Thursday, Aug. 27, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
A county-sponsored panel next week will cover the history of Hispanics in the valley, which is basically a long, flat line followed by a sharp, vertical leap.
This is made apparent in a factoid from a news release for the Sept. 4 event, part of a series titled “Centennial Stories: Examining Our Past.” In 1960, it says, the U.S. census counted only 578 Latinos in Clark County. Four decades later an estimated 28.7 percent of the county’s population is Latino, the 13th-highest such figure among counties with more than 1 million residents.
Although no one would deny the worth of looking back at Hispanic contributions to the valley, the event also serves to raise a question: Why has political representation lagged so far behind population?
Of the 43 state legislators representing portions of Clark County, for example, only three are Hispanic.
None of the city council members in Las Vegas, North Las Vegas or Henderson is Hispanic. There are no Hispanics on the Clark County Commission, arguably the state’s second-most powerful political body, after the Legislature.
Similar accounts derive from the history of political appointments, including the recently named stimulus czar. No Hispanics in sight.
Andres Ramirez made a bid at becoming only the second Hispanic mayor in Southern Nevada history when he ran for mayor of North Las Vegas against incumbent Mike Montandon in 2005. He lost, in a city where an estimated 38.6 percent of the population is Hispanic. He would have joined Cruz Olague, who held the title in Henderson for two years in the 1970s.
When Ruben Kihuen was elected to the Assembly in 2006, he became the second Hispanic immigrant to become a state lawmaker, after Pablo Laveaga, who was elected in 1875 and hailed from Sinaloa, Mexico. Kihuen was born in Jalisco. He joked at the time about doubling the number of Spanish-speaking voices in Carson City, referring to Moises Denis, who was born in Brooklyn to Cuban parents.
When you go through this litany with Ramirez, who now works as vice president of Hispanic programs for NDN, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, he accentuates the positive.
He notes that most other large counties in the top 15 for Hispanic population have had their large populations for much longer. In Clark County, and Nevada generally, he says, Hispanics “have become a quantifiable political force only since the last census” — less than a decade.
And while Ramirez won’t overlook the historical paucity of elected and appointed officials with Latin American backgrounds, he also underlines the impact of those who have worked in other areas, such as former Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority chief Manny Cortez, “one the most powerful tourism officials in the world.”
As for politics, Ramirez also points out that the expanding Hispanic population has voted in increasing numbers in the past decade, contrasting the highly contested 1998 race between Harry Reid and John Ensign, when “35,000 Hispanic votes was considered the most you could get,” with the recent presidential election, when more than four times as many Hispanics went to the polls.
As for Kihuen and Denis, their victories are the result of lobbying on redistricting from Ramirez and others following Census 2000. The result: District 11, which is Kihuen’s, and District 28, which fulfilled its intent with Denis’ 2004 election.
Locally, the lack of Hispanic surnames on councils and commissions, Ramirez says, doesn’t negate the increasing number of Hispanic staff members whose jobs are to ensure Spanish-speaking constituents are heard.
The rest is a question of “time and maturity.” Ramirez predicts a near future that includes the more Hispanic state senators and more candidates for local offices.