Latino Nation – Panel discussion, Part 3

Our special broadcast concludes with an examination of assumptions and possibilities for a better, more united tomorrow.

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: With more than 50 million people in this country identifying as Latino, our country’s future is clearly linked to this diverse and dynamic ethnic group. We can no longer paint Latinos as monolithic or marginalized. In many respects, as this community goes, so goes America.

While we often hear Latino thought leaders discussing immigration reform, we decided to start this third and final night of “Latino Nation: Beyond the Numbers” by asking the panel to define for us how they think Latinos are perceived in America. (Applause)

Oscar Chacon: Well, first of all, I believe that the greatest challenge that we have faced is related to the inability of society as a whole to understand the meaning of demographic changes.

I think that the fact that beginning nearly 40 years ago the nature of migration together with the changes in demographic trends land the situation where we now are in, mainly the fact that Latinos are, you know, the largest minority and the one growing at the fastest rate, how not really given us a proper environment to understand what this means.

And there has been mentioned before, I mean, a degree of demonization of who Latinos are, who immigrants are, and I think that this is one of the greatest challenges we face, namely the narrative, the process particularly of Mexicans, but by that, I mean also Latinos in general, as some sort of threat to society as opposed to really seeing Latinos for what we are. You know, a great opportunity, a very rich asset for the nation.

But that kind of narrative has not necessarily been the dominant in the narrative and I think we are only beginning to come out of that narrative.

It is crucial that we do anything we can to in a way take away everything that has been poisoning, you know, the environment, poisoning the waters, so that we can actually have a conversation about Latinos and what we represent for the country now and the future of the country not only in terms of what we have done so far, but also embracing the fact that we are by far a net gain for the country.

Stephanie Sanchez: I am a Latino student here at Chicago State University. The common population here at Chicago State University is African American. Now a lot of students here, Latino students in general, have a difficulty merging in with the culture of our campus.

I, on the other hand, haven’t found that to be a challenge at all. I’ve been openly embraced. I’ve had doors opened. I’ve had people take me in without a sense of judgment of who I am, what my background is, what language I speak, wherever my family came from or anything.

Jesus Garcia: I think it’s an exciting time in the country. The point where we are today coming on the heels of the last presidential election, the community was almost overnight recognized as an important player in the country, an influencer, someone who has to be reckoned with and that has to be accounted for as we project into the future what this country will be, what America will be.

And in our experiences, I think we have stories that we share with the larger America about hard work, about sacrifice, about love for family, about love for community and some of our communal ways that I think can contribute to how we engage in building community at very local levels, how we connect to other communities like the African American community, Native America community, the Asian community.

And then our children are inter-marrying into groups that have been here for many, many years that also have been the product of migrations over different periods of time. So I like to think that we have a potential to become bridge-builders and to help push the country forward in good direction with good values and we have good stories to sort of back that up.

So I’d like to see us as a good glue that helps to elevate the debate in a healthy manner about the future of the country as it becomes more diverse.

Maria Elena Durazo: Well, one thing that I think has always been positive not only of Latinos who’ve come here as immigrants from different parts of Latin America is the contribution that we give to the economy. And that is no different than the past generations of immigrants who have come from other parts of the world to give to this nation.

Whether they were forced to come to this country like the Black slaves were, they filled an economic need, where there was the Irish, the Jewish, the Italian, the Chinese. I mean, we all have this great contribution that was made to this nation as working people and really boosting the creation of a middle class.

So my hope is, especially now with this opportunity around immigration reform, that in fact we fix our lives in such a way that it really does give a recognition to the hard work of millions of men and women to this economy, to this nation and that that will in fact boost the economy for everyone, that will boost the economy and create a stronger middle class.

So we’ve had our down sides as the way we’ve been treated in this country, but I think, first and foremost, we are what everybody else in this country is. We work hard, we want to raise our families, have a good education and the next generation should be better off.

Domingo Garcia: Well, we’ve had – (inaudible) weren’t unique in the sense that the Alamo was fought in Texas. When I was growing up, you know, the Mexicans were the bad guys and Davy Crockett was a good guy.

