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Group works to build Hispanic ranks in Congress

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Posted: Friday, March 29, 2013 10:05 am

To U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, there is strength in numbers.

As the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Hinojosa already presides over the largest class of Hispanics to ever serve together in Congress. But Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, wants to further the gradual steps taken to increase the ranks of Hispanics in Congress through efforts to groom the next generation of Latino leaders.

Hinojosa hosted a fundraiser in Edinburg this week to benefit the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, or CHCI, a nonprofit and nonpartisan group that provides leadership development programs and educational services to youth by placing them in positions on Capitol Hill. Since CHCI was co-founded by former U.S. Rep. Kika de la Garza in 1981, it’s helped develop more Hispanic leaders in government, but Hinojosa wants to expand its efforts to the corporate ranks.

“It’s where we believe we need to fill that void in the thousands of corporations that don’t have any representation of Latinos or Latinas on their boards,” said Hinojosa, who was recognized this week for his career in Congress by the caucus. “It’s the next step.”

About a dozen U.S. representatives traveled to the Valley for events Wednesday and Thursday sponsored by the CHCI. While here, they toured the Anzalduas and Pharr-Reynosa international bridges to get a better sense of border security and trade issues, and they visited the University of Texas-Pan American and Doctors Hospital at Renaissance for discussions on healthcare and education policies.

Among those in attendance for the events were U.S. Reps. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., and Juan Vargas, D-Calif., who were part of a seven-member cohort of Hispanics who won their first terms in office last November.

Lujan Grisham, a former secretary of health for New Mexico, said the trip gave her a chance to see the healthcare disparities that are common in border areas and how they can be applied in her district. Vargas, whose district includes international ports in San Diego, said he wanted to get a sense of how bridge directors in South Texas are addressing border wait times through unique approaches to infrastructure and personnel.

But the ranks of the Hispanic congressmen who made the trip here indicates the Valley’s growing presence as a player on the national stage, said McAllen developer Alonzo Cantu, who made substantial donations to the political campaigns of Hispanics vying for Congress last year. The trips allow them to see what the Valley has to offer and its needs and also talk with other Hispanic leaders about issues in their own districts.

“There have been a lot of things happening where Latinos are working together because we want our voices heard nationally,” Cantu said. “I get behind people in California, New Mexico, Arizona or Texas so we can all meet at the table to discuss policies that affect Latinos all across the country.”

While Latinos flexed their muscles in November’s elections, contributing to President Barack Obama’s re-election, they still remain largely underrepresented in the halls of government and in corporate headquarters.

In Texas, redistricting brought the state four new congressional districts, including two Hispanic-opportunity districts. But both of those seats were won by non-Hispanics.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, who is leading Hispanic outreach for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said his party must do a better job of getting Latinos registered to vote and out to the polls.

If it does so, he said, it can add to Hispanics’ ranks in Congress and make Democrats competitive again in Texas.

“We want to add to the numbers who are here,” Cuellar said. “There’s room for growth for Hispanics.”

U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, who won a tough election in November, said groups like the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and its youth-training institute can help contribute to that growth.

“It’s the pipeline we all talk about,” Gallego said. “This is the front door to the American dream. It shows what is possible for people if they work together and they work hard.”

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Jared Janes covers Hidalgo County government, Edinburg and legislative issues for The Monitor. He can be reached at jjanes@themonitor.com and (956) 683-4424 or on Twitter, @moncounty.

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