La Raza, largest Latino group in the U.S., returns to a ‘changed’ Arizona

PHOENIX – The National Council of La Raza, the largest Latino civil rights group in the U.S., is bringing its national convention to Phoenix this weekend, ending a seven-year boycott over immigration rights.

La Raza lead a national boycott of Arizona in 2010 in response to SB 1070, requiring law enforcement officers to determine the legal status of people stopped for other reasons. Supporters applauded its tough immigration stance, while critics said it legalized racial profiling and lead to copycat laws across the country.

The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that Arizona lost $489.9 million as a result of the boycott.

Luis Avila, a La Raza board member, said the organization is ready to return to Arizona, the state where it was launched in 1968, because the state has shown that it has changed. Avila said the state learned from its intolerant past by holding leaders accountable and stopping “anti-immigrant” legislation from passing.

Russell Pearce, who was the primary sponsor of SB 1070 was voted out of office as state Senate president in a recall election.

Lawsuits have been brought against former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who raided businesses and arrested undocumented employees, accusing him of abusing power while in office.

“There is so much happening here that now with the era of Trump, we can all learn from Arizona,” Avila said. “I think this is an opportunity not only to celebrate Arizona, but also to share best practices from Arizona with other places in the country that are now having to go through unfortunately, the same fight we went through in 2010.”

La Raza was founded in Arizona 49 years ago to end segregation of Latinos and protect farm workers. The organization’s headquarters are now based in Washington D.C., and the group lobbies on a national level.

Gonzalo de la Melena, president of the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said the La Raza convention is a homecoming.

“There’s a new set of leadership in our state that is forging a new direction, more about the real Arizona,” de la Melena said. “The real Arizona being dynamic, inclusive, diverse.”

De la Melena said that it is important that Arizonans embrace Latinos because they are key to the state’s success.

“Embracing this notion of diversity and inclusion is important because Arizona is on path to become a minority majority state,” de la Melena said. “Those are the facts.”

Avila said La Raza works to advance the success of the growing Latino community in immigration, voter turnout, healthcare and finances.

Latino and Latino leadership and success will be celebrated during the convention, Friday through Tuesday at Phoenix Civic Plaza, but ways to improve lives is also threaded throughout the sessions.

The convention will address how to support young members of the Latino community, how to protect students and families from deportation, provide health care screenings and teach financial skills.

De la Melena said that Latinos have historically struggled economically to build financial assets.

“Perhaps some of it’s access,” de la Melena said. “Perhaps some of it’s awareness. Perhaps some of it is knowledge. It’s not just one thing but a multitude of those.”

To help Latinos build financial strength, Avila said La Raza helps Latinos become homeowners.

Because the majority of Arizona’s population will soon be Latino, de la Melena said that if Arizona wants to remain competitive in the economic sector, leaders must support the Latino community in growing financially.

“If we understand that the success of Latinos is tied to the success of the country, we would be treating this community in a different way,” Avila said.

Avila said most people do not realize that Latinos face challenges beyond immigration. The convention features people with wide ranging backgrounds and professions, from comedians and athletes to chief executives and business owners.

“We are much much more diverse and richer than sometimes we see in mainstream representations,” Avila said.

One accomplishment Avila said did not get the attention it deserved was a law requiring masa sold in the U.S. be enriched with nutrients that help pregnant women prevent birth defects passed. The La Raza organization backed the measure.

“You probably didn’t hear about it in the news but it’s a big deal,” Avila said. “That’s a huge victory for the health of Latinos around the country.”

Although La Raza’s vision has moved to a national level the group still focuses on local activism by supporting its affiliates.

Petra Falcon, executive director of affiliate Promise Arizona, said supporting youth leaders will continue local activism through future generations.

Falcon said that Promise Arizona mentors rising leaders “by really building up that leadership and letting our young people know that we were all young once.”

“We are looking forward that our youth today are going to be the leaders not only at this moment, but also of taking shape of what really needs to happen to correct the things that are still hurting people,” Falcon said.