Nineteen years ago I applied for and received a job from the newly elected Senator from Massachusetts, John Kerry, and I turned him down. It was a heady offer for a recent Harvard graduate, and I was determined to be in Boston because my girlfriend (whom I later married) also worked at Government Center in downtown Beantown. I was taking a year off from graduate school at Yale, and in the back of my mind I thought I might have an interest in politics. I remember that I spoke to Kerry's chief of staff about all the positions they had to fill for the newly elected senator, and eventually I believe I had a brief conversation with Kerry himself, in an attempt to seal the deal. But what discouraged me was that, without knowing or asking about my positions or ideas, Kerry and his staff wanted me to be the "Latino liaison" for Kerry in Boston. The job, if I had taken it, would have been to get Kerry Latino votes in Massachusetts, to be Kerry's Latino face to potential voters.
I cannot say I was outright 'insulted,' because I was not that composed for a twenty-three-year-old. Maybe 'embarrassed' or 'sad.' I certainly felt degraded, in a way. It was a lucrative job for kid who had grown up dirt poor on the Mexican-American border (I now have a different definition of 'lucrative'). And I almost took the job, because I thought at the time it was prestigious. I was certainly intimidated every time I walked into the 'John F. Kennedy' federal building for my job interviews. But I thought I had good, substantial policy ideas to contribute, and Harvard and Yale certainly had never trained me to be ghettoized only as a 'Latino liaison.' Those schools had trained me to win hard political arguments, to respect my mind, to play hardball when I needed to. I did not think Kerry or his office took me seriously; they assumed I was a 'category' first, and attempted to put me in that category without first getting to know me, or even asking me what I wanted.
So recently, while reading news reports about African-American and Latino criticisms of Presidential candidate Kerry (New York Times, April 30, 2004) --that his immediate and most important staff is white, that he wants minorities mostly for "outreach," rather than for substantial policy-making positions-- I was again sad, and disappointed, that so little has changed in two decades. Certainly in the Latino community, we are not content, anymore, to be relegated only to a stereotypical category, to accept preconceived (and erroneous) assumptions about who we are or what we want. Our variety, numbers, maturity, education, and money have taken us beyond that. Democratic and Republican politicians had better take notice, or they might instead win only a mention in the footnotes of history.
I never became professionally involved in politics, but instead chose to be a writer. Eventually, I became convinced that politics was a dirty business where truth and complex political discourse were usually sacrificed for glib sound bites. So as a Latino who votes, I will not vote Democratic or Republican automatically. I will vote for the politician who appeals to my mind, who speaks intelligently to me and my concerns, and who does not assume anything about who I am or who I should be, but who asks me what I want and listens to my voice carefully. And then does something about it.
This newspaper op-ed article appeared in the Editorial section of the El Paso Times on May 11, 2004.