My older brother John has always been a natural leader. Growing up, he always stood up for me and every other kid who was in need of support. I remember helping my mother make his campaign signs for student council president in grade school, so it was no surprise when he told me this year he was considering running for city council in San Antonio. It was before inauguration day, but tumult had already begun to sink its teeth into our collective consciousness. As I write, in large cities all over the country, immigrant communities are being targeted and in my city of Austin, people have been detained and await news of their future. It’s an unstable time for many, but specifically for brown Americans.
My brother and I were born in South Texas, during the time Henry Cisneros was mayor of our hometown, San Antonio. We grew up in a city with a large Mexican American community. We never felt the need to defend our American-ness, although my grandmother told us stories of how she’d been discriminated against because her last name was Acosta. Like me, she had light skin and therefore, the privilege of fitting in until her identity was fully revealed. She aimed to assimilate. Her husband, my grandfather, was dark skinned like my brother. And although we all are from the same family, our experience as white and brown Chicanos is markedly different. I have never been more cognizant of that fact as I am now.
When Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president and declared on a national platform that Mexico was “not sending their best.” and asserted, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” It struck a nerve in the entire American Latino community. My family was no exception. As the daughter of a Mexican immigrant who served in the army during the Vietnam War, I was offended to say the least. With every bit of hateful rhetoric and consternation that has ensued since this announcement, I have grown increasingly angry, even hopeless at times. But my brother has taken a different approach.
John was always more patient than I, always more hardworking, and a little more diligent when it came to listening and following directions. He was always slightly more cautious and thoughtful and deliberate. His decision to run for office is a result of that reasoned passion. It occurs to me now as I spend time spouting my views on Facebook and ranting my anger that although we are blood related, my privilege is greater than his. As a white hispanic woman, I can afford to be more vocal about my anger. I can be more contentious, outspoken, and unapologetic. My brother has always been brown, and I’ve begun to wonder if his caution is a result of having to always know how to win over those who underestimate you upon first glance. Whatever the reason, his measured strength and understanding of human psychology could make him one of the greatest leaders of our generation.
Although Latinos have always played a vital role in forming and sustaining the United States, they are the minority when it comes to leadership in American politics. There are currently only four Hispanics serving in the Senate, with a slightly more encouraging number of 34 currently serving in the House of Representatives. But this is still a massive underrepresentation of the population. There are now over 55 million Latinos living in the United States. Hispanics have served as governors, mayors, and have held presidential cabinet positions in the last century, but have never led a party ticket in the nomination for president. With views like those espoused by our current president, it’s not difficult to see how racism is limiting further pursuits by Latinos seeking positions of leadership.
While this nation is remembering its roots of bigotry, intolerance, and racism, it is also recalling its spirit of activism. As this generation is thrown from the nest of the belief that all people are for equality, we are called to engage by employing our truest gifts. For some, that will be creating art or teaching. For men and women like my brother, it will be leadership and civic engagement. I want to believe that all people who feel the need to represent an undervalued demographic or isolated group in our society will seek out these positions, as my brother has. Because the Donald Trumps of the world need to see what we are really capable of. The time for Latinos in America to be present has come, as we are called to speak, write, lead, and teach. The only way is forward, and thoughtful discourse in multiple languages is required. Latinos in the United States have contributed as soldiers, entrepreneurs, artists, and community builders for generations. But we need more Latinos in politics to contradict the dangerous narrative that brown skin or speaking Spanish is somehow less American. Before Barack Obama famously urged Americans to believe “Yes, We Can”, civil rights activist Cesar Chavez said it in Spanish. Latino Americans are needed in leadership now more than ever, and the answer to whether they will succeed is in our history. “Si, se puede.”