New Organization Offers Alternative Model for Matching Latinos’ Numbers with Local Political Influence
A New Organization is forming with the hopes of transforming how Latino voters cast their ballots and conceptualize the voting process in Harris County.
The group’s name tells a great deal about their concept; the Progresista Voter Union took many months to find their identity, but finally came up with a way to explain their intentions.
“We’re a union, plain and simple,” says Hector Chavana Jr., one of the co-founders of the organization, and publisher of El Pueblo Newspaper and OurNewAnahuac.net. “When you work for a company, it is difficult to fight for your needs as one person, so you join a union.
“The company might not listen to you, but they can’t ignore the all of the workers when they are unionized and when they act as one.”
Mario Salinas, the group’s president, explains the global benefits of the group.
“It makes sense for all Houstonians for Latinos to become civically engaged since we will be the largest part of this city’s future population,” said Salinas. “I hope that we can bring a voice to Houston’s largest population bloc that has largely remained voiceless.”
For Angela Sanchez, secretary of the group, the choice to join was personal: “After feeling that all my voting life I have been choosing the lesser of two evils in a lot of elections, I want to try and see if there is a better way and that is why I wanted to not only participate but help grow what this group has the potential to be.”
The basic rationale of the group is as follows: Latinos are one of the largest populations in Houston, and they do not have an independent group geared toward organizing, educating and directing the Latino vote. There are many groups encouraging and registering Latinos to vote. Members of the PVU encourage that work, but they note that no other group is providing the answers of whom Latinos should vote for… and why. This is where the PVU differs and how they hope to complement the work of other groups, via endorsements, independent analysis and even organized boycotts of certain races if need be.
The early Texas history of Latino voting for most is really a story of many Tejano campesinos being escorted to the polls by an Anglo landlord and being ordered to vote for a particular candidate. This system gave way to a system of segregation in which every effort was made to keep Tejanos away from the polls.
Officials openly organized election dates to coincide with dates when Tejanos would have to leave for migrant work so that they would not be around on election days. On other occasions, excuses were often given, or invented, that a would-be voter had to prove citizenship or English-language skills before voting.
The most overt trick was that those in power would often draw political boundaries to split and dillute the Tejano vote.
Tejanos stood up against laws and tactics that diluted their vote in the sixties and seventies. The Civil Rights Act was passed, and the Chicano Movement introduced many young Chicanos to the political process. Since then, there has not been much of a Latino electoral grassroots effort outside of the two major parties.
Earlier this year, however, the City of Houston proposed a new map of political boundaries. The group, barely in formation, took action, along with many other groups in an informal coalition. Their analysis led them to believe that the new map did not take into account the tremendous growth in the Latino population, and that this new map diluted the Latino vote.
They protested, and by all accounts, helped the coalition to secure better representation and a new map.
The group stands for a broad array of progressive issues. More specifically, as of now, the group has taken education and immigration as top priorities.
“Locally we oppose Secure Communities, a program supported by Sheriff Garcia, which has led to the deportation of people who have committed minor traffic violations,” says their literature.
“We oppose statewide cuts to education due to the 2006 tax cuts implemented by Republicans. All over Texas, these tax cuts have led to cuts in many educational programs, including tutoring, Pre-K and Head Start,” the presentation says.
“Keep in mind that many college students won’t be returning because of cuts to financial aid,” said one participant at a strategy session.
“They’ll remember that when they go to the polls,” added a member.
So how does a small, grassroots organization which lacks major funding make an impact on the political process?
The group plans to endorse candidates which they believe will work to implement policies that Latinos will benefit from. Then they plan to promote their endorsements. This is their signature difference between other community groups.
Few community groups are able or willing to endorse candidates. The political groups that do offer endorsements often allow the candidate to promote the endorsement themselves.
The PVU hopes to print 100,000 post cards promoting their endorsements for the 2012 cycle, and are considering ramping up their efforts to become involved in the 2011 cycle as well.
They hope to promote their positions and ideas using social media, which is nothing novel for this generation of organizers.
Unions make use of collective bargaining, and the PVU hopes to do the same. “If it comes down to it, we can boycott or ‘strike’ in certain races, just like a union” says Chavana. “If neither the Democrat, nor the Republican will suit our needs, we simply won’t vote in that race, and we will vote in all others.”
“There is a difference between not voting and making a conscious, organized effort to boycott a certain race. It is the same difference between not working and going on strike.”
There are always concerns when new concepts and strategies arise. Some are quick to say that this group should not dilute the efforts of other groups, and that instead of starting something new, they should support the efforts of others.
“I don’t think that we are reinventing the wheel,” says Salinas. “I think presently there is a serious lack of leadership in Houston’s Latino community, especially in connecting with younger Latinos. The existing institutions seem to only connect with older folks and Latino elites.”
The group repeats the mantra that, perhaps if other groups were independently screening candidates, popularizing their endorsements and willing to withhold votes from politicians who have turned their backs on the Latino community, they would join that group. Until then, they say, they have the Progresista Voter Union.
This piece is the first in an ongoing weekly series entitled 21st Century Majority. This series will focus on issues of local civic and political engagement as well as the changing demographic realities within the Houston area.