President of Latino group: ‘La Raza’ name was 'a barrier to our mission'

President of Latino group: ‘La Raza’ name was 'a barrier to our mission'
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Janet Murguía, the president and CEO of UnidosUS, said Tuesday that the Latino advocacy organization made a tough decision to better reflect its mission last week when it dropped “La Raza” from its name.

The influential Latino civil rights organization changed its name to UnidosUS from the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) at its 49th annual conference.

Murguía told The Hill the decision was made after three-and-a-half years of research, interviews and surveys on the organization's image.


"We really wanted to make sure what we were hearing was reflective of most of our community," she said. 

"We knew this step would be a big one and that not everybody would be fully supportive, but it’s hard to ignore the data and the changes that have occurred in our community," Murguía added.

The NCLR name had come under criticism from groups on the right, who pointed out that "la raza" means "the race” in Spanish, a reference that was interpreted by some as having racist undertones.

The organization got its original name in 1968 as the Southwest Council of La Raza, a reference to an academic concept put forth by Mexican intellectual José Vasconcelos in the 1930s

Vasconcelos's original idea of "la raza" was meant to unite the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural peoples of Latin America as part of one post-colonial identity group.

But Murguía says that image no longer represents Latinos in the United States.

"We’re not the same Hispanic or Latino community we were in 1968," she said. "We are a younger community — six in ten [Latinos] are millennials or younger -- and we’re a more diverse Latino community."

Murguía said the old name "appeared to be outdated" and "to have no resonance with our community."

"More than anything, our name appeared to be a barrier to our mission," she said. 

UnidosUS is the country's largest Latino civil rights organization, with interests in political advocacy and research on issues like tax reform, healthcare, housing and immigration. 

Murguía said the organization and the Hispanic community as a whole have achieved real gains over time in many of those areas. 

"Real progress is achievable, but it takes sustained engagement and it happens not in a moment, but over time," she said.

She pointed at issues like the Affordable Care Act, which extended insurance coverage to nearly four million Latinos who previously didn’t have health insurance, and the earned income tax credit as tangible wins for Hispanics.

But Murguía said that progress is under threat.

"There’s no question that the stakes are very high for our community right now and we’re dealing with a very challenging environment," she said. 

The short-term priorities for Latinos, Murguía said, include protecting those policies and counteracting the Trump administration's immigration policies.

"We want to make sure we can block the funding for a mass deportation force that Trump has called for, we can block the funding for a wall that is a waste of precious resources that will accomplish very little," she said.

"Right right now there’s no question that 'Dreamers' appear to be in the crosshairs of the Trump administration," she added, referring to so-called “Dreamers,” recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

The program, which protects from deportation nearly 750,000 people who were illegally brought to the United States as children, is facing legal challenges from Texas and nine other states. 

The Trump administration has not yet said whether it will defend the program through the Justice Department. 

"There’s a real risk because we’re seeing more and more that this decision making is not in the hands of the president, but also in the Attorney General [Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump Democrat stalls Biden's border nominee Garland strikes down Trump-era immigration court rule, empowering judges to pause cases MORE] and he’s been antagonistic to any efforts around immigration reform or any efforts to try to promote long term relief for Dreamers and others," she said.

Ultimately, Murguía said, the challenge for Hispanics will be to encourage greater political participation to reap the demographic rewards as the country's largest minority group.

Roughly one million Latinos turn 18 every year, and Hispanics are a key voting bloc in states like California, Texas and Florida. Still, voter participation has traditionally been low in the community.

"We have got to continue to build on the rolls of voters, continue to encourage anyone who’s eligible to continue to vote. Beyond that, we have to make sure there are efforts underway for those eligible to become citizens to naturalize," said Murguía.

Murguía said Latino voters, widely expected to "surge" in the 2016 election, did just that, only to be "outsurged by others."

More Latinos voted in 2016 than ever before, but participation rates remained somewhat stagnant. Still, with consistent participation rates and natural demographic growth, Latinos played an important role in states like Arizona and Colorado.

"The stakes are extremely high for our community. For those of us who maybe didn’t understand how bad things could get before the election, now we know. The truth is they could get worse," she said.

"We have to take what we’ve learned and now use our ability to participate, to mobilize, to vote, very seriously, and we need to come together as we do that," Murguía said.