California Forum

Pushing for broader engagement in government for Latinos

Phil Serna
Phil Serna

Like so many other elements of the Latino American experience, our history and our politics are anything but monolithic. As such, when we search for clues to neatly explain almost any aspect of who we are and how we fit into governance structures, all of us – Latinos and non-Latinos alike – are repeatedly frustrated because those nice, neat explanations don’t exist.

This was the conclusion Bee editorial writer Mariel Garza reached in her column “Where have all the Latinos gone?” only to be demonstrated moreso in a second piece, “Latino political giant may awaken.” Marcos Breton also wrote about Latinos taking political leadership as opposed to requesting it in his column “Latinos must seize seats at the table,” again showing there are no easy answers when it comes to the riddle of the large Latino electorate vs. few Latinos serving on local school boards, city councils and boards of supervisors.

I don’t challenge the notion that this is a complicated paradox, but I feel strongly that we as Latinos can pivot in a number of ways to better affect our collective political presence, and influence parity between the represented and those doing the representing.

First, I’d humbly suggest we not restrict ourselves to participating in only the expected public policy debates: i.e., policy that has some exceptionally disproportionate consequence for Latinos.

Remember, Latinos make up a significant portion of our total population. Nearly 1 out of every 4 people in Sacramento County is Hispanic or Latino. This means that most, if not all of what we do as local elected leaders, or what appears on the ballot, substantially affects the Latino population.

While not “Latino issues” per se, approving the general fund budget every June, updating the zoning code or fortifying local health and human services are all examples of important policy discussions that warrant more input from everyone, especially from large communities of interest. Latinos fit that bill, and it would be remarkable to see local chambers regularly filled with constituents representative of our region’s rich ethnic diversity who take time to weigh in on important subjects that may have once seemed inconsequential.

I’m not suggesting those policy issues that have historically garnered attention for the Latino community be ignored or minimized. Rather, I’m proposing that the local policy agenda for our region’s Latino population can and should be much broader.

The second suggestion goes along with the first and that is to organize effective advocacy around the issues and areas of local public policy that matter most: the setting of priorities. This can be especially vexing because there are so many worthy avenues with which to advocate: through United Latinos or the Hispanic Chamber, working with La Familia Counseling Center or to get behind the Gardenland Northgate Neighborhood Association. The options are many.

Having seen too many efforts suffer diffused focus due to conflicting approaches, it is always regrettable when what should have been an impressive show of unity falls flat.

These instances should never occur because of a failure to organize effective divisions of labor between organizations, or because the allure of leading a cause eclipses achieving common political goals. More strategic coordination between and among advocacy organizations, all of which have a common Latino constituency, is paramount. Just look at what various local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organizations have been able to achieve in recent years. Clearly they have made progress, taking seats at the political table, and it’s impressive.

I, and others, have to do a much better job of helping our community advance what I’ve suggested. After all, it is we who’ve been entrusted to represent our constituents’ best interest, and to do that we must enhance communication and feedback channels with a growing Latino community.

The responsibility is ours as locally elected leaders (note I didn’t limit it to “elected Latinos”) to ensure all communities of interest have our full cooperation and assistance, and that everyone receives a hearty invitation to participate in their government.

Phil Serna is chairman of the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors.

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