treated disrespectfully by the rich and powerful.
Imagine how it feels for U.S. Latinos to watch non-Latinos gather on Sunday talk shows and not hesitate to offer their insights into the Latino vote, or what to do about immigration from Latin America, or how Latinos are changing U.S. demographics.
Imagine how it feels for U.S. Latinos to watch a film such as “Argo” get the Academy Award for Best Picture despite the fact that the central character, Hispanic CIA agent Tony Mendez, was played by non-Hispanic actor Ben Affleck. Latinos don’t even have the skills to play themselves.
Imagine how it feels for U.S. Latinos to learn that – as hard as they’re working – they are still lagging behind in graduation rates from high school and college, underrepresented in the ranks of CEOs, and scarce on corporate and nonprofit boards.
Not long ago, during a trip to New Mexico, a Mexican-American woman in her early 60s told me that she was surprised and saddened that Latinos were going backward. They’re growing in population, she observed, but not in power. Growing up in the 1950s, she said, she had always assumed that, when she reached retirement age, Latinos would have accumulated enough influence to make a lasting contribution to this country. This isn’t happening – not to the degree that it should.
Every time we mention how Latinos will, according to Census estimates, account for 25 percent of the U.S. population by 2040, it only backfires by scaring non-Latinos into battening down the hatches and closing more doors.
And then these U.S. Latinos look toward Rome, and they see in the cardinals’ choice of a new pope – Spanish-speaking and born in Buenos Aires, to Italian immigrant parents – an acknowledgement of the fact that Latin America is now home to more than 480 million Catholics. That is more than 40 percent of the 1.2 billion Catholics on the planet.
They see church leaders paying their respects to a population that will likely keep the institution afloat for the rest of the century. Latin America is a young neighborhood. These people see that at least one corner of the globe is changing, adapting, growing and becoming more inclusive. And they feel proud – and inspired. It’s nice to be acknowledged.
Then these U.S. Latinos look closer to home and come back to reality – that hard place where all they can do is keep working hard, and never give up, and wait for the United States to catch up with the world.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for U-T San Diego. Reach him at [email protected]