The day before Obama’s thrilling clinching of the Democratic nomination, I met with a group of high school students at the Rudy Lozano Leadership Academy, an alternative, activism-oriented high school in Chicago’s mostly immigrant Pilsen neighborhood.
The students were planning a press conference to ask the presidential candidates to take a stronger stance on immigration and to complain that immigration has not been a major focus in the presidential debate, especially on the Democratic side.
Given Obama’s immigrant family history and progressive credentials, they were especially disappointed that the senator had not, in their minds, reached out to the local immigrant community or taken a strong stance on immigrants rights.
In reality I think Obama has strong, long-standing connections with the Latino and immigrant community in the Chicago area, and of course he has alliances with prominent Latino backers nationwide.
But I think even in Chicago these connections were underplayed and overlooked during the campaign. Maybe this was partly intentional strategy on the campaign’s part given the volatility of the immigration debate and the currents of anti-immigrant sentiment in parts of the black and white communities.
And perhaps his work with Latinos and his own immigrant family history were overshadowed by all the debate over whether Obama is black enough, later juxtaposed with the overblown fears of his links to black nationalists a la the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Going back to his days as a community organizer along with his time in the Illinois state Senate, Obama has indeed taken the lead on a number of issues affecting immigrants, including the push for drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants on a state level. Local Latino leaders in Chicago express widespread support and admiration for Obama based on their past and current work with him.
Obama did anger many immigrants and Latinos with his vote for the border wall, considered by many to be a disaster on economic, pragmatic, human rights, and environmental levels.
Juan Salgado, executive director of the advocacy organization Instituto del Progreso Latino, said Latino leaders were mollified that Obama met with them after the vote and apologized for not doing more outreach to and consulting with the local Latino community ahead of the vote. In general, Salgado says, Obama is a friend of Latinos.
“You look at his time in the state Senate — he was very accessible, very willing to listen to people, and to really listen, not just to decipher their interests but to really know what they were thinking,” said Salgado. “A lot of times elected officials are looking at you as an organizer — he looked right to the regular people and tried to understand where they were coming from.”
In Chicago, many locals hope Obama’s rise can be part of a resurgence of the movement for racial unity and progress that swept the city during the campaign and time in office of Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor. This month marks the 25th anniversary of the murder of Rudy Lozano, a Latino community activist and political candidate who worked closely with Washington in a movement that brought together immigrants, Chicanos, whites, and African-Americans.
Maybe on a national level, one of the many hopes we can pin on Obama is that his campaign and possible presidency will help heal wounds and misunderstandings between black and Latino communities around issues of jobs, stereotypes, and other tensions.
Brent Wilkes, executive director of the national League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) thinks that could be the case.
“With a lot of Latinos, there’s this notion that Hispanics won’t support a black candidate,” he said. “We don’t think that’s true at all. The truth is Obama does have support from the Latino community; and Latinos have supported black candidates and helped black candidates get elected.”
At their press conference next week I’ll see what the students at Rudy Lozano high school hope of Obama. And we’ll see over the coming months and maybe years if he fulfills those hopes.