The swimming pool where I was at, we could only swim on Wednesdays because that was the day the pool was cleaned, so that was Mexican day and all the other days were when the Anglo kids were able to swim. I was the first Latino elected to Dallas City Council when Jesus was over there being elected to City Council in Chicago.

Because we have to fight for those struggles, we have to march, we have to file suits, MALDEF was very instrumental getting our redistricting lawsuits. And we’ve had that Chicano civil rights movement that opened doors and now I think we’re at a threshold in Texas which is now a majority-minority state where we’re gonna elect our first Latino governor.

We already have a great dynamic mayor in San Antonio, Mayor Castro. So those dynamics are occurring in Texas, but I think they’re occurring across the country and I think the first Latino or Latina president’s already been born and he or she is living and going to school in Chicago public schools…

Fernando Espuelas: In Texas.

Garcia: Or maybe in Dallas public schools, okay? And he or she is gonna be elected and transform America just like Barack Obama has and just like John F. Kennedy and all these other immigrant presidents have done so in the past.

Bettina Inclan: I grew up in Miami, so huge immigrant population as well, and half Cuban, half Mexican. I joke around all the time that the only thing my parents had in common was that they had two kids. Just because there’s so many differences in the work that I’ve been able to do of traveling the country and meeting Hispanics all across the country, there is so much diversity.

And we should never put all Hispanics in one box because there’s so much diversity not only from different countries, but because they adapt to the states. Like a Mexican American in Arizona is very different from a Mexican American in Texas and it’s trying to understand those differences.

But I am very optimistic of just in the years that I’ve been involved in politics how much more Hispanics have become involved in politics, how many more are running for office, how many more – like most of the stuff I do is behind the scenes, seeing more Hispanics running campaigns and doing stuff really impacts how those candidates and those elected officials talk to their community.

Tavis: It was clear over the course of our panel conversations that Latino issues are not separate and apart from the rest of this country’s concerns. Like so many others, Latinos were hit hard by the recession and the loss of jobs.

It was a topic that got our panelists debating the intersection of unions, immigration reform and the dignity in hard work.

Durazo: There was a study done by, I think, it was UCLA of three cities that had a large concentration of immigrants in the workforce and found that an average of $56 million – it was New York, Chicago and L.A.  – an average of $56 million dollars a week in wage theft. Wage theft, meaning paying less than the minimum wage, not paying overtime, not doing what the law requires you to do. So this mix certainly leads to low wages.

I think that’s why the labor movement is so engaged right now with a number of different ways of workers organizing, especially immigrant workers organizing themselves. So being a cheap labor force, look what happens in the fields. I grew up in the fields. I worked in the fields until I was 15 years old. You know, this pressure on job availability, what kinds of jobs, we get those low-paying jobs.

And that’s why I believe in the labor movement because there has to be a way for working people to be able to collectively organize just as we would as homeowners, just as we would as a chamber of businesses, that we need a collective voice and that is why the most vibrant organizing in the country right now is in the immigrant worker community, whether it’s a hotel housekeeper, whether it’s a car wash worker, you name it.

There has to be a way of pushing back and saying there has to be a much more fair way of working people getting what they deserve.

Xavier Gutierrez: First of all, let me say this and preface it by saying that actually all of companies are union companies, right? We deal with very sophisticated real estate construction, so we actually do underground pipeline and overhead wiring, very, very labor-intensive industries that need sophistication.

And that speaks to a broader issue of how best to educate the folks that are here, right? Whether they’re undocumented or not, I mean, the reality is you have 50 million Latinos that are here, so their impact is gonna happen whether we like it or not and how best to position them.

So as a business person, we look and we’re constantly looking for qualified folks. As a Latino business owner, it is incumbent on us to also continue to support other minority-owned businesses. It is important to see that we’re not the only ones in a certain industry. You have to get beyond a certain conversation of are you even qualified to be here, right? We exist in this very interesting paradox, right?

