When trying to track the political involvement of Latino Catholics, the
first place to look is in faith-based community organizations. There are at
least 133 faith-based community organizations in this country, organizations
whose primary members are not individuals, but religious congregations.
Ostensibly, they're all interfaith. Many of them are dominated by largely
Hispanic Catholic parishes or small black churches.
Perhaps two million people belong to the congregations that comprise these
organizations. So they're grassroots organizing efforts that usually focus
locally, but sometimes move into statewide and regional alliances with one
another to pursue particular agendas. For Latino Catholics, these
organizations are particularly important because they participate
disproportionately in community organizations. More than 20 percent of the
3,500 congregations that belong to these 133 organizations are Latino
significantly higher number participate in these organizations in cities and
regions with large Latino populations. In cities like
New York, Miami,
Chicago, San Antonio, El Paso, and Rio Grande Valley, Latino participation
and leadership are larger and more conspicuous, and many of these are in key
states for the election.
In Texas, about half the member congregations in faith-based community
organizations are Hispanic Catholic parishes. It is not surprising then that
the five states with the largest number of faith-based organizations are
California, Texas, Illinois, New York, and Florida.
There are several major professional organizing networks that train the
organizers of these congregation-based community organizations. The
Industrial Areas Foundation is, of course, the oldest, based in Chicago and
growing out of the organizing work done by Saul Alinsky in the Back of the
Yards neighborhood in the 1930s. The rest are more recent, including the
Gamaliel Foundation, also in Chicago, and PICO, (the Pacific Institute for
Community Organization), which is run by the Jesuit Fathers and based in
These national networks all contract with local organizations to provide
professional organizers and leadership training. The local organizations
remain autonomous, but the organizers build the regional networks.
Latinos are over-represented in all of these groups—among the professional
organizers, the board members, and the leaders.
Why are these organizations effective? What is their appeal to Latinos? One
thing—very important—is the attention to local needs and grassroots
organizing. This is very different from the average story that I read in the
newspapers about religion and public life or religion and politics.
This is not a national lobbying effort. This isn't the Catholic bishops or
Jewish leaders lobbying on national issues and trying to sway opinions.
Community organizing usually starts with someone trying to get a road paved
or a streetlight put in, and from there may move on. To get things done,
local groups have to look statewide and see how these things are being
handled, rather than the national lobbying effort that we often see
denominations engaging in.
For local folks, this makes all kinds of sense. They see the purpose of it.
I remember the first time I got involved as a community organizer. The first
issue was getting this road paved because a man had a heart attack and the
ambulance that went to take him to the hospital got stuck in the mud. They
called a tow truck to get the ambulance out, but it got stuck in the mud,
too. The sons finally had to carry this man half a mile to a paved street so
he could be taken to the hospital.
Afterwards, I went to visit the neighbors, and their perspective was: “Well,
we've tried to do something about this before, and no one down there will
listen to us.” When the community organization started to get going and that
road was finally paved, all those people got involved. It was concrete; they
saw something that worked.
Secondly, participants feel like they are heard. “People finally listened to
us. We just met with Senator Dukakis or Senator Bentsen and told him what
this neighborhood needs and we're treated with respect, not as someone
asking for something.”
These organizations are supposed to be nonpartisan, focused on issues and
not candidates and political parties. That's attractive to a lot of
religious people. And these people usually don’t like religion in politics.
They see this as community development.
And, again, I think it provides a positive way of doing things for many
people. It is the difference between charity work and working for social
change. One of my favorite expressions that I have heard is, “God is
calling us to be meek, in the political sense, but God doesn't want us to be
think you're going to see, certainly in local elections, accountability
sessions where they get the candidates to come, and they have a list of
their issues. They’ll put up a big report card and say, “Okay. So and so is
very important to us.” Someone will explain why it's important to the
organization, the kind of legislation they’re going to ask for.
Another interesting item that might come up in this election is first-time
voters. In California, in the 1990s, there was a citizenship effect of
anti-immigrant efforts like California's Proposition 187. These faith-based
organizations began what are called active citizenship campaigns to get
people eligible to become citizens and to become voters. So, in the 2000
election, a number of people voted for the first time.
There are lots of Hispanics now. What difference does that make in terms of
perception? How are people appealing to Hispanics voters? They all have to
mumble a few words in Spanish. You have to say buenos dias or try to one-up
your fellow candidates by being able to speak some Spanish.
Many Hispanic groups are conservative on family and sexual issues, but more
liberal on the social programs. There’s not going to be a candidate from the
major parties that fits Hispanic tendencies right down the middle, because
if they're conservative on sexual issues, they tend not to have the same
social program. If they have the social program, they don't have the same
type of approach on family and sexual issues. However, it's interesting to
note that Bush got a lot of votes when he ran for governor in Texas.
Hispanics apparently felt a certain attraction to his message, and they
bought compassionate conservatism. They seemed to think it would fulfill
their social needs and where they were in terms of family stuff.
My perception—a completely personal perception—is that Hispanics are
motivated by personality. Very few Hispanics in my experience become
one-issue voters. They go for a candidate they become personally attracted
to. While that's true of all voters, my sense is that it takes on kind of a
greater urgency with Latino voters. They feel this is someone they can trust
or who is connected with them somehow. The Bush gubernatorial campaign was
very effective, and they have already hired these people to do Spanish
advertising for the presidential campaign. It's not so much an issue appeal,
but a personal appeal to the Hispanics voters.
Bush’s faith-based initiative is unlikely to play well with these voters.
The community organizers would be almost diametrically opposed to the whole
idea. They, very consciously, are not about giving social services. They
don't run soup kitchens. They train people to be actors, to bring religious
values into the political sphere. A soup kitchen, they think, would be
counter-productive to the whole effort.
Now, of course, if it benefited the community—a block grant, the HUD
stuff—that's been going on for decades. They zero in on that money. That's
the kind of government program they would be much more in tune with.
Much more information about these issues can be found in a study that has
just come out, “Hispanic Churches in American Public Life.” It's a national
study that shows how people voted in the elections.