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October 31, 2014

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Vegas figures prominently in Hispanics’ growing clout

CNN and a federal agency director looked west for input on a burgeoning segment of U.S. population

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Sam Morris

A panel fields questions from the group of Las Vegas Valley residents who viewed a preview screening of CNN’s “Latino in America” report last week at the Springs Preserve.

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Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, greets reporters before a news conference last week at the Winchester Cultural Center.

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  • An audience member talks about the importance of remembering others still struggling with immigration.
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  • An audience member talks about not being marketed to.
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  • An audience member from Rancho High School shares her thoughts on the documentary.
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Beyond the Sun

Two very different gatherings happened within 24 hours last week in Las Vegas, each at high levels in their respective worlds, each involving Hispanics.

In one, a heavyweight member of the national media sought input from valley residents on a major production, “Latino in America.” In the other, a top federal official gathered input on future legislation that would affect many of the nation’s Hispanics.

Representatives for each event said they came to town because of the large population of people here with Latin American heritage, about 28 percent. They weren’t the first to include the valley in their plans for that reason. The most noteworthy of recent examples was the Democratic Party’s decision to hold an early presidential caucus here in January 2008, in large part because of the Hispanic electorate.

Last week’s events provided the latest evidence that the Las Vegas Valley’s future cannot be divorced from the future of Hispanics as a population, and is unavoidably linked to immigration.

That seemed clear Thursday night, when CNN made the Springs Preserve the first stop on a tour of at least 15 cities for advance screenings of “Latino in America,” set to air Oct. 21 and 22. Patterned after last year’s “Black in America,” the show is an exploration of the role of Latinos in today’s — and tomorrow’s — United States.

The event brought out about a hundred local Hispanic movers and shakers — university department directors, casino executives — as well as everyday people such as Boy Scout troop leaders.

In an hourlong discussion after the screening, audience members asked CNN producers and a panel of four local figures about interpretations of Hispanic identity, their place in local and national history — and the elephant-in-the-room role immigration plays in the daily lives of most Hispanics.

The next morning, for the first time since the federal government created the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in 2003, its director came to town to talk with the local press, mainly about the possibility of “comprehensive immigration reform” under the Obama administration. Director Alejandro Mayorkas also met separately behind closed doors with local figures including immigration lawyers and law enforcement officials, as he will in other cities, to take their pulse on the issue, a sort of town-hall meeting.

Mayorkas, only six weeks on the job, was politic when asked how likely reform would be in the near future, especially amid a crumbling economy. “I don’t know,” he said, hastening to add that the idea remains “a priority” for his agency and the president.

Of course, politics is the point. The last time a comprehensive immigration reform bill was brought forward in Congress, in 2007, it stalled. Some immigrant advocacy groups have begun pressuring the Obama administration because they are worried that their issue will wind up pushed aside by the president’s many other domestic and foreign policy concerns.

Estimates of the number of families with mixed immigration status in the United States — meaning they include people in the country illegally as well as residents or citizens — go into the millions. And that means many, if not most, Hispanics nationwide, and in the Las Vegas Valley, would be directly affected by any change in immigration law — particularly if it includes a pathway to citizenship.

For Francisco Menendez, a member of the panel that fielded questions from the CNN screening audience and chairman of the UNLV film department, that pathway was a more simple one — he fell in love with and married a U.S. citizen.

Menendez spoke at the screening’s close of his own experience migrating from El Salvador amid a civil war two decades ago, not exactly the best place and time to pursue his goal in life, making movies, he dryly observed.

Since coming here, Menendez has not only realized his dream of directing films and helping form future filmmakers, but also witnessed the Hispanic population’s growth in the valley, with a population that is now seven times its 1990 tally.

He says a confluence of events is occurring, locally and nationally.

“For better or worse, times are changin’ ... and Las Vegas is in that change. It’s a time of great fear for Latinos because of being demonized,” he said, referring to the growth of Minutemen-like sensibilities throughout the Southwest and South.

“But, it’s also a time of great hope,” he added, pointing both to such media breakthroughs as CNN’s show and to the possibility of change in immigration laws, which would affect not just the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants nationwide, but also their millions of family members.

Menendez points to “Latino in America’s” clever device, profiling different “Garcias” across the nation. Garcias, the program posits, are now this country’s Smiths. Like Smiths, the filmmaker notes, the millions of Garcias range from the most successful to the poorest.

Several members of the audience last week offered a divided response to the screening: Thank you for telling the stories of some of those Garcias, but please remember not to focus only on the troubles that have come with migrating illegally, or adjusting to a different culture and language, or living in poverty. Please, also tell our triumphs, so the rest of the country knows we have them.

One mixed-background Realtor with the unlikely name of Joe Roosevelt stood up and asked for more stories in all media, including television, about people like him — six-figure salary, English speaker, Latino.

In the program’s defense, producer Kathy Slobogin responded that only 45 minutes of the four-hour program had been screened, and some of those stories are told in the unseen portion.

But the point lingered. On the one hand, as Ray Garza, audience member and founder of The Hispanic Agency, observed, there’s “an inevitability” to the numbers behind the Hispanic population — 28 percent of the valley’s population, according to Census Bureau estimates, younger than the population as a whole, larger families.

So representation in public life must follow, he and others at the screening say — in the media, in politics and so on.

On the other hand, there’s a desire on the part of many Hispanics for acceptance, a sense of being recognized by the rest of the country for occupying an important place in today’s America.

Which is where we circle back to immigration.

The scheduling of the two events in Las Vegas last week was “coincidental — but not without meaning,” Menendez said, adding that the film screening became “more significant” in light of the immigration director’s visit the following day.

“We’re on the verge of something,” he said.

And with the current economic crisis, “the American dream of greed has vanished.”

He figures Hispanics will be key to shaping what he calls “a new American dream,” one that puts less emphasis on materialism and more emphasis on quality of life, family and culture.

This, he said, will be a dream that “makes it more meaningful to be here.”

CORRECTION: This story was changed to reflect that a comprehensive immigration reform bill was brought forward in Congress in 2007, not 2006. | (October 1, 2009)

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