WASHINGTON, Sept. 17 (UPI) -- From being courted by candidates to boasting a burgeoning, multibillion-dollar business sector, the nation's nearly 40 million Latinos are the center of attention for National Hispanic Heritage Month, which kicked off this week and will last until October.
Whether Wells Fargo with its Latina entrepreneur awards or the White House in a ceremony this week, the celebration of Hispanic culture and business has just started and over the next month will include recognition by many corporations and politicians of all things Latino.
President George Bush, at a Wednesday ceremony featuring Flamenco dancing, said: "This is the month we celebrate great contributions of Latinos to our country. It's a special month. It really echoes our diversity and the strength of our great democracy."
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Ca., hailed the month-long observance, noting that much that is American is also Hispanic, adding that Latinos are becoming an increasingly important economic and political bloc.
"Economically, culturally, and politically, Latinos are an integral part of our nation. Hispanic purchasing power is more than $600 billion. Hispanic influence on popular culture is immediately evident in music, film, food, and other areas," said Pelosi in a statement. "Meanwhile, 10 million Hispanics will be registered to vote this year, and the Hispanic community will have an enormous influence on this election. Hispanics know that civil rights pioneer Willie Velazquez was right: 'Su voto es su voz.' Your vote is your voice."
Politician or corporation, for those trying to reach the Hispanics, there is the question of what this rather diverse body politic and market segment really is?
The U.S. Census Bureau coined the term Hispanic in the 1970s to replace earlier designations such as Mexican-American, or Puerto Rican-American. While it officially refers to any person residing in the United States of Spanish-speaking origin, it doesn't in anyway attempt to encompass the cultural vibrancy or diversity of what has become known as "Hispanic-Americans."
In fact, the designation isn't for any kind of race whatsoever, but for an ethnic group -- one that spans every shade of skin imaginable, from white to black.
People encompassed in the census under this category may be American-born with a line of ancestors that goes back hundreds of years to the conquistadors and the early Spanish settlers of the New World. Or they may be recent immigrants arrived not only from nearby Mexico, but also from El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras, Columbia, Chile, Peru and Cuba.
In familiar terms, what has become known as Hispanic or Latino -- which is an entirely other debate in itself -- is a whole constellation of customs, traditions, and attitudes. It is this vibrancy that politicians and marketers are trying to understand and instill into political communications and corporate advertising and branding.
As a whole, American Hispanics are a big demographic group. There are nearly 40 million Hispanics in the United States or 13.5 percent of the total U.S. population, according to current estimates. It is forecasted that U.S.-Latinos will number 50 million by 2007.
Kicking off Hispanic Heritage Month was a gala celebration in the nation's capital, held by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute on Wednesday night. The evening was a sea of black ties and sequined gowns filling the ballroom of the recently completed Washington convention center, with the 3,000-plus crowd including everyone from members of the caucus to non-profit leaders and corporate executives -- a "who's who" of the nation's Hispanic leadership, as described by a spokesperson.
Both CHCI chair, U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, and institute president and CEO, Ingrid M. Duran, gave farewell remarks at the event, ending their tenures as leaders of the institute.
"It is my hope that my last words as CHCI Chairman will give clarity to the real reason for tonight's event," said Rep. Rodriguez during his address. "Behind the glitz and glamour of the CHCI gala, hidden within the black ties and sequin dresses, is an important mission: to develop a new generation of Latino leaders."
Although known as one of the most prestigious Hispanic Heritage Month events, the CHCI Gala is also the largest fundraiser for the Institute's leadership development programs, raising more than $3 million for its College Scholarship Awards, Summer Internship Program and Public Policy Fellowship.
In taking her leave of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, Duran said, "In the last six years, the most important lesson I've learned is that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers. It's about the empowerment of a new generation."
Civil-rights and farm-worker activists Delores Huerta and Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Worker Union of America, were awarded the CHCI Medallions of Excellence for community service and leadership, respectively. Both Huerta and Rodriguez marched alongside the late Cesar Chavez in the civil rights movement and have continued fighting for justice and labor and farm worker rights. Univision anchor Jorge Ramos received the Chairman's Humanitarian Award.
Cuban singer Albita headlined the evening's entertainment "sending thousands into dance mode with hip-shaking salsa," said the CHCI.
In a statement, minority chairwoman of the House Committee on Small Business, Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., said, "Latinos have become a catalyst for economic growth. Hispanic-owned firms are leading the way for the small business sector. It has been estimated that by 2007, one out of 10 small businesses will be Hispanic-owned," said Velazquez.
She added, however, that there are many challenges facing the Hispanic community, noting, "The poverty rate for Hispanics is 22.5 percent, almost twice as high as the national poverty rate, nearly a third of all Hispanics have no health
insurance, and 1.3 million Hispanic workers have lost their jobs."
Earlier this year, Hispanic Business magazine reported in a study that by the turn of the decade, many businesses will have a Latin beat, with the number of Hispanic-owned businesses in the United States expected to grow 55 percent to 3.2 million by 2010, according to the magazine's HispanTelligence unit.
"The strong growth indicates the increasingly vital role of Hispanic-owned firms in U.S. economic development," said Juan Solana, HispanTelligence chief economist.
"Underlying these growth trends are not only population growth, but also increasing educational opportunities for Hispanics that are correlated with entrepreneurial activity. Affluence is also a cause of this increase in Hispanic-owned companies since it provides an asset based from which to access to capital," Solana said.