On the one hand, I do fundamentally believe that we are this invisible economic giant. And I say invisible because we don’t talk about it and no one else talks about it, right?

On the other hand, we are at the bottom and when it comes to economic inequality. The immigration debate to me is an economic issue, right? It’s about jobs. It’s about being competitive and it’s about having folks that are gonna pay into a system that needs folks to pay into it.

Aracely Panameno: So I want to tie in this whole subject of education and the prospects for young people, whether it is young Latinos or young people of color, who are, as our young colleague at the end of the panel here getting ready to graduate, and wondering whether or not her name is going to matter when she applies or wondering whether or not there is a job out there for her.

Those who have “las ganas”…

Espuelas: The desire.

Panameno: To actually go forward and seek higher education have to actually find ways by which they have to finance those and that will be through student loans. So I worry about those students graduating today and going forward without any assistance, with heavy debt loads.

Inclan: It’s hard to pinpoint one thing because our community is so diverse. But one thing they do feel is that they’ve been hit the hardest in this economic situation and they want government to provide solutions. They want a better economy.

You know, Hispanics have a very large percentage of small businesses. Unfortunately, I think the government over-regulation has really hurt them and, with the economic downturn, has made a lot more difficult for small businesses to succeed right now. It’s a tough situation for a lot in the Latino community.

Tavis: Like so many other Americans, Latinos are grappling with the diminishing economic opportunities and the impact rising healthcare costs are having on families.

In fact, more Latinos are without medical insurance than any other group in the nation, so we asked our panelists about what healthcare reform will mean for Latino families.

Gutierrez: It’s a very difficult issue for us. This is a community, and Americans in general, we need healthcare. That’s a fact. I mean, especially as we’re graying, right? And especially as we’re graying and we’re getting younger as things happen. It’s kind of, again, a paradox, as they would say.

So without a doubt, on the other hand, we have 6,000 employees across all of our businesses and Obamacare has been an incredible issue of consternation for us because the healthcare costs that we are now incurring are incredible. I mean, they just are. And the conversations we have with this new law, the conversations we have fundamentally, if the business is having issues, guess what?

It’s gonna be harder for us to maintain the job count that we want. It’s gonna be harder for us to hire folks. I mean, those are realities that we live with as business owners, right, in our various industries. So it’s a difficult issue for us to just say, hey, we’re really excited that Obamacare is here.

On the other hand, you know, I have visited emergency rooms that have been acting as primary care physicians for, you know, Los Angeles, right? Or go to Chicago. Go to an emergency room on Saturday evening in a major urban center and that will be enough for you to say we need something to change.

Garcia: Obamacare is a very positive development to urban areas that for a long time public health systems like Cook County have provided services to everyone, including the undocumented, as should be the case with an institution that is dedicated to caring for the most vulnerable populations in society, and we have lived up to that.

Having said that, the strain placed on the public health system is very significant, one that is unsustainable but for some intervention. Enter Obamacare.

Obamacare is enabling us to expand the number of individuals who are covered by Medicaid, thus ensuring for the first time that expenses incurred, costs incurred by the county public health system will now be reimbursed, giving us an opportunity to plan for the future, to emphasize on primary care, to prevent costly treatments at emergency room centers as we focus getting to people primary care services, educating the community about wellness, doing a lot more of the upfront care for people so it doesn’t turn out to be as expensive.

The other part of it is really important and that was Obamacare is a progression moving forward to cover more people in the country who are uninsured, who remain uninsured. Less of them will be uninsured.

However, the deal that was made with the devil to ensure passage of Obamacare was the exclusion of the undocumented, 11 million people. They don’t live in seclusion. They’re not quarantined. They live with us. They are part of our communities. They are people that your daughter, your son, may marry tomorrow.

We ought to be thinking about engaging in truly public health strategies that make the country, the nation, more healthy and wellness and have a system that is really sustainable and healthy into the future. So those are some of the paradoxes we’re dealing with.

