Latinos get up and give your political muscle a good workout
August 11, 2005
Ernesto Portillo Jr.
So Arizona, with its fast-growing Latino population, is poised to become a "majority-minority" state. Our state eventually will join California, New Mexico, Hawaii and Texas as places where ethnic-minority populations form the majority.
That's nice. But so what if Arizona, where Latinos make up more than 28 percent of the population, joins a national trend?
Sure, more businesses will try to attract Latino customers. More Spanish will be spoken in public. And tacos and horchata, a cinnamon-flavored drink, will be more plentiful in non-Latino neighborhoods.
Latinos in Arizona can increase in number, but unless a greater number vote and take part in the political process, the demographic changes won't amount to much.
At one time, the Latino vote in Tucson amounted to something big. But you have to go back more than 100 years.
Here's a quick local civics quiz: Who was Estevan Ochoa?
Come on, now.
A local street and an elementary school carry his name. He served in the Arizona Legislature and on the local school board.
Give up?
Ochoa was Tucson's last Latino mayor. It was 1875, when Tucson was a majority-minority community, with Mexicans and American Indians outnumbering Anglos.
However, since the 1880s, when transcontinental trains brought new Anglo residents, no Latino has been elected mayor.
In the 1960s, several Latinos began winning elections to the Tucson City Council, the Pima County Board of Supervisors and the Legislature.
Tucson also began to see Latinos in visible and influential positions within and outside government - city manager, postmaster, school superintendents, school-board members, and university and college presidents.
Despite some political gains, the fact that Tucson has not elected a Latino mayor is significant and symbolic.
In 2003, when Mayor Bob Walkup won re-election over former Mayor Tom Volgy, the two Latino-heavy wards had the city's lowest voter turnout.
The South Side's Ward 5 had a 29 percent turnout. In Ward 1, on the West Side, a little less than 34 percent of registered voters cast ballots.
By contrast, a smidgen more than 49 percent voted in Ward 2, on the East Side. It was nearly 46 percent in Midtown's Ward 6, 40 percent in Ward 4, on the Southeast Side, and about 38 percent in the North Side Ward 3.
There are a number of credible reasons for low Latino voter turnout.
There are language barriers. The political process and parties have been ineffective at attracting Latinos. Latinos have less money to contribute to candidates and parties, which means fewer doors are opened to them. And immigrant Latinos have been slow to gain citizenship and become eligible to vote.
County Supervisor Richard Elias said the impediments are real and becoming greater. The challenge is to overcome the obstacles, he said.
Still more Latinos will be elected to political office because of population growth, said Elias, who can trace his Tucson roots to its Presidio days 230 years ago.
Granted, Latinos are not a monolithic group. They do not think or act as one. Latinos are differentiated by income, generations, skin hues, politics and religion.
But Latinos do not vote commensurate with their population gains.
Three decades ago, political prognosticators talked about future Latino political muscle.
It's time to flex it.
● Ernesto Portillo Jr.'s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Reach him at 573-4242 or at He appears on "Arizona Illustrated," KUAT-TV Channel 6, at 6:30 p.m. and midnight Fridays.