One of the nation’s oldest and most revered Latino civil rights organizations is at a critical juncture that some members say could determine its direction — or have dire implications 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 the members and leadership of the group, the League of United Latin American Citizens, known as LULAC.
Some have accused its president of encouraging the very discrimination the organization first set out to eliminate. Half a dozen current and former members claim that Domingo Garcia, a Dallas lawyer who has led the group since 2018, is seeking to marginalize Puerto Rican members after he nearly lost his seat last year to a candidate of Puerto Rican origin.
They said the organization 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 purge all islanders from its ranks.
LULAC has become instrumental in getting the vote done in Democratic politics, as most Latinos have historically tended to lean Democratic. The civil rights organization will be among the main Latino advocacy organizations seeking to play a pivotal role in the 2024 presidential election as Latinos have emerged as important swing voters.
They are now one of the fastest growing and rapidly diversifying racial and ethnic voting blocs in the United States. An estimated 34.5 million Hispanics were eligible to vote in the 2022 election alone.
Next month, the organization is set to hold its national convention in Albuquerque, NM, and some members worry that the tension may fuel historical perceptions of division 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 shut out its Puerto Rican members.
Others argue that the infighting could distract from the issues they say should be front and center for the organization, such as increasing access to education or the pandemic’s lasting effects on Latinos, among the hardest hit by the health and economic crises.
Founded in 1929 in South Texas by a group of mostly Mexican-American veterans of World War I, LULAC had previously endured bitter infighting. Early on, its founders limited group membership to US citizens only, barring undocumented workers and Mexicans in the border areas who sought to join.
At its founding, the group worked to expand Hispanic civil rights at a time when Texas Rangers would set up roadblocks to capture 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 court 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 the public schools of California, which paved the way for the important Supreme Court ruling in 1954 that found separating children in schools by race was unconstitutional.
As the group gained influence and expanded its reach, rifts developed among its membership. Latinos, once often seen as a monolithic group, have struggled in recent years with questions of 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 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 require that Puerto Rican membership be proportional to the Puerto Rican population in the United States.
Carlos Fajardo, whose position as Puerto Rico LULAC state director is in limbo — the group said he was among Puerto Rican leaders “currently suspended” — called the proposed amendments “bigoted” and “the latest act of discrimination” against Puerto Ricans.
“It’s sad,” said Mr. Fajardo, adding that the group’s president also did a lot for Puerto Ricans who were admitted to 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 state political director of the group for Iowa and Mexican American, said that it does not make sense for the organization to exclude residents of Puerto Rico who are American citizens. He argued that such a move would go against the spirit and mission of the group. “Our organization is about – an injury to one is an injury to all,” Mr Henry said.
Mr. Garcia, the group’s president, who is also Mexican American, rejected the claims of discrimination.
“No such thing,” 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 issue was that the organization could not confirm whether the group’s councils in the territory were funded by a political party, which could jeopardize its status as a non-profit.
“We’ve had Puerto Rican councils for 30 years, it’s never been a problem,” he said. “This is just a question of where the funding is coming from.”
Amendments to the group’s constitution were rarely approved, Mr. Garcia and other leaders said, requiring a two-thirds vote of all registered delegates present in the national assembly. The group has approx 132,000 members and supporters in the United States and Puerto Rico, but not all attend its conference.
Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans historically composed the two largest Latino subgroups in the United Stateswith Mexicans and Mexican-Americans accounting for nearly 60 percent of the Latino population, or approximately 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 build last year when hundreds of members collected in Puerto Rico for the group’s 2022 conference. The event was stopped abruptly, the night before the group’s elections, including a contest between Mr. Garcia and Juan Carlos Lizardi, the son of Elsie Valdés, a longtime board member and Puerto Rico state activist.
A Texas judge ordered the organization to pause its proceedings after five leaders filed a lawsuit in Dallas County against the group’s board members, arguing that the New Progressive Party in Puerto Rico worked with LULAC insiders like Ms. Valdés to sway the election result. After being informed that the conference was suspended, approximately 900 members continued to gather in Puerto Rico and held a symbolic voice vote in support of Mr. Lizardi.
Bernardo Eureste, who drafted the amendments aimed at denying 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.
Asked if the amendments were 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 from the mainland?”