Latino Nation – Panel discussion, Part 2

The national conversation on the challenges and opportunities facing America’s 50-million-strong Latino community continues.

America's 50-million-strong Latino community flexed its historic political muscle in the 2012 elections, evidencing the community's growing influence. Now, as the immigration debate unfolds in Washington, Tavis moderates a national conversation on the challenges and opportunities facing this diverse group.

Hosted in partnership with the William C. Velásquez Institute, "Latino Nation: Beyond The Numbers" panelists examine a full range of Latino social, political, economic and cultural influence on American life, from the economy to politics, healthcare to education, immigration to foreign policy, as well as solutions for economic growth in this vital community.

Guests include:

Antonio González, president of the William C. Velásquez Institute; Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-IL; Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF; Stephanie Sanchez, student trustee board member of Chicago State University; Bettina Inclán, Republican political strategist; and others. [Click here to see list of guests.]


Tavis: Hello, my name is Tavis Smiley, and I am honored to be the moderator for this conversation, called “Latino Nation: Beyond the Numbers.” Let me ask you to welcome our panel, for those in the audience. (Applause) I’m delighted to have this opportunity to sit amongst these influencers to talk about the issues that are important to all Americans, and especially and particularly and uniquely to the Latino community.

There’s so many issues that matter to these fellow citizens that so often, we don’t get the benefit, and I mean that sincerely, we don’t get the benefit of hearing their own opinions about the things that matter to all the rest of us – education and unemployment and underemployment and housing and crime and healthcare, and even foreign policy.

Ask yourself when was the last time you saw a stage full of Latinos talking about foreign policy? Let’s talk about foreign policy for a second, and a few other issues here. Antonio is headed – I know, because we’re friends – headed to Venezuela in a few days, and we all know, of course, that with the passing of Hugo Chavez, there’s great conversation and consideration, concern, really, about what happens in the region.

There’s a broader conversation about U.S. policy in Latin America, in Central America, so there’s a lot on the table that we could talk about. Give me a sense, though, of, since we’re talking about it, since I raise it, rather, what you’re going to Venezuela for.

Antonio Gonzalez: I’ll be part of the observation process. I’ve been invited by the National Electoral Council of Venezuela, and so I’ll be visiting polling places and so forth.

You’re right; it’s a very crucial moment. Although Hugo Chavez was demonized in the United States, in Latin America there’s quite a different perspective on not only Hugo Chavez but this reform process that has been spreading, particularly in South America and Central America.

They call it the pink revolutions, where “socialists,” in quote, presidents and congresses have been voted in in very participatory, democratic election processes, and have instituted changes, redistributed wealth, reclaimed natural resources from transnational corporations, voted in new progressive constitutions, and it seems to be an enduring process.

It started with Chavez in Venezuela, it spread to Brazil, then to Argentina, Uruguay, Peru is the latest, and so on. Bolivia, Ecuador, and they are – in essence, we’re looking at the beginnings of a European community type of situation in South America that still has relations with the United States, but much of their trade is among themselves and to other developing countries.

So it’s a very – will it continue? That’s the question. Will it continue, will it revert back to a situation of what many would consider U.S. domination of the region? I’ll give a report when I get back.

Tavis: I pulled out this little handy blue card because it’s a stat that I knew I’d forget, and I thought it might come up in our conversation. So you mentioned trade a moment ago. Forty percent, four-zero, 40 percent of U.S. exports go to Latin America, 40 percent of our exports go to Latin America, but this I find fascinating.

In a 2012 survey, 40 percent of the populations, a full 40 percent of the populations, Antonio, in Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, Bolivia, Chile and Uruguay do not trust the U.S. government. So what about the years to come in our relations with this region, with Latin America?

Gonzalez: Well, Latin Americans have a healthy distrust of the United States for a reason. When the United States has a 150-year history of either military intervention or unfair economic relations with many, many, many Latin America countries. So that is imbued into the world view of Latin Americans at the same time that there is an admiration for American prosperity, American democracy.

So there is sort of a schizophrenic view towards the United States. It changes depending on American leadership.

Tavis: Hector, the I think breadth and depth of U.S. business, certainly a good slice of it, is just chomping at the bit to get to Cuba. We don’t know when that’s going to happen. We don’t know when that is, but everybody knows or everybody’s poised to run into Cuba and to Americanize it as quickly and as aggressively as we possibly can.

