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Esther Cepeda: The leaders who matter

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Esther Cepeda
October 30, 2013

CHICAGO -- In your opinion, who is the most important white leader in the country today?

Oooooh—sets your teeth on edge, doesn’t it?

 But here’s another one: In your opinion, who is the most important female leader in the country today? Or the most important Asian-American leader?

 Now, let’s take this to the nth degree of absurdity: Who is the most important religious leader in the country? How about the most important vegetarian?

 My answer to these questions is that I’d rather not live in a world where such distinctions matter.

 The Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project recently released results of its survey on views of national Latino leadership. Sixty-two percent of respondents say they “don’t know” who the most important national Hispanic leader is. Another 9 percent say “no one.”

 The top names that came to mind were Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who were each cited by 5 percent of respondents, followed by former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at 3 percent and Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., at 2 percent.

 The introduction to the report says three-quarters of Latinos living in the U.S. say that their community “needs” a national leader. I’m going to quibble with this assertion.

 When respondents were asked specifically how important it is for the U.S. Hispanic community to have a national leader advancing its concerns, less than a third (29 percent) said it is “extremely” important and less than half (45 percent) said it is “very” important.

 I’d say putting such statements under a microscope might illuminate this: Believing it would be advantageous to have a nationally influential proponent of one’s interests is not the same as “needing” a “representative.”

 Indeed, the very notion of representation falls apart when we dig into the statistics about what tenets such a representative should or would hold on Hispanics’ behalf.

 Most people with a passing interest in the quirks of Hispanics know that there is great disagreement among them about whether to even be called Hispanic or Latino. Pew’s most recent numbers, included in the survey, show this hasn’t changed.

 Moreover, those surveyed might agree that a national Hispanic leader would have a tough time appealing to a “Hispanic community.” Of those surveyed, only 39 percent said U.S. Latinos of different origins share “a lot” of values, while another 39 percent said U.S. Latinos share “some” values and an additional 19 percent said they share “few or no” values.

 Even if there were a Hispanic community with a common agenda, I still don’t believe one national Latino leader would magically make everyone’s Latino dreams come true. And that’s fine.

 Hispanics don’t need a single national Latino leader because the United States is wonderfully, bountifully flush with geographically, socio-economically and politically diverse leaders who, yes, just happen to be Hispanic.

 Maybe it’s because my own career consists largely of paying attention to how Hispanics navigate our rapidly diversifying and flourishing society that it’s so obvious to me: We have an embarrassment of riches in the realm of leadership.

 The sheer types and numbers of Hispanic leaders working every day toward the betterment of America is so mindboggling that I find it difficult to keep up with their daily impact on our country.

 And let me be clear about what I consider a leader. I’m not talking just about Hispanics dedicated solely to bettering the lives of Hispanics. I do run across a fair number of those, and their work is extremely important and necessary, but overall they are rare.

 I’d say that 95 percent of the time I speak to a Hispanic lawyer, doctor, scientist, teacher, firefighter, banker, researcher, executive director, CEO or president, volunteer, ballet dancer, entrepreneur or other person who is working toward an audacious goal, that goal is rarely specific to any particular race, ethnicity, gender or religion.

 They almost always are looking to make the world—or their school, neighborhood or town—a better place for their fellow men, women and children. Period.

 And that is not by any stretch of the definition “Hispanic leadership,” it’s just plain old get-things-done leadership. And isn’t that what we should all aspire to?

 Why settle for being a torchbearer for just one demographic slice of society, when you could be a groundbreaker for our whole country?

Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.



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