Billed as the most comprehensive gathering of Latino leaders in the US in three decades, over 1,600 delegates and observers attended the Latino Congreso in Los Angeles from September 6-10. The Congreso grew out of the massive mobilizations of Latinos this spring for immigrant rights, and was a forum to discuss not only the status of immigration reform, but also a wide range of issues from how to best use Latino voting power to global warming to the economic empowerment of Latino communities. Mayor Antonio Villarraigosa and numerous Latino Congresspeople greeted the participants, who represented a diversity of labor, student, environmental, health and community development groups.
The convention was organized by some of the largest Latino advocacy groups in the nation, including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the William C. Velasquez Institute and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).
The war in Iraq was not high on the agenda. Of the dozens of workshops and plenaries, only one session was dedicated to the war–a panel that included Fernando Suarez del Solar, a man who lost his son Jesus in Iraq and has been speaking out against the war ever since.
But the elected officials who addressed the crowd–Congresspeople, mayors, city council members–failed to mention the war, and when Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez spoke at a reception for Latina leaders, she advised Latinos to enroll in schools like West Point and the Naval Academy so they could get good jobs in the military.
When the delegates convened in a plenary session to discuss proposed resolutions, however, the first to come up was an anti-war resolution proposed by Rosalio Munoz, coordinator of a group called Latinos for Peace and a veteran of the Chicano Moratorium against the war in Vietnam. The resolution represented a radical position for a Congress sponsored mainly by organizations that have never taken a public stand on the war, in part because many of their members are military families and they don’t want to appear disrespectful to the soldiers.
Entitled “US Withdrawal from Iraq War”, it condemned the aggressive recruitment of Latino youth into the military, the spending of billions on war instead of much-needed community services, and the post-9/11 racial profiling that has hurt all people of color. It called for a withdrawal of troops from Iraq and a foreign policy focused on diplomacy and peaceful development.
“Polls show that 70% of Latinos oppose this disastrous war,” said Munoz, “but few Latinos have been speaking out. It’s time for that to change.”
Amendments were proposed from the floor to make the resolution even stronger, like calling on elected Latino officials to take leadership in promoting legislation to bring the troops home. To the surprise of even Munoz, not one delegate spoke out against the resolution, and when the voice vote occurred, a lone “nay” was overwhelmed by a sea of emphatic “ayes.”
Among those delighted with the vote was Fernando Suarez del Solar. “Ever since my son was killed in Iraq, I’ve been trying to organize the Latino community to come out against the war,” said Suarez del Solar, “but many of our elected leaders and community organizations have been afraid to step forward for fear of being labeled unpatriotic. So the passage of this resolution represents an important milestone in our community.”
Another indication of the strong anti-war sentiment at the Congreso came from the enthusiastic response to a petition being circulated by the women’s peace group CODEPINK called Give Peace a Vote. Part of a coalition effort of Voters for Peace designed to create a strong anti-war voting bloc, the petition asks people to pledge that they will only vote for candidates who support a speedy withdrawal from Iraq and no future wars of aggression.
“People were so eager to sign and were thankful for a way to express their outrage against this war,” said Edith Mendez from CODEPINK, one of the signature-gatherers.
One of those eager to sign was Jose Carrillo, a delegate from Wisconsin and a union official with the United Auto Workers. Carrillo has two sons in the military who are presently serving in Iraq. “Latinos often join the military because they have a sense of responsibility to serve this country and the want to prove they are patriotic Americans,” he said. “It’s important to honor the sacrifices our soldiers are making, but at the same time we have to speak out against what many of us consider an unjust war.”
Rosa Furumoro, a professor of Chicano Studies and a speaker on the anti-war panel, said that more and more Latinos are becoming concerned about the militarization of the public schools. “With the military reaching all the way down to our elementary schools,” she said, “we see our youth being socialized to go to war while students in wealthier communities are being socialized to become doctors, lawyers and businessmen.”
While Latinos have historically been underrepresented in the military, this is rapidly changing, with recruiters aiming to bring Latino representation up to 22% of recruits, almost double what it is today.
Daniela Conde, a student at UCLA and a member of the student group MEChA, echoed the concern about the aggressive recruitment of Latino youth. “I began to understand how the war has affected my community when I saw my friends being recruited into the military and how they became dehumanized. I want to see the high schools preparing Latino youth for college, not for war. And I want to see this country spending money on uplifting poor communities, not killing people overseas.”
Antonio Gonzales, one of the key organizers of the event and a heavy hitter in the Latino community, was delighted by the open expression of anti-war sentiment at the Congreso. “An unjust war will always be opposed by Latinos because our fundamental principle is justice for all,” he said. “Now we have to find more effective ways to connect the Latino community with the peace movement.”
Medea Benjamin ([email protected]) is cofounder of the human rights group Global Exchange and the peace group CODEPINK.