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AZ debate shows low profile of Latino leadership

In this May 6, 2010 photo, Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, poses for a photo in his office in Washington. A lack of name-brand recognition among those dedicated to serving America's largest minority group is largely due to the diversity of Latinos, who come from many countries and cultures with unique concerns that are not easily lumped together, but often are. In this May 6, 2010 photo, Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, poses for a photo in his office in Washington. A lack of name-brand recognition among those dedicated to serving America's largest minority group is largely due to the diversity of Latinos, who come from many countries and cultures with unique concerns that are not easily lumped together, but often are. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
By Jesse Washington
AP National Writer / May 7, 2010

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Quick: Name a leader of the national Hispanic community.

That's not easy for some Hispanics, let alone other Americans. Even as the Arizona immigration debate has highlighted concerns of the nation's more than 30 million Latino citizens, it has revealed a lack of name-brand recognition for those dedicated to serving America's largest minority group.

This relative obscurity is largely due to the diversity of Latinos, who come from many countries and cultures with unique concerns that are not easily lumped together -- but often are.

"When you're in Colombia, you're a Colombian. When you're in Puerto Rico, you're a Puerto Rican. When you're in the U.S., you're a Latino or Hispanic," said Eric Cortes, a Philadelphia resident and member of a local leadership institute that trains people to work in the Latino community.

Cortes could not recall the names of any leaders of national Latino organizations, but he knew many locally based activists.

"I feel like every state or region has that person doing national campaigns for rights. ... It's hard to pinpoint one person," he said.

There are, in fact, many Latino leaders with national impact. Yet in the Arizona debate they have been overshadowed by the Rev. Al Sharpton, who led a march in Phoenix on Wednesday, debated Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, an immigration law supporter, on television and made numerous other appearances and statements.

Several Latino leaders said it's better to have multiple leaders and groups who can focus on different areas.

"The political sector, the civil rights sector, the business sector, small business, immigrants' rights, organized labor," said Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "I don't know if this is a community that can or ought to depend on a single or very small group of leaders."

MALDEF was founded in 1968 to focus on legal activism. It was born from the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, the nation's oldest Latino rights group, which was founded in 1929.

Another major organization is the National Council of La Raza, known as NCLR. On Thursday, it gathered seven other organizations at its headquarters to call for a national boycott of Arizona over the new law requiring police to question people's immigration status, which many Latinos say encourages racial profiling.

"I worry less about emerging as a singular leader than thinking about what work can I do in the community," said Janet Murguia, NCLR's president and CEO. "When you're in a movement to create change, you don't do that without leaders across the board."

Hispanic organizations have helped millions of citizens -- desegregating schools and other public places, helping create the Head Start program, pushing for the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Yet people like Murguia, Saenz and Brent Wilkes, LULAC's national executive director, remain unknown to many.

Wilkes sees several reasons. "The African-American civil rights movement, because of slavery, was more dramatic. While there are parallels to some issues, Latinos didn't face perhaps the same level of discrimination."

Also, Wilkes said, "The culture is different. Latinos are less likely to rally around the one individual. Latinos who get involved prefer to create their own thing, and not necessarily fall in line behind one person."

"I also think that a lot of this is a media-driven phenomenon," he said. "If you're not in the media, I think you get left out of the public consciousness."

Most civil rights leaders came out of the black church, which has a tradition of public performance and showmanship that continues to draw media attention. The Revs. Jesse Jackson and Sharpton both mastered the art of attracting cameras, which combined with their activism made them famous, although not embraced as leaders by all blacks.

Today, the issue of equality in America is largely seen in a black-and-white framework, while Latino issues are not covered as much. Aside from immigration, it has been years since a Hispanic issue penetrated the national discourse, like Cesar Chavez's farm union work starting in the 1960s or California's Proposition 187 effort in 1994 to prevent non-citizens from receiving social services.

"The Latino community does not lack for leaders," said O. Ricardo Pimentel, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the editorial page editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "It's as rich in leaders as any other community. But the exposure those leaders get is different. It's a function of where the cameras are pointing."

This dynamic could be changing as the looming immigration reform battle gives Latino leaders a new platform and a galvanizing issue to unite people of all backgrounds.

NCLR's Murguia said her group is trying to garner more media coverage, and that the Arizona law "becomes an opportunity to get a clear message out."

"You're not wishing for disaster so you can find the opportunity," she said. "But we will seize this situation to act in the best interests of our community. I hope that we will be able to leverage media more as we reinforce the impact of this law and the message that we want to convey."

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Jesse Washington covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press. He is reachable at jwashington(at sign)ap.org or http://www.twitter.com/jessewashington.

Eds: CORRECTS estimated number of Latino U.S. citizens, more than 30 million, not 40 million.