Rev. Rivera takes a wrong approach to elections - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Rev. Rivera takes a wrong approach to elections

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Posted: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 11:30 am

A disturbing anti-civic infection appeared during this past election.

Rev. Miguel Angel Rivera exhorted the 7-million-member, mostly evangelical, National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders he heads to "Go to the polls, but leave the ballot blank,"

Do what? Are you kidding me?

He claimed Latinos could that way show both their voting potential and register a message of disappointment about Congress's lack of progress on immigration reform.

"They promise to reform immigration when they are seeking our votes," he said, "then do nothing when they're elected. Why vote when you've been taken advantage of?"

His message sounded like the surrender of hard-won voting rights and faintly like the complaint that got the Latino voter-registration movement started in the first place.

After World War II, a new social environment seemed possible as never before in the Hispanic-heavy Southwestern states and Puerto Rican New York. War veterans returning home brought a whole new consciousness about how that could happen through civic organizations working for common cause. As many ethnic barriers were coming down elsewhere throughout the United States, the same wasn't happening in the Hispanic Southwest, the segregated South and portions of the industrial Northeast and Midwest.

After the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy -- with its ethnic-identity politics (Irish) and Catholicism -- Latinos realized the effect they could have through voter turnout. Although resistant strains persisted, both national parties realized a vital new constituency was in the making.

By the 1970s, Hispanic national organizations ascended, providing visibility and national advocacy. Among the better known were the National Council of La Raza, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National Puerto Rican Forum.

In those times, one personality, more than others, shook the political foundations throughout the Southwestern states and later the nation because of his work. His name was Willie Velasquez.

In fact by 1974, Velasquez through the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project had already led 850 voter-education drives in 204 communities. Hispanic votes increased by 79 percent to 1.7 million; elected officials of color increased by 82 percent.

Velasquez's message was simple: "Register and vote, register and vote, register and vote," he exhorted everyone within range.

No one in the communities where he worked asked Willie-Who? Velasquez himself explained it this way: "We voted for Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy. It didn't pave the streets. When we got Mexican-American candidates saying, 'Vote for me and I'll pave the streets," goddamit, that's when the revolution started."

But leaders are only as good as the wisdom behind their exhortations and followers who recognize the reality behind what they are being asked to do.

That's where Rivera falls short. His rhetoric lacks heft. He mistakenly proposes that everyone will listen to groups that don't speak up with their vote. The reality is just the opposite. Or as Velasquez would say, "Your voice is your vote."

Rivera must be confused about the consequences of his strategy, which forfeits the voting franchise and teaches people to avoid confronting problems and hard choices.

Instead of using your vote as a form of decision-making or protest, the Reverend's approach surrenders the kind of power Willie fought for courageously in trade for a kind of I-told-you-so lesson.

And what good does that do?

Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail him at For more stories visit

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