The main accomplishment of the failed English-only initiative — other than painting Nashville as a city of low tolerance for immigrants — was that it helped create a climate that encourages Latinos to ponder political futures here, according to prominent members of the Hispanic community.
“Even when I can see the negative effects of initiatives such as that, I can see how these galvanize our community and gave us a sense of identity and a sense of purpose,” said Yuri Cunza, president of the Nashville-area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
He said the measure’s defeat encourages Latinos “to fight for what is right and to take the leading role” by participating at the polls and stepping forward as candidates to help direct “the future of our government.”
Bold talk to be sure, but for the most part, Latinos here have been stuck in the “ponder” phase.
Fabian Bedne, 49, is something of a pioneer in that he already made a failed run for a Metro Council District 31 seat a couple of years ago. He said he wasn’t running as a Latino, though, but as a Nashvillian with Argentine roots. And Bedne believes Nashville’s changing face, thanks to its growth, is encouraging to people like himself who are seeking office.
He said he drew the courage to run from his participation in community meetings that examined development and zoning proposals for his once-rural neighborhood stretching
almost to Nolensville.
“I was just going to meetings and saying what I thought,” Bedne said. And before he knew it, he was one of the first Latinos to seek elected office in Nashville.
Asking members of the Hispanic community to say what they think may be a tall order.
While Bedne’s campaign was about neighborhood issues, it occurred at about the same time Metro was coming to grips with the English-only proposal that basically removed Spanish from Metro communications, and the 287(g) program, which delegates immigration authority to local law enforcement, was in its incubation stage.
The two issues may have galvanized a community, but opponents of both agree it also elevated a sense of fear and distrust among Hispanics.
While targeting illegal immigrants, the 287(g) program, which operates in about 100 communities nationwide, confuses even legal immigrants about the reach of law enforcement and its ability to disrupt the unity of families by potentially deporting husbands, wives and children after something as insignificant as a traffic violation.
Cunza says elected Latino representation would be important in helping monitor such increased interest by local government in immigration enforcement. But would that representation allay fears as well?
He said what Latinos in Nashville are going through is a process that all immigrants — reaching back to those who came through Ellis Island — had to endure to become part of America and its culture.
“Those were the people who came with pride and hope and little else to start building the country from scratch. Why is it we have to look down on current-era newcomers?” Cunza said. “It’s not ‘I want to crash into your party.’ You need us to better understand the dynamics of our emerging community without resulting collateral damage. We moved here because we believed we were moving into a better system.”
Perhaps Bedne’s run at least cracked open the door for elected Latino representation. A first step will be for him or another Hispanic to represent one of Metro’s 35 Council districts, to “bring a point of view to the Council,” he said.
Or perhaps a Hispanic will run for one of the five at-large seats, to actively represent the entire county.
“It would be totally senseless” even to bring up the idea of a Latino running for mayor right now other than as a “publicity stunt,” Cunza said. But “since there are so many Council members, there is at least a chance to succeed” in getting a Latino elected to that body. Perhaps an at-large role will be a good thing in a few years.”
Bedne said the size of Metro Council, which some view as cumbersome at 40 seats, does encourage diversity in representation. Cities with smaller governing bodies are run by more exclusive “clubs” of people who are able to spend huge amounts to win a seat. When he made his run for District 31, Bedne relied on shoe leather and handshakes, not a bank account.
A Latino at-large Council member would receive citywide exposure and perhaps prepare Nashvillians for a bigger prize like the mayor’s office. Bedne said the name most bandied about as a potential Hispanic candidate for mayor is American-born immigration attorney Mario Ramos.
Ramos admitted to being “flattered” to hear his name mentioned, but he said “it feels way too far out there.”
While Ramos is heralded by many in the community as perhaps the next, best hope for Latino representation, he won’t be shifting into a political posture right now because his main objective is perhaps the most important to the Hispanic community at large.
“My focus now is on immigration reform,” said Ramos, who won the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s top honor for promoting immigration reform.
It’s hard-earned acclaim and it gives him even more clout in the national debate. Next year, Ramos said, the nation’s focus will be on immigration reform, which is where he hopes he can make his contribution.
But the 2011 election is neither a target nor an impossibility for Ramos. He admitted it could be time to turn his focus to more local politics, but any such run “is not even a consideration” at this point.
Ramos said, though, that Bedne’s achievement (getting about half as many votes as incumbent Parker Toler in 2007) was heartening to any Latino candidate. “I think that’s certainly enough to encourage everyone that they can be competitive. Whoever does choose to run, maybe they will win,” he said.
Bedne has not made a decision on whether to try for Metro Council again.
“It was a great experience,” he said of his campaign. “I got to know the district better. It was hard work, but it was something that I did and I enjoy doing.”
Even Cunza may dip a toe into campaigning for office, but he clearly stated that when he votes for someone — Latino or not — it isn’t because of heritage but because of their commitment to the total community.
“It is not because they have a Hispanic last name or a glowing tan that they will get my vote,” he said.
Rather than having a Latino candidate singled out as such, “a good strategy is to have several Hispanic candidates running for different offices at the same time,” which Cunza thinks would force people to vote on issues rather than heritage.
Elected office would be the logical next step for the Latino population, which already has been moderately represented in prominent positions on boards and other leadership roles — the most visible, of course, is Pedro Garcia, who served as director of Metro schools before being ousted last year.
Bedne himself is on the city Board of Zoning Appeals. Dennis Nunez is on the Metro Human Relations Commission as well as the Tennessee Civil Service Commission.
One who has not been shy about seeking to represent his community is Cesar Muedas, 46, who ran unsuccessfully for a spot on the Oak Hill City Commission in 2006.
“I got 4 percent of the vote,” he said of the election in which he was among five candidates vying for two open commission seats in the exclusive Nashville satellite community. “It was more of a learning process than an actual political success.”
The Peru native was the first chairman of the Council of Hispanic Parents, a group started by Garcia while he was schools’ director. That body has had as many as 550 at meetings, Muedas said.
He also served on Mayor Karl Dean’s Project for Student Success that met in the first half of 2008.
“I was the only Hispanic among the 40,” said Muedas. He said the task force could have been more successful if it had better reflected the demographics of the city.
The election of Latinos can be accelerated by these and other appointments to boards and commissions, said John Lamb, editor of the Hispanic Nashville Notebook — one of several Web sites dedicated to news about the city’s Hispanic community.
“Maybe it’s more likely for someone to be electable when they’ve been introduced to the community in places where they can serve,” he said.
Lamb pointed to how Bedne’s community involvement served as something of a launching pad.
“If you have people who represent everybody in the community, then you have a more realistic Council,” Bedne said. He noted, for example, that he was one candidate who understood the difficulty of becoming an American citizen. “I worked hard for my citizenship. In some things your ethnicity is important if you are in the Hispanic demographic. I understand the issues of the Latino community. I was born in Latin America and grew up there.”
Bedne admitted that part of his job now is to educate fellow Latinos who perhaps look at politics as corrupt and authority as unfair, frightening or uncompromising. The best way for Latinos to overcome distrust of government is to become a part of the process, to try to make a difference, he said.
“I want other Latinos to step up and become part of the political process, because by contributing you have a different stake in what happens,” he said. “And becoming involved is a step toward integration. If people have a stake, if they care more about what’s going on, they become more integrated.”