Thursday, July 28, 2022

Latino civil rights group could see bigger push for Puerto Rico statehood: Puerto Rican LULAC members are growing their ranks and could change the leadership and makeup of the historically Mexican American organization

Here at the National LULAC Convention in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where this will get decided. Just being here on the island and talking to regular folks, this is a very emotional issue. It cuts hard three ways. Some want statehood; others independence, and others, the status quo which is commonwealth status with sizeable numbers in each category. 

It's not looking good for President Domingo Garcia. If he loses the election, this will definitely be a game changer. We'll see what happens at Saturday's business meeting. Whatever happens, I sense that this dynamic will be playing out for a long time, not just within LULAC, but for folks on island, as well. More to come.

-Angela Valenzuela

Puerto Rican LULAC members are growing their ranks and could change the leadership and makeup of the historically Mexican American organization.

Puerto Rican members of the country’s oldest Latino civil rights organization are rapidly growing their ranks to potentially tilt the group’s coming elections and escalate its lobbying for statehood.

The League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, founded in 1929 by Mexican Americans in Texas, is scheduled to hold its elections this summer at its national convention in San Juan, Puerto Rico — its first conference since 2019 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

LULAC’s president, Domingo García, faces a challenge from Juan Carlos Lizardi, president of a LULAC council in New York and the son of one of LULAC’s board members, Elsie Valdés, who is Puerto Rican and a statehood activist.

The contest is pushing LULAC further into the fight over Puerto Rico’s status, worrying some members that if Lizardi wins, the issue will dominate over others for which LULAC advocates.

It also stands to shift the leadership of the organization, which has always been Mexican American. LULAC was formed Feb. 17, 1929, in Corpus Christi, Texas, by Mexican Americans in the state, some of them business leaders and professionals.

As the election plays out, the divisive issue of Puerto Rico’s status is also creating some fractures within LULAC.

Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory. Although all Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, those who live on the island cannot vote in U.S. congressional or presidential elections. The territory’s representative in Congress — called a resident commissioner — cannot vote on legislation on the floor.

Puerto Ricans are divided among those who want statehood and those who prefer the current territorial status; a smaller percentage want Puerto Rico to be independent. Previous votes on the issue in Puerto Rico have been rife with controversy.

Although LULAC's CEO recently said the organization is taking a stand in support of statehood, based on a 2018 resolution, its president said otherwise.

“I support Puerto Ricans’ right to self-determination and a fair election,” García told NBC News. “But LULAC is bigger than that. We’re dealing with immigration and education and funding for that. I just met with the chief of police in Los Angeles regarding criminal justice reform.”

Lizardi and his supporters hold an advantage in the election because LULAC’s constitution allows only those who show up at the conference to vote.

Some LULAC members are forgoing the trip to Puerto Rico for the July conference because of cost concerns. In a close vote, the LULAC board rejected proposals to cancel this year’s conference.  

Meanwhile, members on the island are rapidly escalating the number of “councils” — LULAC’s local entities — in Puerto Rico and New York. Most have been formed in the past three months.

Last year, Puerto Rico had 54 councils. As of this month it has 170 — having added 116 in the last two months. Texas, because it is where LULAC was founded and because of its size, has tended to have the most councils; it had 206 last year.

Lizardi did not respond to email or phone messages requesting comment.

In a phone interview, Valdés said councils are often created at election time when there is more interest in the leadership races, which motivates involvement. Other candidates have formed councils in Puerto Rico, more than this year, to increase their votes, she said.

"All presidents elected since Belen Robles up to Domingo Garcia have been elected thanks to Puerto Ricans’ votes," said Valdés, a 32-year LULAC member and the organization's national VP of the Women's Commission.

Hilda Duarte, the president of a Dallas LULAC council, said she may not be able to afford to attend the convention unless other members help pay her costs.

She said she is concerned about the sudden growth in LULAC councils in Puerto Rico and how it might shift LULAC's priorities.

“The Puerto Ricans want statehood. That’s something they have to decide. They are the ones who have to vote and get excited and once and for all settle their future. … We’ll support whatever they do,” Duarte said.

Two bipartisan bills addressing Puerto Rico's status are competing in Congress, both sponsored by Puerto Rican members of Congress. One is pushing for statehood and the other would create a process for deciding Puerto Rico's status.

'This is a Latino issue'

This month, LULAC CEO Sindy Benavides refocused attention on LULAC's 2018 resolution supporting statehood, resurfacing it in a recent interview in The Hill.

Until the interview, the nearly four-year-old resolution has gotten little attention since its passage by LULAC members who attended its 2018 Phoenix convention.

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