Why Are There No National Latino Leaders?

The Pew Hispanic Center reports that almost 75 percent of a nationally representative sample of Latinos either cannot identify anyone they consider to be “the most important Latino leader in the country today” or state there is no Latino national leader.  How can we explain this?

I remember that as an undergraduate I was taught that democracies could not prosper in Latin America because Latin Americans, the forefathers of Latinos, were so ego-centric that instead of cooperating with others to advance group interests as democracies require, they undermined any initiative that did not enhance their individual status. Popular folklore translated this into the Mexican crab story—the reason Mexican crabs don’t climb out of uncovered buckets is that as soon as one gets near the top, the others pull him back down. 

The “folk” and the academy have long since abandoned such explanations. In my judgment, today’s leadership vacuum is to a significant degree the unintended consequence of well-intentioned reforms. Specifically, the failure to develop national Latino leaders seems to result from the incentive structure inherent in the construction of majority-minority districts mandated by the Voting Rights Act (VRA). These districts include all levels of legislative seats from school boards to Congress but do not extend to state-wide seats, such as Governor and Senator or to any city-wide positions such as Mayor.

VRA districts do not guarantee that minority group members will be elected; it only guarantees that minority voters will have the electoral clout to elect whoever they prefer. Non-minorities seldom contest elections in these districts, and if they do, only rarely are they victorious. 

Given this structure, minority candidates have every incentive to run for majority-minority seats. Conversely, running in state or citywide elections poses a substantial risk unless minorities constitute a significant portion, if not the majority, of the electorate. So, in almost all large cities and states, minorities are unlikely to seek governorships, senate seats, and mayoralties, the positions that require them to develop the skills required to deal with society’s major issues.

Ironically, the positions which minorities do not compete for are the ones which are most likely to serve as spring boards for national prominence.  No one goes from the House of Representatives to the Presidency, for example, nor are members of Congress likely to become national political personalities in the way that large city mayors, U. S. Senators and Governors frequently do. 

Latino leadership development is further undercut by majority-minority seats because they reduce the need for incumbents to reach out beyond their districts.  Such outreach could help minority legislators expand their constituencies to include non-minorities. It could also enable them to develop the skills and expertise needed to work with non-minority representatives to resolve problems that transcend the ethnic and geographic boundaries of their districts.  

Unless Latinos elected from majority-minority districts are willing to risk their careers in pursuit of more significant positions and/or build bridges to non-Latino colleagues and constituencies, they will not attain national prominence.  Latinos and the nation deserve no less.

Rodolfo de la Garza, a Columbia University professor of Political Science, has studied immigration, political attitudes and voting for over 30 years. He directed the first national political survey of Latinos and has authored, co-authored and edited 18 books and more than 100 scholarly articles and reports on foreign policy, immigration and political attitudes and behavior.