Finding Nashville’s Hispanic voice

Sunday, November 15, 2009 at 11:45pm

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.”

Future leadership

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.

Positioning themselves

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.”

Filed under: City News
Tagged: english only

5 Comments on this post:

By: dogmrb on 11/16/09 at 9:31

Bedne is a great guy and very mature. He had to run against an entrenched good 'ole boy, Parker Toler. But Parker's two-termed with this next election.

By: d4deli on 11/16/09 at 9:56

Unfortunately, it is difficult for Latinos who are US citizens, because most people don't separate them from the droves of illegal Mexicans in our community.
We continue to spend our tax dollars providing medical care and other services to illegals, then get our nose bent out of shape when an pregnant illegal mother is in custody ("chained to her bed") giving birth to yet another baby, who automatically becomes an American citizen. How can you deport an illegal who has to care for her four "American born citizen" children? We created the problem, and it remains complex and hostile.
I can't even begin to tell you how many of these illegals don't want to be American citizens and think we are all "stupid gringos". Those who desire citizenship need to be able to go through the proper channels, and the rest should be sent home.
We have made our bed, and now we must lay in it. In the meantime, the legal Latino community as a whole, suffers.

By: EddieA on 11/16/09 at 5:24

The problem with Hispanics is they need to realize that both political parties are not receptive to their needs. Hispanics need to form their own political party. According to U.S. population statistics, in the year 2040, people of Hispanic descent will have the largest voting population in America. Hispanics should pay attention to the novel ‘George’s Flag’ published in the year 2007.

‘George’s Flag’ is the fictional story of the creation of a third political party and the election of the first Hispanic-American president, George Pilar. The novel was written in 2006 and published May 7, 2007. The novel is a commentary on American politics, masked in the election of a president – if the government can not provide for the needs of the people; the people will find a way to provide those needs themselves. In the novel, Hispanics organize to help themselves because both political parties are ignoring their needs.

The novel, unknowingly, parallels the 2008 Presidential election and was published prior to the emergence of the Obama 2008 campaign.

Pilar Political message: Hope for a better life for parents and Hope for a better life for their children; Hope for a better America.

Obama Political message: Hope for a better America and Change.

Pilar Campaign solicitation; Millions of volunteers to solicit and collect one dollar from each family member. Families donate one dollar, per family member, every month. Daily receipts are almost one million dollars.

Obama Campaign solicitation; Millions of volunteers to solicit and collect five dollars or more from each person. Daily receipts exceed one million dollars.

Pilar War chest: Exceeds one billion dollars.

Obama War chest: Estimated 700 million dollars.

Pilar Illegal immigrant stance: Treated Hispanics as future investment of labor and tax payers. Temporarily waived application fees to allow low-skilled Hispanic to enter the U.S. legally. Repay fees when settled. Provide tax incentives for companies who hire them. Slowly replace illegal workers with legal workers.

Obama Illegal immigrant stance: None at this time.

Pilar Moral courage: Political platform ‘Faith that we have the knowledge that what we do is morally correct, Courage that we will do what is morally correct and Honor that we will honor those who do what is morally correct.’

Obama Moral courage: “We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right.”

In the novel, Hispanics run for the public office of council and they win.

'George's Flag' was selected for the 2007 Southern Festival of Books. It received an excellent review in the Nashville City Paper. Two copies are currently available for checkout at the Nashville Public Library. The novel received very poor reviewes and acceptance from the Nashville Hispanic Community.

By: nashmusic2244 on 11/16/09 at 11:46

I am an American citizen from the age of six. I was born in another country and legally came to the US with my parents for a better life, prosperity and freedom.

Soon after arriving in our new country, my parents realized two things of great importance. One was that we were not going to expect or accept any handouts. We were going to work hard for everything that we would have the blessings to achieve and acquire.

Second was that in order to be a defining and integral part of our new country and to achieve success, regardless of how that was defined, we needed to learn English.

My parents learned to speak English while they each worked two jobs. After 10-12 hour daily work shifts, they would learn English with books, cassette tapes and by sitting with me as we all worked on my homework.

My parents didn't expect the suburban Boston town to provide translators or to have Italian or Spanish blanketed on every piece of document that the city published.

I admire and am very proud of my parents for their foresight, courage and early understanding that English was the way to go in the United States of America.

None of us ever expected to lose our culture, heritage or native tongues and we didn't. We just realized that in order to participate in our new country's events, politics, economy, communication processes, etc., English had to be at the core of the process.

Back then, immigrants often sought out friends or family members who spoke English to do translations. The thought that city hall or the driver's license office would have to have translators wasn't even a consideration.

We came "here" not the other way around. I guess it was more of a show of respect to the country, its people and its process that we "as newly" arrived, should make the effort to learn English. Yes, learning English is difficult, but what isn't in life?

Just imagine the grand feeling of accomplishment when one learns English and can speak for themselves, not have to worry about what a translator may miscommunicate or misunderstand.

When one joins a new company, we are to become acquainted with its policies, procedures, holidays, payroll, hours of operation, etc.

Well, in the United States with its many races and ethnicities represented, the English language is and should be what keeps us united as Americans.

I wholeheartedly support making English our official language because (1) at no time are immigrants expected to forget or not use their native language; (2) conducting official governmental business in English ensures that there are no errors or miscommunications; (3) there is no margin of error or misinterpretation when one understands and speaks English; (4) knowing English empowers anyone to stand up for themselves and not have to rely on someone else.

So to use Mr. Bedne's own words, “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", (1) stepping up and becoming a part of the political process is more rewarding when you yourself understand and speak English; (2) contributing in English ensures your ideas, philosophies and positions are clearly understood; (3) involvement towards integration is best served and accomplished when one knows English.

Please visit my Blog to learn more about making English our official language. It has nothing to do with Hispanics, Kurds, Somalis, or any other ethnicity. It has all to do with uniting our country in one language when conducting official government business.

Eddie V Garcia

By: CJinTX on 11/18/09 at 4:06


Well said as always my friend Eddie V Garcia. More common sense I hope people will listen to and heed the voice of experience. Bless your parents for their foresight!