Your thoughts about U.S. relations with Cuba in the coming months and years as we move past, eventually, the Castro era?

Hector Barreto: I don’t think it’s a question of if. I think it’s just when. I know a lot of my friends in Florida are much closer to this issue. I think things have been opening up, and I think one of the things that you see is second and third generation Cuban Americans have a very different perspective and opinion of what Cuba’s all about now and in the future.

By the way, I think a lot of our businesses, when they get there, they’ll be late because the Europeans have already been in there making investments and building and doing things.

I want to go back to something Antonio said, because I think it’s critically important. We have to engage Latin America much, much more than we ever have before. The world has changed, and yes, there is some history in Latin America.

By the way, when I’m in Latin America, I tell them that they’ve got to change too. They’ve got to become more competitive. A lot of those folks that also harbor ill will to the United States harbor a lot of ill will to their governments and things that have been done to them as well.

But I mean a country like Mexico is critically important. We share a 2,000-mile border with each other. They’re our second-largest trading partner. They are going to be a major economy in the future. A lot of times, when we look at Mexico we hear the bad news, and yes, there is bad news, especially along the border and the drug war and things of that nature, but there’s also incredible things that are happening in there as well.

Ana Navarro: I want to ask you, let me talk on Cuba, being from Miami. It’s an issue that’s so very close to my heart. I’ve been raised among so many Cuban Americans in Miami, the victims of Fidel Castro and the communism, the political prisoners, the children of those prisoners, the children of people who were executed by the Castro government.

So as to your question of when are we going to go there, we’re going to go there when it’s free. No, we’re not going to be there late, we’re going to be there right on time, and the Cuban people are going to know the difference between governments that have been complicit with a repressive regime that has taken away their human rights and dignity for 54 years and governments that have stood against that.

So we are not going to go into Cuba, not even if President Obama wants to do it. I am tired of hearing political candidates tell me when they come through Miami how much attention they’re going to pay to Latin America, only to put it in the bucket of neglect once they get elected, because just so many other things happen.

There’s always an excuse of why it doesn’t happen. But I think that we cannot forget that just 90 miles from the shores of Florida live people who have lived without freedom for 54 years.

Tavis: Supervisor, I wonder, because oftentimes, we don’t connect these dots. But I wonder how our relations, or lack thereof, with a country like Mexico, a neighbor like Mexico, ultimately impacts the domestic agenda. How that relationship internationally ultimately impacts what happens in a state like Arizona.

Mary Rose Wilcox: Well, Sonora, the state that borders Arizona, has always had a very, very good relationship, a trade relationship that’s tremendous. That got affected. Arizona-Sonora Mexico Commission practically came to a halt. You have to have respect on both sides of the border, and that was not seen for a very long time.

I really think, and I’m going back a little bit to further comments that were said – we will see immigration reform pass because of the economics of it. The economics of it have affected Arizona and the rest of the nation now tremendously. You can ask any mayor along the border, any of the towns along the border, and what we’ve stopped is the trade element.

You used to have a lot of people come up, particularly from the northern states of Mexico, into Arizona and you used to see, again, that ebb and flow of trade. That has been stopped. We’ve got to start it again, but we have to have the respect first, so that we can build.

The other big issue, and you’ll probably get into it, are drugs. We have seen just an influx of cartels, and we’ve got to get a hold of that money that’s going in and out. The drug problem in America, as we all know, is driving that whole issue, and that’s one issue that we have to work together with Mexico.

Tavis: Do you – one second, I’m coming, I’m coming – do you take our so-called “drug war” seriously, or do you think it’s more of a joke?

Wilcox: I never take drug wars as a joke, because I’ve seen the devastating effect of them. But I do think sometimes they’re exaggerated for political purposes, and I think we have to get to the systemic cause and stop it there.

That goes into a whole other thing – health issues, education issues, and again, the poverty issues that we see.

Tavis: Tom.

Thomas A. Saenz: So much of our foreign policy, with relation to Cuba, for example, relates to domestic policies in those countries. But conversely, we do not pay enough attention to how our domestic policies have international implications, and our drug policy and its implications for nations in Latin America is the most, I think, pronounced example.

But it goes beyond that. As we have this continued discussion and debate about immigration reform, I think we have to recognize that our immigration policies have an effect in other countries.

Tavis: Antonio, Adriana, then back to the congressman. Yes.

Gonzalez: The number one expression of the point that you were asking about the relationship between our policies and Latin America has to be the 40-year-old drug war.

