On the Spot: Jorge Ramos in Santa Fe

It was an impressive show. About 200 diverse New Mexicans gathered in a parking lot on folding chairs outside of the vibrant independent bookstore Garcia Street Books, in toney Santa Fe, to hear author Jorge Ramos. Ramos, for sixteen years news anchor of Noticiero Univision, was in New Mexico to hawk his new book, The Latino Wave: How Hispanics Will Elect the Next American President. Ramos, well known on Spanish-speaking television, has written six books, and moves among the powerful with seeming ease – shall we call him the Dan Rather of Spanish TV?

I was checking out the Santa Fe scene with Julia Goldberg, the sharp editor of the noteworthy Sante Fe Reporter, the alternative weekly in town, and Joe Ray Sandoval, a spoken word poet and creator of Chicano Built, a music and event production company. I asked Sandoval why, way out here, was he wearing a New York Yankees hat? "I performed at the Nuyorican Poets' Café in New York City, and that's like the world series of poetry reading. The hat is my symbol," he said proudly.

Together Goldberg and Sandoval have created the unique Hip Hop Voter Project, aimed at registering and engaging young voters with a series of music events at Santa Fe's Paramount night club, in conjunction with other community groups like the People of Color AIDS Foundation, Planned Parenthood and the New Voters Project.

Santa Fe, of course, is an anomaly in New Mexico – "an enigma," as Sandoval calls it – a small city in the second-poorest state in the U.S. (after Mississippi) where boutiques and galleries proliferate, where there is a $38 steak on the menu.

TV guy Ramos has attracted a lively crowd, and the smooth, witty author tells a good story, weaving some smart analysis, with a little side-stepping on the hot questions that makes him seem rather Clintonesque. He does mention that he is not a U.S. citizen, despite his long years here, "in case I want to return to Mexico to run for office."

Ramos' thesis – that the Latino vote could turn this year's election – is shared by a number of strategists, especially those who have pushed for New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson – or "Richardson-Lopez" as Ramos calls him, honoring his Mexican mother – to be the VP on the Kerry ticket. Says Ramos, "there are 8 or 9 million Hispanic voters in ten states and some of them are the key to an electoral majority."

He's right in that Florida, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado are lynch pins in the Republican's campaign, and targets of opportunity for the Dems. Bush captured all but New Mexico in the last election, but Nevada only by 3.5%, Arizona by 6.3% – and we know what happened in Florida. Ramos mentioned another interesting election fact: Puerto Ricans can vote in the presidential election, if they go to New York or Chicago, for example, but not if they stay in Puerto Rico.

Ramos' numbers tell the tale: There are 40 million Hispanics in the U.S., maybe 10 million more "illegals" with one million entering the country every year. Since Hispanics are reproducing at the rate of 3.2 kids a family, there will 100 million Hispanics in 50 years. Hispanics will be a majority of the country some decades after that.

But Ramos bridles at the term "illegal immigrants" saying that American companies hire them for jobs, and so-called illegal immigrants contribute $10 billion to the U.S. economy. The poverty of Mexico – as long as Mexicans are making $4 a day they are going to want to come to the U.S – makes Ramos a supporter of NAFTA, which he says has had some impact on raising the standard of living in Mexico. But still, he says we need a Marshall Plan for the country if the U.S. is ever going to stem the flow of immigrants into the U.S.

Ramos didn't sound particularly enamored of either of the presidential candidates: "This year we have two candidates who think they can speak Spanish, " he joked. We need more than "a politician with a sombrero on." Too often "candidates give us tacos and a mariachi band" and expect our vote, he said. And Ramos scoffs at candidates treating Hispanic voters as an oddity, or romancing them as different. "Latino voter's top issues are the same as the rest of the electorate: 1. jobs 2. education 3. health care and 4. immigration."

Ramos entertained the crowd with stories of his TV journalism. One example was when the very tall Fidel Castro wrapped his arm around the much shorter Ramos for a picture, an image that would make him persona non grata in Miami's Cuban community. According to Ramos, when he pulled away, Castro's bodyguards pushed him down and kicked him.

Things got a little heated at the reading when the audience wanted to know if Ramos felt that the U.S. press was biased. Ramos was forced to admit that after 9/11 it was much harder to be "neutral."

Being neutral is no longer much of an option, not least of all in race politics. Ramos' book, out hot on the heels of Samuel Huntington's racist screed – claiming that Latinos are ruining America's national identity – empowers Hispanics to flex their political muscle.

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