Is immigration reform going to deal with whether or not people will become eligible for healthcare? If it doesn’t, then it’ll be a failure. It’ll guarantee that immigration reform will continue to be an issue that will have to pound away for the next decade.

Durazo: There are a lot of problems with the affordable care act. I’ll be the first one to say it. However, we do have to give credit to A Obama and the overwhelming majority of Latinos in this country support Obamacare.

You have to give credit to him to try to do something, to push something through. But I think that employers and especially big employers should not sabotage this effort, should be doing everything they can to help this effort, because they’re only worsening the problem. And they have a big responsibility that they are not living up to.

Tavis: While it’s clear that Latinos are engaged in many more issues than just immigration reform, that concern is, of course, never far from the minds of so many in this community.

Garcia: The reality is, Latinos just want to be Americans. They want the American dream. When we look at the Statue of Liberty and it says, “Give us your poor, huddled masses yearning to be free”, we believe in it. When it says, “These truths are self-evident that all men and women are created equal”, we believe in it.

And all those Latinos, whether they got here like my great-grandfather in 1912 or they just came here last year, they all search for that American dream. I think when we talked about education and the economy and healthcare or immigration, well, those are American values. Those are Christian values.

And I think that America will be stronger and better when they let Latinos have a seat at the table equally. (Applause)

Durazo: I want to say to everyone, especially in this historic moment of potential immigration reform, I want to ask everyone to get involved and do something. And I believe in a democracy. I love this country. My parents came from Mexico and worked all their lives in the fields.

And we believe in this country, we believe in this democracy, but that means exercise it. Exercise your rights, exercise your freedom, and we are going to rebuild the middle class in this country and alongside of us as part of it will be the elite Latino workers.

Chacon: I just hope that as we go forward over the next 100 years that we as the most important section of U.S. society find the wisdom to be creative and to be innovative in as far as how do we, from our own perspective, strengthen democracy. (Applause)

Inclan: This is a great forum and I think the most important thing to have people discussing issues. And I think the most interesting, exciting thing is that more and more Hispanics are becoming so much more educated on how public policy and how laws impact their lives.

We’re a young demographic. The average age is 27 years old and it’s important to get more and more involved.

This is an exceptional country and my parents are Americans by choice and I’m an American by chance, and I thank God for that incredible gift that they gave me to be born in this country. (Applause)

Garcia: To the American people, I would simply like to say that the Latino thread that wants to be weaved as part of the larger democracy and the fabric that we know is America and that we’re looking forward to the future what it’s going to look like is simply an expression rooted in justice, rooted in hard work, rooted in family, values that I think all of America can relate to.

Panameno: I want to go back to fixing the economy is important not just for us and for those whom we represent ethnically, but also for the nation at large. So in that regard, for me, I want to go back to the issue of housing. Housing must be addressed.

It represents a significant component of our economic recovery and there are way too many families, millions and millions of families, the majority of whom, by the way, are white, but we are overly represented. Latinos and African Americans are over-represented in that segment as well. We need to fix it.

Gutierrez: This conversation is historic and it’s historic because it doesn’t just encompass a discussion about immigration. You know, what I was heartened to hear today was that we discuss the issue of economic empowerment of this community.

This is the economic engine of this country and the faster that the rest of the country embraces that concept, the greater that we will all be for it. You know, I am incredibly proud to be an immigrant. I am incredibly proud to be Latino and I am incredibly proud to be American. (Applause)

Sanchez: I just want to say invest in us, fight for us and, most of all, acknowledge us. Thank you.

Tavis: That’s the conclusion of “Latino Nation: Beyond the Numbers”. I want to thank all of our panelists, our partner, the William C. Velasquez Institute, and Chicago State University for hosting this symposium.

For more on this conversation and the thoughts and ideas we’ve shared over the past three nights, you can visit our website anytime at Until next time, goodnight 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 that he said there’s always the 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. Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we could stamp hunger out.

Announcer: Brought to you by American Income Life and National Income Life Insurance Companies, protecting working families.

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

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