Hispanic Heritage Month Gives Time to Reflect on Growing Group

Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, offers Latinos an ongoing celebration of their culture. CBRE Executive Vice President Gil Medina, who is a former councilman for Camden and served as Secretary of Commerce under Gov. Christine Whitman, told NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider that the key political issues for Hispanics are economic opportunity and educational opportunity.

Medina said Hispanic Heritage Month gives the nation “time to take stock of the fact that here’s a group that has a very unique immigration experience. And it’s a group that’s really growing exponentially.”

The immigration of Hispanics and Latinos to the United States is unique, according to Medina, because the U.S. shares a border with Latin America. Because of limited economic opportunity, political instability and the prevalence of drug trafficking, Medina said many Hispanics choose to immigrate to the U.S.

While the Hispanic community is diverse, Medina said it is unified by shared values, shared customs and to some extent, shared language. “There’s two languages spoken in Latin America — Portuguese and Spanish, which are very close. Obviously the Portuguese and Spanish who came to the Americas also shared a lot in common. So although there’s diversity, there’s much more commonality than not,” he said.

Medina said he wasn’t aware of differences in ethnicity until he was about 7 years old. “My first recognition of ethnicity did not have negative connotations. Unfortunately, later on I started realizing that there were people who carried [animosity] because others were different,” he said.

Despite there still being tensions among different groups, Medina said, “I believe that this country has made significant strides in terms of racial harmony.”

Medina said there’s an element in American society that turns the debate over immigration into a very vitriolic conversation. “And frankly refer to immigrants from Latin America in very demeaning ways. And it just shows profound ignorance,” he said.

According to Medina, Hispanics represent the largest growing group in the U.S. making up about 16 percent of the population. New Jersey has an even larger population with more than 1 million Hispanics — one of eight states. “If you look at Hispanics collectively throughout the country, we have a purchasing power of $1.2 trillion. And to put this in perspective, that is larger than the gross domestic product of all but 14 nations,” he said.

With regard to elections, Medina said politicians have shown recently that they realize the importance of the Hispanic vote. “Mitt Romney secured 59 percent of the white vote. That was the second largest number in history. The largest margin was Dwight Eisenhower who got 60 percent. But the problem was that Mitt Romney did not connect with African-Americans. He did not get that vote. He did not win the Asian vote and he didn’t win the Hispanic vote. He only got 29 percent of the Hispanic vote. In comparison to George W. Bush who the first time he ran got 35 percent of the Hispanic vote and the second time, 44 percent,” he said.

While Medina said it’s unfair to lump all Hispanics together in one group to pinpoint what they want, he said, “A lot of the key issues for Hispanics are about … education and economic opportunity. All the other issues, the social issues and other issues, really aren’t at the center of what Hispanic voters want. At the end, it really is about economic opportunity and educational opportunity.”