The 40-year-old drug war – well, in America, it’s doubled or tripled our prison population, one, and instead of spending money on schools, we’re spending money on prisons. Ten times as much to house a prisoner as to educate a child.

But –

Tavis: Many of them brown.

Gonzalez: Well, and Black.

Tavis: And Black, of course, of course.

Gonzalez: And in Latin America, it’s made, for example, marijuana worth more than gold. So if you do that by creating a black market and putting military and police forces to enforce that black market in the United States, you create a criminal enterprise.

That criminal enterprise has already fostered one war in Colombia, and now fostering a war in Mexico. Hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties, billions – who would have thought, right? There’s more military intervention in Latin America today behind the drug war than there ever was when there was the specter of fighting communism.

Tavis: The phrase that I love, and it is absolutely true about the Latino community, which makes it somewhat different from the Black experience we were comparing it to earlier vis-à-vis the civil rights movement, and that is this beautiful phrase of self-organizing.

In this moment I see all this energy, all this enthusiasm, all this fight back, and with all due respect, Congressman, I don’t see a Latino leader, which is a beautiful thing.

Gonzalez: It always happens to us that Latinos get put into what I call the Black-white paradigm. The rules for those communities sort of get applied to Latinos. What I want to suggest to you is that America has to realize that that paradigm was for then, but now this is now.

Latinos are 50 million people. Put me any country in the world with 50 million people and ask the question “Who’s your leader,” and the answer is well, there’s not just one.

This horizontal organization makes us resilient. It allows us to resist 1070 and win. It allows us to resist E-Verify, it allows us to resist these programs that should take your heart, but they can’t because we are very horizontal. We’re not vertical.

Tavis: Adriana and then back to the congressman.

Adriana Quintero: I think another distinction between the Latino community and the African American community is the cultural connection. While we can look back at what’s happening in Latin America and see the ups and downs, how we need to be more engaged.

We must be more engaged, because even within second and third generations, although to a lesser extent, there’s a tremendous cultural connection to another land, to a home country. So that actually impacts the way we act.

So in my work on environment, we see it. You see a lot of activism coming from Latin America and actually motivating more activism here simply because of what they have seen or are seeing in Latin America.

Tavis: Congressman.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez: I joined the Congress of the United States because I said I want to make somebody’s life better. I remember my mom and my dad. I remember what it was like in the ’50s in segregated Chicago for them, and there was nobody here to raise their boys for them.

I said, “You know what? Somebody fought and died to give me a voice, and I think I’m not going to waste that opportunity in the Congress of the United States.

Another thing I want to say before we finish and we leave this context, yes, we’re a community, but we have important friends and important allies. Every member of the Black caucus voted for the DREAM Act when it was proposed in 2010, and we passed it in the House of Representatives. (Applause)

In spite of the fact that unemployment among Black youth was higher, and unemployment in the community and the devastation of the recession was there, and in spite of the fact that there were those who wanted, as in the past, to pit one group against the other. They stood with us.

Tavis: David.

David Montejano: Change is not easy. Change oftentimes comes through conflict; it comes through the clash of different perspectives. Again I’m thinking of Arizona, where obviously we have an older generation, older Anglo generation, who just realized that Mexico is next door to Arizona (laughter), and they’re reacting to it.

So what’s going to happen (unintelligible) in Arizona, or California or Texas? Another generation’s coming up. They have a whole different perspective. Change is going to happen because we have a younger generation coming up, and they have a whole entire different perspective. They look at President Obama very differently than the older generation.

The Black-white paradigm I think is going to shift. We’ve got to get brown in there, and I think that’s happening. That is happening. We do not need to have these dramatic kind of upheavals in order to have change. That’s important.

Tavis: Ana, you want to comment right quick?

Navarro: Yeah. There’s two ways of seeing it – either the glass is half-empty or the glass is half-full, and I like to focus on some of the positive aspects. I’ve seen a lot of cooperation, particularly lately, between African American organizations like the NAACP, the Urban League, and the Hispanic organizations like La Raza, like NALEO.

I’ve seen the head of La Raza, Janet Murguia, and other Hispanic leaders join John Lewis and retrace the steps back in Alabama. I have seen the African American congresspeople from south Florida join hands with the Republican Cuban American congresspeople in asking for the freedom of Cuba.

So I think that there are many, many joint projects that we are doing together. We’re getting used to being allies and not being just competitors. We’re getting smarter. We’ve realized that two speak louder than one. Let’s face it, it’s fun.

