Battle for the barrio

Dallas Hispanic Republicans fight historic allegiances -- and a few slashed tires

It's February 2000, the primary season is in full tilt, and busy worker bees from both parties are delivering their yard signs, marking their turf, extending their reach. A lone Jeep Wrangler rolls into the parking lot at Martin Weiss Park and Recreation Center, looking as if it were about to set up shop outside the Republican National Convention. Four "Bush For President" placards are posted on the jeep's windows. Stickers that would normally be limited to bumpers -- Pete Sessions for Congress, Rick Perry for Lieutenant Governor, Karen Johnson for Judge -- are posted on the windshield for maximum visibility.

That this is Oak Cliff, a bastion of Hispanic Democratic politics, is of no moment to the driver. That he is Leo Landin, the president of the Dallas Hispanic Republicans, is of great moment to the truckload of sign-toting Tejano Democrats who have just pulled up next to him.

"Hey Leo," taunts one of them, wearing a plaid shirt and a thick mustache. "You hate Democrats? You think you're better than us?"

Leo Landin, president of the Dallas Hispanic Republicans, is fighting for the hearts and votes of Hispanics in the barrios.
Peter Calvin
Leo Landin, president of the Dallas Hispanic Republicans, is fighting for the hearts and votes of Hispanics in the barrios.

Landin has heard these accusations before and chooses to ignore them. Instead, he enters the rec center and speaks with its coordinator, attending to details about the Republican presence at this polling site during the March 14 primary. When he returns to his car, he immediately notices what's happened: His tires are flat. Slashed for the third time this year.

"It's just a little annoyance to make me feel unwelcome," says the 30-year-old Landin. "But I'm not the kind that gets easily intimidated."

Landin has been fighting for the hearts and votes of Hispanics since 1997, when he helped found the Dallas Hispanic Republicans. But only during this election cycle does he have the assistance of the Republican National Committee (RNC) as it targets Hispanics across the country with a multimillion-dollar advertising blitz. Only this year is the Hispanic vote seen as a prize that must be captured by George W. Bush if he is to win the presidency. Only this year are Hispanics being asked like never before to rethink their traditional Democratic identity and vote Republican. But as increasing numbers of Hispanics become Republicans, must they suppress their cultural identity, even slightly, to assimilate into a party that has been portrayed as exclusive? Or is the Republican message so appealing that even the barrio can align itself with it?

Leo Landin will tell you straight out: He would rather be known as a good Republican than a good Hispanic Republican. "My family didn't believe in alienating ourselves by wearing an Hispanic flag across our face," he says. "We were just willing to participate as equals rather than be given special consideration."

His heroes aren't those whom most Hispanics associate with the Democratic Party. He doesn't mention Chicano activists such as Cesar Chavez, or the civil rights leaders who founded the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). Landin identifies more with an older generation of Dallas Hispanics, Republicans who worked themselves into the local business establishment and stayed there. Attorney Jaime Ramon and investment banker Robert Estrada (backers of both George Bushes), and businessmen Joe Pena (who worked in the Reagan administration) -- the "big guys," as Landin calls them, those who didn't make "grandiose productions in the name of civil rights, but contributed to the party and never looked for the spotlight," he says. "Theirs was more of a quiet dignity."

But quiet dignity seems to have little place in the barrio, where grassrooters fight for every vote in door-to-door combat. So in 1997, when Landin and his friends thought about harnessing their political energy, they steered away from old Republican organizations such as the National Assembly of Hispanic Republicans, the Latino auxiliary to the RNC. "We wanted to be something fresh and new," Landin says. "We wanted to have our own identity."

Just what that identity would be was the source of much controversy within their group. To call themselves "Hispanic Republicans" made them sound too much like an "affirmative action group," Landin says. "That would be leaning toward the liberal view that you have to identify yourself as a special interest group." Yet practicality prevailed. "From a public-relations standpoint [Landin runs his own PR firm], independents and Democrats needed to see the two words Hispanic and Republican side-by-side to prove that the Republican Party is inclusive."

When the Dallas Hispanic Republicans held its first press conference on July 4, 1998, the organization attracted a lot of attention. Not surprisingly, much of it came from Hispanic Democrats. "When you're an Hispanic Republican, you're not Mexican-American anymore," claims one Latino Democrat. "You're American-Mexican." Hispanic Republicans are just more Anglicized, he says, particularly after "they get some money in their pockets."

"Every time you hear about Hispanic Republicans, they are the upper strata," says local attorney and Democratic Party activist Adelfa Callejo. "They believe in economic opportunity, yes...But they aren't advocates for the poor. Few of them grew up in impoverished immigrant families."

But the joke among Hispanic Republicans is that most Hispanics are already Republicans -- they just don't know it yet. And it's taken George W. Bush to help them figure it out. In his 1998 re-run for governor, Bush's conservative-with-a-heart message played well in both English and Spanish. The state's Hispanic community gave him nearly 40 percent of its vote -- the highest percentage ever for a non-Latino GOP candidate in Texas.

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