The most beloved Hispanic politician I have known in a long history of reporting on Latino politics wasn’t even Hispanic.
He was a Baptist Irishman who grew up in the predominantly Latino Eastside of Los Angeles and for almost two decades beginning in 1967 alone represented the heavily Hispanic district on the City Council.
Art Snyder became such a powerful force in local politics that the Latino political establishment at the time stopped trying to oust him.
Snyder’s influence came from organizing neighborhoods, everything from senior citizens to veterans, and particularly the groups at local Roman Catholic parishes.
Guadalupanas especially loved him. When he spoke at their meetings, the women would make the Sign of the Cross whenever he said something that would draw ovations from another crowd. They would crush around him—as if he were something sacred—and they would drop religious trinkets and medals in his coat pockets.
“Es más mejicano que los mejicanos politicos,” the Guadalupanas said of him.
One of the reasons they felt that way was that Art spoke to them in Spanish, which he had learned after being elected to office and then perfected on vacations and long weekend trips to Mexico. On any Mexican holiday or whenever the occasion seemed right, a guayabera-attired Snyder would break out into Spanish oratory that drove the crowds crazy.
Art Snyder wasn’t the perfect politician, by all means, but you would get an argument from all the Latinos who loved him.
This is relevant today because of San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, the keynoter at the Democratic National Convention last week, who has become a topic of blogosphere debate over the fact that he admits to not speaking Spanish, though apparently making efforts to learn the language.
He actually made the admission some time ago, and it hasn’t been an issue of any note in San Antonio local politics.
But Castro has now entered a bigger world, where Hispanics and others in the bigger world have strong opinions on the authenticity of Latino politicians with high aspirations.
In contrast, Florida Senator Marco Rubio—the Republican to whom Castro is compared, though how you can compare the political significance of a part-time mayor with a full-time U.S. Senator seems ludicrous—speaks Spanish fluently.
Even Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whom Castro is now rivaling for the darlingship of the Democratic Party, delivers his annual State of the City addresses, as well as other major speeches, in both English and Spanish.
A much wiser, more seasoned politician than Castro, Villaraigosa long ago learned the importance of fully capitalizing on his uniqueness of being a Hispanic politician—a uniqueness that Castro obviously can’t claim.
Villaraigosa often does live unscripted interviews in Spanish on Los Angeles Spanish television, as well as conducting parts of his news conferences in Spanish.
He knows how being a bright, rising star in Hispanic politics can all go to waste.
Art Snyder’s last political campaign is proof of that.
A young, aspiring Latino urban planner who had been tapped by President Jimmy Carter as the future of Los Angles Hispanic politics tried to take on Snyder in what became a nasty campaign.
Carter had chosen the urban planner as the family he would spend a night with in Los Angeles as he sought re-election in 1980, and the urban planner then put together a coalition of young Latino professionals, Chicano activists and liberals in his own campaign to remove Snyder.
Ultimately, the campaign turned in part on what came out of the mouth of the urban planner—or, more accurately what didn’t.
The Spanish television station KMEX hosted one of the debates, and the first question of that debate was directed at the urban planner, who froze, as if blinded by headlights.
Immediately sensing the problem, Snyder jumped in and translated the interviewer’s question from Spanish to English for the urban planner who quickly unfroze. Then he did the unimaginable. He answered—in English—and Snyder translated the answer into Spanish for the audience.
The urban planner didn’t speak Spanish—or well enough to hold his own in a debate on Spanish television.
“Te dije,” crowed Snyder after the debate. “Soy más mejicano que los mejicanos!”