WHEN WORD GOT OUT in 1978 that Time magazine was preparing a cover story about what it was calling “The Decade of the Hispanic,” the late Chicano activist Carlos Guerra threw up his arms in exasperation, spewing expletives.
“Wouldn’t you know it,” wailed Guerra, a Chicano movement founder in Texas “They give us a decade that has only two years left in it!”
Time magazine meant the Eighties, but it didn’t really seem to matter. The so-called Decade of the Hispanic — whether the 80s, the 90s or any decade since then — didn’t seem to have much life in it. The modest gains economically, politically and in any other measurable way failed to live up to the heightened expectations.
It was as if the image of “mañana” long associated with Mexico had crossed the border to become a similar albatross weighing down Hispanic American dreams.
But this week, within a 48-hour period, it seemed as if Time’s 1978 declaration had finally come to fruition politically and that the day had arrived for Hispanics.
On Thursday, the Senate gave in to Hispanic pressure and finally confirmed Mari Carmen Aponte as ambassador to El Salvador, something it had long refused to do. Then on Friday, the President bowed to Hispanics and agreed to stop the deportation of young, law-abiding illegal immigrants.
In a presidential election year, both moves were tainted by national politics. The obvious beneficiary of both moves was President Obama as he tries to rebuild his support among electorally important Hispanics, apparently fearing that the softening of support among Latinos could come back to haunt him in November.
But the unexpected and possibly better served beneficiary was Florida junior senator Marco Rubio, whose national image in the last few months has skyrocketed with talk that he could possibly become apparent GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s running mate. On the Aponte confirmation, Rubio helped behind the scenes in getting support for the Washington lawyer and Latino activist.
Rubio’s finest hour, though, may have been what happened Friday when the President sought to crawl out of the deep hole he has dug for himself on immigration. The Obama administration has been heavily criticized by immigrant-rights advocates for deporting more than a million undocumented immigrants — far more than any previous modern administration.
Unable to keep his 2008 campaign promise on immigration reform — not even the DREAM Act, the darling of immigration reform advocates — Obama announced that his administration was halting the deportation of illegal immigrant youth, allowing them to remain in the U.S. and get their schooling but stopping short of citizenship.
Although this wasn’t anywhere close to what Obama, Democrats and immigration reform advocates wanted, the news was met as if it had been a total political victory by immigrants, their supporters and even many Democratic politicians.
But what the president has put into effect — forcibly appropriated, really, as if by political eminent domain — is the Republican DREAM Act alternative that Rubio awkwardly proposed some weeks back and on which he was soundly hammered by the same people now celebrating its implementation. So when all those cheers were going out Friday, they were for what Rubio had authored.
Put another way: Marco Rubio, the David of this political year, has stolen the thunder. And this something the Republicans, who are seeking a bigger slice of the Hispanic vote, would be wise to herald from now through November.
Admittedly, Rubio’s brainchild is a bad version of the original DREAM Act in that it is a compromise. But then that is the very basis of the Constitution, as well as most of the laws this country has been built upon, and perhaps there should be a lesson in this for Hispanics as they settle into their moment, however long it lasts.
Like my friend Carlos Guerra, many Latinos have long been skeptical that there would be any significant fulfillment of a Decade of the Hispanic, which back then struck the chord of advertising hyperbole, something Coors would bandy about to sell more beer perhaps.
Over the years, few have taken the decade hype seriously, I suspect, because Hispanics historically have been guilty of exaggerated bravado and claims that have heightened expectations only to disappoint.
From 1980 on, near election time every two years, voter registration organizations across the Southwest boasted of how they planned to sign up some incredible number of new Latino voters to fulfill the political promise of the Decade of the Hispanic. One of these groups was even headed by one of Guerra’s former Chicano colleagues.
But no one ever audited these claims, even as Latino voter registration and participation remained lower than that of African Americans and whites — and as the only places where Hispanics were recording political victories were in districts, towns and cities where they were the majority to begin with and couldn’t help but score slam-dunk wins.
It was bound to happen that one day those numbers would finally spill over and become so great that non-Latinos would recognize the inevitability of if not the decade then perhaps the century of the Hispanic.
“Sadly, I don’t know what it would take for our people to believe that it’s their time,” Guerra once lamented, after he had traded in his activist hat for that of a journalist in San Antonio. “Maybe seeing Cantinflas riding Trigger with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse down Alamo Plaza! They’ll believe it when they see it.”
It’s too bad Guerra, who died in 2010, wasn’t here to see what came around last week. It may not have been Cantinflas and the Horsemen. But I think I saw a Golden Palomino in there somewhere.