One of the oldest and most revered Latino civil rights organizations in the country is at a critical juncture that some members say could determine its direction, or have dire consequences for its future.
A messy legal dispute, rooted in a decades-long debate over whether Puerto Rico should become a state, has led to infighting between members and the leadership of the group, the League of United Latin American Citizens, known as LULAC.
Some have accused its president of fueling the very discrimination the organization first set out to eliminate. Half a dozen current and former members say Domingo Garcia, a Dallas lawyer who has led the group since 2018, seeks to marginalize Puerto Rican members after he nearly lost his seat last year to a candidate of Puerto Rican origin.
They said the organization had suspended Puerto Rican members and fired, without cause, some of its most prominent leaders of Puerto Rican descent. Two amendments to the group’s constitution are under consideration, one of which threatens to expel all island residents from its ranks.
LULAC has become critical to getting the vote out in Democratic politics, as most Latinos have historically tended to lean Democratic. The civil rights organization will be among the leading Latino advocacy organizations looking to play a critical role in the 2024 presidential election as Latinos have become major undecided voters.
They are now one of the fastest growing and most diversifying racial and ethnic voting blocs in the United States. An estimated 34.5 million Hispanic Americans were eligible to vote in the 2022 election only.
Next month, the organization is scheduled to hold its national convention in Albuquerque, NM, and some members fear the tension could fuel historical 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 cabal within the group that has long sought to exclude its Puerto Rican members.
Others argue that infighting could divert attention from issues they say should be the focus of the organization, such as increasing access to education or the lingering effects of the pandemic on Latinos, which are among those most affected by the economic and health crises.
Founded in 1929 in South Texas by a group of mostly Mexican-American World War I veterans, LULAC has weathered bitter infighting in the past. At first, its founders limited the group’s membership solely to US citizens, excluding undocumented workers and Mexicans in border areas who sought to join.
At its founding, the group worked to expand civil rights for Hispanics at a time when the Texas Rangers were setting up roadblocks to intercept Mexican-American organizers and signs outside some restaurants still read “No Mexicans or Dogs Allowed.” .
From a small network of local groups, LULAC rose to national prominence, winning legal battles to desegregate and better 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 public schools, paving the way for the landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1954 that segregated children in schools by race was unconstitutional. .
As the group gained influence and expanded its reach, divisions arose among its members. Latinos, once seen as a monolithic group, have grappled in recent years with questions about political and cultural identity as they have become the second-largest ethnic voting bloc behind whites. The suspensions and proposed changes to the organization’s constitution could be a harbinger for its future.
The first proposed amendment would rewrite a provision in the constitution to limit group membership to residents of the United States of America, “that is, the 50 states and the District of Columbia,” but not Puerto Rico. Failing that, another would mandate that Puerto Rican membership be proportional to the Puerto Rican population in the United States.
Carlos Fajardo, whose position as LULAC Puerto Rico state director is in limbo — the group said he was among the “currently suspended” Puerto Rican leaders — called the suggested amendments “intolerant” and “the ultimate act of discrimination” against Puerto Ricans.
“It’s sad,” Mr. Fajardo said, adding that the group’s president had 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 political director for Iowa and Mexican Americans, said it didn’t make sense for the organization to exclude residents of Puerto Rico, who are US citizens. He argued that such a move would go against the spirit and mission of the group. “Our organization is all about: an injury to one is an injury to all,” said Mr. Henry.
Mr. Garcia, the group’s president, who is also a Mexican-American, denied the discrimination claims.
“There is no such thing,” Garcia responded 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 not been able to confirm whether the group’s councils in the territory had been funded by a political party, which could jeopardize its nonprofit status.
“We have had Puerto Rican councils for 30 years, it has never been a problem,” he said. “This is just a question of where the funds come from.”
Amendments to the group’s constitution have rarely been passed, Garcia and other leaders said, requiring a two-thirds vote of all registered delegates present in the national assembly. The group has about 132,000 members and supporters in the United States and Puerto Rico, but not all attend his conference.
Historically, Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans have made up the two largest Latino subgroups in the United Stateswhere Mexicans and Mexican Americans make up almost 60 percent 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 origin.
The tension within LULAC began to grow last year when hundreds of members reunited in puerto rico for the group’s 2022 conference. Eventing came to an abrupt halt the night before the group’s election, including a contest between Mr. Garcia and Juan Carlos Lizardi, the son of Elsie Valdes, a longtime board member and Puerto Rican statehood activist.
A Texas judge ordered the organization to suspend its proceedings after five leaders filed a lawsuit in Dallas County against the group’s board members, arguing that the New Progressive Party of Puerto Rico had been working with LULAC members. as Valdés to influence the outcome of the elections. After being informed that the conference was suspended, about 900 members still gathered in Puerto Rico and held a symbolic voice vote in support of Mr. Lizardi.
Bernardo Eureste, who drafted the amendments seeking to deny membership to Puerto Rican residents, said the proposal only sought to clarify what was already in the group’s constitution and stop what he said was “a takeover” of the organization.
When asked if the amendments went against the group’s spirit of unity, as claimed by some members, he replied: “Did the Puerto Ricans send it to me? Or the people of the mainland?