When I heard that the National Council of La Raza was coming out with a report titled "The State of Hispanic America," I sharpened my scalpel. I was ready to slice it apart, fully expecting it to be of the "feel sorry for me I'm just a poor little Hispanic" school of thinking, blaming all problems on omnipotent racists and an uncaring government.
Well, I was wrong. NCLR's report could have been tougher on the youth gangs and assorted criminals who are ripping apart neighborhoods and further tarnishing the image of Hispanics. But by and large, the report stayed away from the timeworn official doctrine of Hispanic organizations associated with a traditional liberal agenda: that we are helpless victims of a racist society. Instead, it was a rational, non-dogmatic look at where Hispanic America is today, what the future holds.
Raul Izaguirre, president of NCLR, showed a healthy sense of balance in the Foreword, where he wrote, "Some associated with the political left believe that, as an economically disadvantaged group, Hispanics support every conceivable social program that purports to serve minorities or the poor. Others identified with the political right assert that poverty and discrimination among Hispanics are an illusion and thus require no policy attention at all. Both views are extreme, and neither is accurate."
Izaguirre also argued that, contrary to what "alarmists" think, maintenance of Hispanic culture is of benefit to communities, and, by extension, to America. The increasing rate of teen-age pregnancy and the rise of street gangs in inner-city Hispanic neighborhoods is believed by the general public to be manifestations of Hispanic culture _ yet the opposite is actually true, as Izaguirre points out.
Hispanic culture is prudish when it comes to teen-age girls having sex, and its strong sense of family works against gangs. What is happening is that for too many Hispanics, assimilation has meant losing these traditional values and picking up the values of American streets.
The report went on to outline problems Hispanic communities face:
Although 78.2 percent of Hispanic males 16 and over are either working or looking for work _ the highest labor participation rate of any population group _ a quarter of Hispanic families live in poverty.
Only half of Hispanics adults are high school graduates, compared to two-thirds of blacks and four-fifths of Anglos. Less than one in 10 Hispanics has completed college, compared with one in nine blacks and one in five Anglos.
Nearly 32 percent of Hispanics have no health insurance, compared with 20 percent of blacks and 13 percent of Anglos.
To an extent, these figures are misleading. Conservatives rightly point out that many of those poverty-stricken Hispanics with a sixth-grade education and no health insurance are relatively new immigrants, who could fairly be expected to struggle a few years before pulling themselves out of poverty, going to night school and getting a job that paid insurance benefits.
But once they "make it," the latest new immigrants replace them in the lower depths. Therefore, the argument goes, the overall picture of Hispanic progress is distorted by the constant flow of immigration.
This is true enough. But the very fact that the number of poor, uneducated and uninsured new immigrants is large enough to skew data for the overall Hispanic population of more than 20 million means that a significant number of Hispanics _ newcomers or not _ are in trouble.
Solutions, says the report, lie in a combination of government intervention, private sector initiative and individual gumption. I wish there had been more emphasis on the last. America is filled with successful Hispanics, literally living proof that opportunities exist for people prepared to find them.
What about those who don't prepare themselves? Is it anybody's business but their own? The well being of Hispanics has become the nation's business. The Hispanic population has grown so large that its prosperity is essential for the good of the country as a whole. But things won't improve without a government willing to make sure equal opportunities exist, or without individual Hispanics willing to get the education needed to seize the opportunities.
Making sure both government and individuals live up to their responsibilities is, as the report puts it, "not simply a moral preference, it is a social and economic imperative."
Roger E. Hernandez is an adjunct member of the journalism faculty at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Bloomfield College in New Jersey. Born in Cuba, he came to the United States in 1965 when his parents were exiled by Fidel Castro.
1992 King Features Syndicate Inc.