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Henry Cisneros spoke with AL DÍA prior to his keynote address at the Hispanic Heritage Awards Luncheon on Oct. 10. Photo: Peter Fitzpatrick
Henry Cisneros spoke with AL DÍA prior to his keynote address at the Hispanic Heritage Awards Luncheon on Oct. 10. Photo: Peter Fitzpatrick

Henry Cisneros: A pivotal future for Latinos in the U.S.

In an interview with AL DÍA, the former San Antonio mayor and HUD Secretary weighed in on everything from Latino engagement to the state of the Democratic…

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Despite the current U.S. political climate, Henry Cisneros, the once-rising Democratic star who in 1981 became the second Latino mayor ever of a major U.S. city (San Antonio) and later served as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), maintains a steady optimism, confident that whatever Trump’s America may profess itself to be today, there are uncompromising forces motoring the country into the future.

The nation’s Latinos are one of these forces.

“I’m immensely optimistic,” he said. “Latinos are one of the best things that America has going for it.”

Cisneros explained that over the next 40 years, Latinos will account for half of the population growth in the U.S. Already the country’s largest minority group, Latinos will surpass 100 million in number by 2060, making up one quarter of the population.

The numbers check out.

“As a result of the fact that our population is growing, and growing from a younger base, we will be the population that forms households, therefore buys homes, automobiles, and becomes the backbone of the next American middle class,” he said.

This reality may help explain some of the anxiety that feeds into our current president’s appeal, one whose consistent attacks on an entire ethnic group in this country were not a deal breaker for - and perhaps even fueled - enough voters to get him elected in the first place.

Since assuming office, President Trump has stayed true to form, enacting a hardline immigration agenda that includes such policies as separating families at the border, and showing little compassion for the devastation that Huricane Maria caused American citizens in Puerto Rico last year, for example.

This hostility is no match for the country’s demographic evolution, however, Cisneros contends.

“What people seem to be missing is, this population is going to grow,” he said. “I think some of the things we’re working on today will determine which fork in the road we choose. I’m optimistic we will choose a road, as we have for immigrants before who built this country - Irish, and Italian, and others - that says invest, educate, employ, promote, advance.”

While today’s political environment may feel especially toxic, Cisneros travels back 50 years to maintain perspective.

“1968 was one of the most tumultuous years in American life. We had the Vietnam protests, President Johnson stepped down as president, Dr. King was assassinated in April, the cities burned all over America, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June, the Democratic convention became a bloodbath, the country was near the edge of civil war. It’s the last time that I can remember that we were as angry with each other as we are today,” he said.

“But, out of that came an immense burst of energy out of the Latino community - organizations like Southwest Voter, MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund), PRLDEF (Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund), educational institutions and congressional action - came out of the energy and creativity of that period,” he continued. “I hope we’re at a stage where the established leaders, but more importantly the people rising in the community, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others of that generation, capture that energy and create the institutions that are going to serve us going forward.”

Amid these hopes, Cisneros has his eye on 2020 already. In what is sure to be a crowded Democratic primary field, two prominent Latinos sit atop his shortlist: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and Julián Castro, a man whose political trajectory is strikingly similar to his own, with stints as San Antonio mayor and HUD Secretary.

“A lot of names and faces are out there, from Kamala Harris to Cory Booker, Eric Garcetti and Julián Castro, and many others whose names we will learn among the 20 or so that I expect will be candidates in 2020,” he said.

“Whoever it is, it needs to be a person who can speak to the country at large and the anxieties that confront us today, is credible on international security and has some level of experience because we live in a dangerous world, who is inspirational in the sense of appealing to the better angels of our nature, as President Lincoln said, and calling us back to a dialogue of civility, of mutual respect, of American ideals,” he continued. “And, a person who is tough enough, has the skin of a rhinoceros to take the inevitable blowtorch that will come their way campaigning against Donald Trump and the Republican Right.”

He offers a creative solution should this younger candidate not emerge.

“If we don’t find the right candidate from that next generation, then the mixing of a ticket that includes a bridge to the future would be important,” he said. “Teaming [former Vice President Joe] Biden up with a younger face like Eric Garcetti or Julián Castro might be the right combination for the country at this point.”  

No matter what the presidential race will have in store, and despite the hostility coming from within the current Trump administration, one thing is clear: Latinos will have a growing say in the direction our country is headed.

His advice for young Latinos as this unfolds? “Learn the country and its people.”

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