Black and brown, that’s a fun combination. If you’ve ever been to a Black and brown party, it doesn’t get much better than that. (Applause)

Tavis: Let me do this. I’m down to my last few minutes. I’m a student of history and I want to roll this tape back a few years from now to see what you said to me in 2013 what your greatest hope was and what your greatest fear is going forward for the Latino community.

We’ll start with Adriana on the end with her greatest fear and her greatest hope.

Quintero: My greatest hope is that we’re going to find a way to truly engage the full power of the Latino community by solving immigration and bringing people out of the shadows to own their voices without any fear.

Through education, to get them to a place where people know what they’re talking about and want to talk about what they know and what they’ve experienced, because I think the Latino experience is going to enrich our country significantly.

Tavis: Thank you. Hector?

Barreto: Well, in terms of fear and I don’t know, maybe that’s even a strong word, but that we continue this dysfunction that we have in our political system, where we can’t even agree on 80 percent. There has to be purity all the way along the line, and we don’t get solutions. I hope that we can outgrow that.

My greatest hope is that Latinos are going to achieve their rightful place in society.

Tavis: Antonio?

Gonzalez: My greatest hope is that Latino politics, as it becomes more and more empowered, will help fix this country, this broken democracy, and will help engender a new era of prosperity and hope for all the population. My greatest fear is that we’ll be no better than the ones that broke the system.

Tavis: Tom Saenz.

Saenz: My greatest fear is that the Supreme Court and others may make decisions that will suppress the growth of the Latino vote. That includes decisions about the Voting Rights Act pending now, decisions about Arizona’s voter registration proof of citizenship law, pending now. But that we’ll see more of these efforts to suppress the vote, and they may actually succeed in doing that.

But my greatest hope is that we will overcome that, as I believe we will. With great struggle, but we will overcome that and that the lessons of November 2012 are reinforced and fully integrated in policymakers’ thinking, and that lesson is about smart, good policy for the nation – the nation that includes such a growing Latino population.

But one outgrowth of that integration is solving this issue of the education gap all the way from pre-kindergarten through higher education.

Tavis: Congressman?

Gutierrez: My greatest hope is that America’s ready.

To embrace us and to allow us to be fully integrated with them as their brothers and their sisters, as we so much want to be, and that 11 million can be just like my daughter and my wife and my family and everybody who’s protected by the laws of this land, that we bring them out of the shadows into the light of day. That’s my greatest hope, and I really feel we’re going to do it.

My fear is, are we ready to educate them and prepare them to take the reins, because we’re a community that’s changing America. I want to make sure we’ve equipped. So my fear is, are we going to equip them with the knowledge and the talent to guide our nation into the next century.

Tavis: Ana.

Navarro: My greatest short-term fear is that immigration reform does not pass, and immigration continues to be a wedge issue used by both political sides to pit us against each other, and for political gain for themselves, and that it will be very demoralizing for our community, and stop the progress on so many other issues like education and healthcare. My greatest hope is that this country becomes one where equality reigns.

Tavis: David.

Montejano: Well, my greatest hope and fear lie in the next generation, and I guess that shouldn’t be surprising, given the fact that I’m a professor. But I have the students in my classes, and they’re full of energy. They’re optimistic; they’re ready to take charge.

I tell them that you are going to, in fact, take charge. By the way, the dreamers that I have among the group are, God, they’re so incredible. It’s their obvious limbo status that makes them so political, but that politics doesn’t just stop with immigration. It spills over.

But in any case, the students that I have, Latino, Black, and white, are looking at race very differently than we did. They’re growing up in a whole different world. So that makes me optimistic.

The fear I have is that they’re going to forget how they got here, why they got here, the civil rights struggle that brought them to this place. That’s the fear I have, that they’re going to forget those lessons, and that’s my problem, my duty as a historian, to make sure they don’t forget.

Tavis: Last word, Supervisor. Your hopes and your fears.

Wilcox: Well, my hope is that the climate of fear that has been created in Arizona and the terrible, repressive legislation has taught America to never do this again, and that leads to immigration reform. My greatest fear is that will not happen. (Applause)

Tavis: We’ll hold it right there for tonight. We’ll be back tomorrow for our final conversation about “Latino Nation: Beyond the Numbers.” Until next time, good night from Los Angeles, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: September 16, 2013 at 2:07 pm