Dueling state conventions reflect split in Latino group
The Arizona Republic
May. 27, 2005
Mel MelÚndez

Deep divisions within one of Arizona's largest Latino advocacy groups has sparked two state conventions: an official conference Saturday in Tucson and a renegade convention on Sunday in Phoenix.

For the first time in its 54-year history, members of Arizona's League of United Latin American Citizens can choose between conventions with separate elections for state officers even though LULAC's national office has
renounced the Phoenix affair.

"They don't have the authority to hold a separate convention or separate elections in Phoenix," said Brent A. Wilkes, LULAC's executive director. "This is basically an exercise in futility, because none of this will be recognized by the national organization." advertisement

Observers call the dueling conventions the latest wrinkle in a 1 1/2-year battle between 52-year-old Samuel Esquivel, the former Arizona LULAC state director, and the national office, which twice suspended him for allegedly violating bylaws, including engaging in a lawsuit without permission.

What's more, some say holding separate conventions highlights a growing rift between Tucson and Phoenix LULAC members, which is eroding the effectiveness of the advocacy group in a state where discrimination issues often take center stage because of proximity to Mexico and a burgeoning Latino population.

The Tucson convention kicks off at 6 p.m. at the Inn Suites Hotel in downtown Tucson.

The Phoenix conference is a daylong affair at the American Legion Post 41 in downtown Phoenix.

Esquivel, who's challenging his suspension, says Valley members asked for the Phoenix convention. He was ousted as state director after requesting access to an audit and several bank accounts controlled by state members, he said. Hence, Esquivel plans to leave the group when his "term" expires this month to form a new Latino advocacy group with Silverio Garcia, who stepped down as state education chairman of Arizona's LULAC.

"We feel too many organizations have gotten too soft and mired in diplomacy," Esquivel said. "All of the handshaking and smiling at each other hasn't done much for the Hispanic community. It's time for a more aggressive group to truly address Latinos' concerns."

Both men have gained reputations throughout the Valley as passionate activists for their championing of Latino causes, most notably tackling discrimination issues in schools.

Still, LULAC officials welcome Esquivel's defection, which they say could bolster relations among the state's 40 chapters. Arizona has nearly 1,000 of LULAC's 115,000 members, but it's uncertain how many belong to the Tucson or Phoenix councils.

"We're hoping he will start his own group, because that will help restore the peace," said Dave Rodriguez, national vice president for the far west region. "Maybe then we can focus on public-policy issues, growing membership and starting scholarship programs. Those are the things LULAC is known for throughout the country."

Rodriguez, who pushed for Esquivel's ouster, plans to hold the first post-convention meeting in Phoenix to address Valley members' concerns. He called solidifying the group "critical" in Arizona, where 25 percent of the population is Latino.

Recent developments, such as the Minuteman Project on the border and passage of Proposition 200, have created a sense of urgency, he said.

"Now is not the time for this bickering . . . because people start to question your organization's credibility," said Rodriguez, a former member of the Tucson chapter.

Those following the unfolding drama agree, saying it could take years for an advocacy group to regain its footing and reputation after ongoing discordant media accounts.

"This has turned into a very public, very ugly fight and that can truly hurt an organization," said Tommy Espinoza, president and CEO of the Raza Development Fund in Phoenix. "It just leaves (non-Latino) critics to say, 'Gee, they can't even work together amongst themselves, so how can they work with us?' "