A review of American history tells us that Latinos have made foundational contributions to the emergence of the United States as a great nation. There is of course the century of Hispanic exploration and building that occurred even before the American colonies were formed into a nation. Spanish missionaries and soldiers founded cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Albuquerque, San Augustine, San Antonio, and San Diego and Spanish officials established provincial governments in regions such as Colorado, La Florida, La Nevada, California, and Nuevo Mexico. The Spanish towns, missions, caminos, ranchos, and trade routes left indelible evidence of incredibly determined leaders.
In the years following the formation of the new American nation, Latino leaders served as mayors, provincial governors, military commanders, founders of businesses, and builders in the territory that is now the vast expanse of the United States. By the mid-19th century, Latino communities prospered in communities like Tampa where Spanish merchants created a trading center, New York which became home to many Latinos from the Caribbean, New Orleans where Latino shippers imported fruits from Central America to transfer into barges for the journey to the heartland via the Mississippi River, and of course the Southwestern cities where Mexicans created thriving business districts. Leaders of Latino heritage also proved themselves capable of heroic national roles. One example is George Farragut (born Jordi Farragut Mesquida in Menorca, Spain), a Spanish sea captain who served as a naval officer with America’s Continental Naval forces. His son, Admiral David Farragut, in the Civil War led a Union armada to capture the Confederate part of New Orleans. At the Battle of Mobile Bay, he famously gave the order that is now a part of U.S. Navy lore: “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” This leader of Hispanic heritage became the first U.S. Navy officer to hold the rank of admiral.
By the early decades of the 20th century Latino pioneers were publishing Spanish language newspapers, broadcasting Spanish radio programs, and creating businesses to serve growing Latino barrios: printers, food establishments, funeral homes, construction firms, repair shops, farms and ranches, trucking firms, legal offices, financial firms, and all the other businesses needed to sustain neighborhood needs.
Public leaders emerged in the 1920s to advocate for Latino progress. They formed and led Latino chambers of commerce, fraternal organizations, and mutual benefit societies. They of course sought the advancement of Latinos in the society, but it quickly became clear to them that in order to create opportunities for Latinos they would have to fight against the virulent discrimination and the unfairness that confronted Latino workers, families, businesses, and communities. It was out of this tradition that the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) emerged to fight the extreme segregation in Texas that produced unequal schools, lower wages, poor housing, and reduced opportunities.
The development of such leaders of Latino advocacy accelerated in the years after World War II. Latino veterans returned from the war where they had risked their lives based on their faith in freedom in the United States, only to find conditions of unfairness at home which they never imagined would be their reward for service. Segregation in South Texas, for example, was so intractable that the bodies of Latino soldiers shipped home for burial were in several cases not allowed to be buried in the same smalltown cemeteries as Anglo soldiers. But the segregationist local officials who wanted to continue such discriminatory practices did not take into account the patriotic zeal and righteous confidence that motivated the returning veterans. Under the leadership of Dr. Hector Garcia, the G.I. Forum was formed and together with other organizations laid the groundwork in the 1950s for motivated Latinos ready to raise their voices as part of the civil rights awakening that was stirring the nation.
The 1960s, 70s and 80s were decades when the quest for freedom among African Americans encouraged the formation of parallel institutions in Latino communities. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund was founded, and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund was launched to argue the legal case for equity. The Southwest Voter Registration and Education Fund and the Northeast/Midwest Voter Registration Institute were organized to expand voting participation among Latinos. Raul Yzaguirre led a national group of community advocates to form the National Council of La Raza and its constituent organizations to advocate for Latinos in Washington. Dr. Antonia Pantoja created Aspira to improve educational attainment in the Puerto Rican Community. Jorge Mas Canosa in Miami founded the Cuban American National Foundation to advance opportunities for Cuban immigrants opposed to the Castro regime. Community development corporations, political coalitions, educational advocacy groups, legal aid offices, labor unions, and voter registration initiatives spread like wildfire.
In that period Latino leaders stepped up: Henry B. Gonzalez, Edward Roybal, and Robert Garcia in Congress; Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and Hank Lacayo in the labor movement; Ernesto Cortes and Sonia Hernandez in community organizing; Willie Velasquez, Raul Yzaguirre, Luis Miranda, Mario Obledo, Cesar Perales, Dr. Antonia Pantoja and Juan Andrade in advocacy leadership; Raul Castro, Federico Pena, Mauricio Ferrer, and Edward Telles in state and local government; Moctezuma Esparza, Jesse Trevino and Rita Moreno in the arts; and Sol Trujillo, Danny Villanueva, Jorge Mas Canosa, and the Unanue family in business.
In the decades since then another generation of Latinos has continued the climb to the highest positions in the nation. We have four U.S. Senators, two Democrats and two Republicans. We have almost forty members of the House Congressional Caucus. We have had men and women governors of major states and similarly mayors of some of the nation’s largest cities. We have corporate CEOs in the Fortune 500 and family enterprises worth hundreds of millions. We have White House staffers and foundation presidents. We have award-winning artists and awe-inspiring athletes. And we have a new generation of Latino advocacy leaders, such as Janet Murguia at Unidos and Maria Teresa Kumar at Voto Latino. This generation leads organizations that are more powerful, better endowed with resources, have greater reach, have higher profiles and greater followings than our earlier Latino leaders could have imagined.
The next generation of leaders is destined to advance even further and rise even higher. Latino leaders who are today just starting their careers or still in school will take on the responsibilities of leading a U.S. population of more than 100 million Latinos before 2050, a population that is already the largest ethnic minority in the nation and will continue to be the fastest growing The next generation of Latinos leaders will also have unprecedented national and global leadership responsibilities in every sector of U.S. life: government, business, the arts, religion, philanthropy, science, medicine, sports, entertainment, and education. Previous generations of Latino leaders nobly advanced the position of Latinos in our society; our future leaders must continue to do that while also leading the nation itself and its all-inclusive institutions. We know from experience and firmly believe for the future that progress for Latinos accrues to the benefit of the entire nation.
As in every previous period, we will need leaders who understand the public interest, who bring ideals and principles to our national discourse, and who are prepared, diligent, and determined. The New America Alliance was established 21 years ago to help generate and infuse leadership from the national Latino business community. Since its formation, the NAA has served that purpose. The NAA has been a new voice for Latinos in business, principally in the nation’s financial sector, and has developed leadership skills, assisted emerging leaders through scholarships and philanthropy, and expressed advocacy positions for Latino advancement.
At every previous stage of Latino development in our nation, we have had leaders who showed the way in their times. I am confident that with the strengthened involvement of institutions such as the New America Alliance we will have the leaders we need for a limitless American Latino future in our nation and in the world.
Henry Cisneros, Co-Founder and Executive Chairman, American Triple I; NAA Co-Founder