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Latinos make up about 10 percent of Washington, D.C.'s population. And in terms of city leadership, we've had several Latinos serve as deputy mayor. But you won't find any Latinos on either our State Board of Education or City Council.
The lack of Latino representation on the latter has been especially vexing to D.C. native Joshua Lopez.
"For years people have been saying, 'Hey, we need a Latino on City Council. We need more of a presence,'" says Lopez, 29. "And I said, 'Look, you know, I'm just going to run! If we don't do it now, when are we ever going to do it?'"
That was back in 2010, when Lopez, whose parents hail from Guatemala, was just 26 years old. Lopez's interest in politics goes back to his teenage years, when we attended community meetings about the amount of violence on D.C. streets. That's where he met then-council-member Adrian Fenty, for whom Lopez would eventually work, when Fenty became mayor.
Fast-forward to December 2010, and Lopez found himself announcing his candidacy for an at-large position on the City Council. He ran against nine other people, and wound up receiving about 3,000 votes, or 7 percent of the total. So while he didn't win the at-large seat, he did win the distinction of being one of the only Latinos ever to run for City Council.
"Carlos Rosario ran for the City Council," says Sonia Guttierez, president and founder of the Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School. "That was during the '80s or late '70s. We didn't have enough political clout in the city to get a Latino elected."
Guttierez remembers those days well. Back then, D.C.'s Latino community was in its infancy. Gutierrez, who was born in Puerto Rico, came to Washington in the early 1970s, and she says at the time, the community was in survival mode.
"In the '70s, there was a group of us, under Rosario's leadership, that were establishing community agencies," she recalls. "Because the main thing was to try to meet the needs of the people."
So, thanks to this so-called "Old Guard" — or "vieja guardia" — you saw new agencies crop up, like the Spanish Education Development Center (SED Center), and the Program of English Instruction for Latin American (PEILA), which would eventually become Carlos Rosario. Later on came organizations like La Clinica del Pueblo and Mary's Center.
"We were making sure that they would run with the limited funding we had, but also that we would stay alive," Gutierrez explains. "At the same time, all of us were very involved politically. Because Carlos Rosario always told me, from the beginning, if you love these programs, and you want it to survive, you have to become politically involved, because in this city everything is controlled by politics."
In those days, "political involvement" meant hands-on work with legislation. For instance, Gutierrez and her colleagues wrote the legislation that established the Mayor's Office of Latino Affairs.
"I still have cassettes of when Jose Gutierrez was dictating the legislation to me and I was taking notes and everything!" she says with a smile.
But the "old guard's" primary political activity was advocating and lobbying on behalf of the Latino community. Not running for city office.
"We were running these agencies day and night, Saturdays and Sundays, we were working for the community. We had no life," Gutierrez says.
That's why, as Gutierrez puts it, there eventually arose a kind of "void."
"There was not someone charismatic like, say, Carlos Rosario," she explains.
"There were others within the group that were, but we were really extremely busy. So I think that even up to now that void has not been filled."
Johnny Yataco, the founder and publisher of the weekly newspaper, Washington Hispanic, agrees.
"La vieja guardia, the old guard, are now either retired or they're working for nonprofit organizations," Yataco says. "And they're making a good living there; they are comfortable."
When asked if he sees any up-and-coming young rising leaders in the community, Yataco says no — at least not in D.C.
"If you look at Montgomery County, if you look in Arlington, we do have good Hispanic representation," he says, "but not in D.C. So I think we need to change that."
One way to do it, Yataco says, is to get more young Latinos involved in politics. He'd like to see more organizations like the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute — agencies that seek to mentor and groom Latino youth as leaders.
Angela Franco runs the Greater Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. And she says it's crucial to encourage all members of the Latino community not only to take on more leadership, but also to get more involved in the city as a whole.
"Hispanics are go-getters," she says. "We have a strong personality, are entrepreneurs by heart, especially on the business side. So representing a city is having the community side, also having the business side, and understanding the political side. It's just really having an understanding of what the city is."
Sonia Gutierrez seconds that motion.
"You have to be very knowledgeable of what the issues are, how to deal with them effectively," she says. "You need to know how the system works and you need to be able to represent everybody in the city. Not just Latinos."
And that, says Joshua Lopez, is something he kept in mind during the 2011 election.
"I ran to be a good legislator," he explains. "I didn't run to be a Latino on the Council. That's very important to me, but if you're going to be an elected official, you have to represent everyone."
As for whether Lopez will try again to be an elected official, he says he'll definitely keep that option on the table.
"My former mentor told me, 'You don't need to be an elected official to help people,'" Lopez recalls. "So whatever role I take on in the future, I think I'll have a hands-on approach to trying to get things done in the community and in D.C. in general."
[Music: "Somos Campeones" by La Union from Tributo a Queen]
Photos: Latino Leaders