Mandela’s legacy for Latinos and the world

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    Nelson Mandela died at 95-years-old.

    Former South African President Nelson Mandela reacts at the Mandela foundation, in Johannesburg, South Africa, Tuesday June 2, 2009, during a meeting with a group of American and South African students as part of a series of activities leading to Mandela Day on July 18th. (AP Photo/Pool-Theana Calitz-Bilt, Pool)

    Nelson Mandela leaves a legacy of leadership as a unifying force that present-day Latinos have been lacking and longing for.

    The former South African President died Thursday from ailments he had been suffering, surrounded by family members at the age of 95.

    Do Latinos have a contemporary figure who has played a role in positive international leadership to compare with Mandela? Perhaps, in all honestly, few other nations and groups of people have had anyone like Mandela, who has transcended simply being a South African national hero in much the same way that Ghandi became a symbol for all the world.

    Men like Gandhi and Mandela are so rare as figures whose ideology and its implementation have been so crucial in their native countries that they became both transformational and transactional leaders to be admired by all.

    In that sense, then, Nelson Mandela belongs to Latinos as much as to anyone else as a beacon of perseverance against injustice and oppression and as a model of compassion and understanding.

    It is a tribute to Mandela, as it was to Ghandi, that in a world of so many diverse nationalities they so unanimously come to identify with him in a way they rarely do with their own leaders.

    How a man can serve 27 years behind bars — as Mandela did from 1962 when he was arrested and convicted of sabotage and other charges and sentenced to life in prison until 1990 — and then return to freedom preaching reconciliation with those who put him there is mind-bogging, to say the least.

    In the ensuing years, what has also stood out about Mandela for the world to see was his ability to walk his talk at every level and in every way.

    As Mandela said almost two decades ago, “The struggle for democracy has never been a matter pursued by one race, class, religious community, or gender…”

    Instead, as Mandela’s life showed, that struggle for equality has been an egalitarian crusade often in need of people to lead it ethically and for the greater good, which likely is what allowed men like Ghandi and Mandela to stand tall among the rest.

    Among Hispanics, the only contemporary in Mandela’s class might have been the late farm labor leader Cesar Chavez, who preached the same message of universal understanding and brotherhood while at the same time fighting for a social revolution.

    “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed,” Chavez once said. “You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.

    “We have seen the future, and the future is ours.”

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