One of the nation’s oldest and most revered Latino civil rights organizations is at a critical juncture that some insiders say could shape its direction or have dire implications for its future.
A messy legal dispute, rooted in a decades-old debate over whether Puerto Rico should become a state, has led to infighting among the members and leadership of the group, the League of Latin American Citizens United, known as LULAC.
Some have accused its president of fueling the very discrimination the organization set out to eliminate. A half-dozen current and former members say Domingo Garcia, a Dallas attorney who has led the group since 2018, is trying to marginalize Puerto Rican members after nearly losing his seat last year to a Puerto Rican candidate .
They said the organization had suspended Puerto Rican members and fired some of its top Puerto Rican leaders without cause. Two amendments to the group’s constitution are under consideration, one of which threatens to purge all island residents from its ranks.
LULAC has become instrumental in getting the vote in Democratic politics, as most Latinos have historically tended to lean toward Democrats. The civil rights organization will be among the leading Latino advocacy organizations seeking to play a pivotal role in the 2024 presidential election as Latinos have emerged as major swing voters.
They are now one of the fastest growing and most diverse racial and ethnic constituency blocs in the United States. An estimated 34.5 million Hispanics were eligible to vote in the 2022 election only.
Next month, the organization will hold its national convention in Albuquerque, NM, and some members fear the tension could stoke historic perceptions of a divide between Mexican Americans in the Southwest and Puerto Ricans on the East Coast. There is also concern that the amendments could empower a small clique within the group that has long sought to exclude its Puerto Rican members.
Others argue that infighting could distract from issues they believe should be the organization’s focus, such as increased access to education or the pandemic’s lingering effects on Latinos, among those hardest hit by the health and economic crisis.
Founded in 1929 in South Texas by a group of mostly Mexican American World War I veterans, LULAC has already weathered bitter infighting. At first, its founders restricted membership of the group to US citizens only, excluding undocumented workers and Mexicans in the borderlands who sought to join.
At its founding, the group worked to expand Hispanic civil rights at a time when the Texas Rangers reportedly set up blockades to wiretap Mexican American organizers and signs outside some restaurants still read « No Mexicans or Dogs Allowed. »
From a small network of local groups, LULAC has risen to national prominence, winning legal battles to better desegregate and integrate public schools and promote homeownership and economic mobility for younger generations of Latinos. The group was part of a successful effort to end segregation in California’s public schools, which paved the way for the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling that segregating children in schools based on race was unconstitutional.
As the group gained influence and expanded its reach, rifts developed among its members. Latinos, once often seen as a monolithic group, have faced issues of political and cultural identity in recent years, as they have become the second-largest bloc of ethnic voters after whites. The suspensions and proposed changes to the organization’s constitution could be a harbinger of its future.
The proposed first amendment would rewrite a provision in the constitution to limit group members to residents of the United States of America, « meaning the 50 states and the District of Columbia, » but not Puerto Rico. If that fails, another would dictate that Puerto Rican membership be proportional to the Puerto Rican population in the United States.
Carlos Fajardo, whose position as state director of Puerto Rico’s LULAC is in limbo — the group said he is among « currently suspended » Puerto Rican leaders — called the suggested amendments « bigoted » and « the latest act of discrimination » against Puerto Ricans.
« It’s sad, » Fajardo said, adding that the group’s president has also done a lot for Puerto Ricans, who were accepted into the group more than 30 years ago. « We have to fight for our civil rights within a civil rights organization. »
Joe Henry, who is the group’s state policy director for Iowa and Mexican American, said it made no sense for the organization to exclude Puerto Rico residents, who are American citizens. He argued that such a move would go against the group’s spirit and mission. « Our organization is about: harm to one is harm to all, » said Mr. Henry.
Mr. Garcia, the president of the group, also a Mexican-American, has denied the allegations of discrimination.
“Nothing like that,” Mr. Garcia replied in an interview when asked about claims that he was trying to limit the power of Puerto Rican members. He said the problem was that the organization had been unable to confirm whether the group’s councils in the territory had been funded by a political party, which could have jeopardized his status as a nonprofit.
« We’ve had Puerto Rican councils for 30 years, it’s never been a problem, » he said. « This is just a source of funding issue. »
Amendments to the group’s constitution rarely passed, Garcia and other leaders said, requiring a two-thirds vote of all registered delegates present at the national assembly. The group has approx 132,000 members and supporters in the United States and Puerto Rico, but not all attend his conference.
Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans have historically composed the two largest Latino subgroups in the United Stateswith Mexicans and Mexican Americans making up nearly 60% of the Latino population, or about 37.2 million people, according to the Pew Research Centermore than four times the number of people of Puerto Rican ancestry.
Tension within LULAC started to build last year when hundreds of members gathered in Puerto Rico for the group’s 2022 conference. The event was abruptly halted, the night before the group election, including a contest between Mr. Garcia and Juan Carlos Lizardi, son of longtime board member and state activist Elsie Valdés of Puerto Rico.
A Texas judge ordered the organization to stay proceedings after five leaders filed a lawsuit in Dallas County against the group’s board members, alleging that the New Progressive Party of Puerto Rico had worked with LULAC members such as the Mrs. Valdés to influence the election result. After being notified that the conference had been suspended, approximately 900 members still convened in Puerto Rico and held a symbolic vocal vote in support of Mr. lizards.
Bernardo Eureste, who drafted the amendments aiming to deny membership to Puerto Rican residents, said the proposal only sought to clarify what was already in the group’s constitution and to halt what he called a « takeover » of the organization.
When asked if the amendments went against the group’s spirit of unity, as some members claimed, he replied: “Were you sent to me by the Puerto Ricans? Or the people of the mainland?