There is a revolution going on in the Golden State and it’s being felt at the ballot box and in the business community.
California is home to 11 million Latinos and, according to HispanTelligence, a major economic research firm, Latino purchasing power will reach $1 trillion by 2010.
Latinos also are moving in great numbers into California boardrooms, with ownership of over 425,000 businesses in California. In Fresno County alone, over 10,000 new Latino firms have taken root in just the past six years.
"We had a business expo recently with 60 exhibitors and each received over 50 applicants," reports John Hernandez, president of the Central California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "We want to become a catalyst to help employers find employees and vice versa, and it’s working."
Some of the largest employers are labor contractors, construction companies and restaurants. "Residential and commercial building has been going like crazy in the Central Valley," Hernandez reports. "As a result, we have seen our chamber membership increase to over 520 . . . one of the largest in the state."
A change in philosophy is one of the main reasons for the increase. As stated in its new marketing campaign, the chamber is now offering more advice and resources to business owners. It also has a marketing deal with Comcast to televise the organization’s events.
"We have to keep our name out there," Hernandez says. "A chamber is like a business; if you don’t advertise and stimulate others to look at your product, it won’t be successful."
The Latino population in California has swelled to 34 percent, and they have been building a strong foundation for becoming a major political force in the state.
"There has definitely been an increase in the political base in the past two to three years," Hernandez confirms. "Our state chamber is moving in that direction, and with the current, volatile immigration issue we have been thrust into the political scene. Our position is that we support legal immigration and guest worker programs."
Hernandez is also involved in the San Joaquin Valley Political Academy, a training ground for candidates. The group works with business leaders, the Fresno Chamber of Commerce and other major business organizations. Those interested in wading into political waters learn how to run a campaign and become versed on valley business issues.
"We have a campaign to register more Latinos to vote in the next election," adds Hernandez. "We want our share of Latinos running for office, but our chamber also takes the position that we just want qualified people on the ballot, Latinos or not."
The ballot box speaks volumes about the impact Latinos are making. Nowhere is that more evident than in Sacramento where both the Senate and Assembly have Latinos in leadership roles and the Latino Legislative Caucus has grown to 27 members – 18 assembly members and nine senators.
"I think the turning point when Latinos gained clout in California politics was when voters approved term limits," explains Cesar Diaz, policy consultant in the office of California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. "That happened in 1990 and Latinos were given an opportunity to work for change."
Latinos’ growing influence has a lot to do with knowing their home-district communities and issues that are important to their constituents. Diaz says the obstacles are similar to other ethnic groups; they want to overcome poverty, provide jobs and offer more educational opportunities.
"Promoting better jobs has played very well with all voters and that transcends ethnic backgrounds," he maintains. "Cultivating future leaders is important for many reasons, not just in the field of politics but in community leadership.
"This is just the beginning of a wave of new Latinos making their mark in and for California."
Farm Worker to Winemaker
Amelia Ceja, president of Ceja Vineyards in Napa, typifies the new wave of Latinas making a big economic impact.
"My father was a migrant farmworker from Jalisco, Mexico and he fell in love with the Napa Valley the first time he saw it. I did too and I had an epiphany and I knew I would do something with wines in this amazing area some day."
She and her family bought land in the early 1980s. They planted pinot noir grapes in 1986 and produced the first wines in 2001.
"It was a little like giving birth to a fourth child," she says. "We believe wine must be compatible with foods and we have the sexiest cabernet in Napa."
Ceja is the first Mexican-American woman to be president of a wine production company.
"We aren’t just making wine, we are making top-notch wines," she boasts. "It involves a lot of challenges, but having the need to succeed is a definite advantage."
Ceja is part of a new wave of Hispanics redefining their role in the wine industry. Often, she joins other Latino winemakers in discussing the challenges of entering the competitive American wine market, and their positions as role models for the younger generation. A current topic is the fact that wine consumption among Latinos has increased and influenced larger wine companies to rethink their marketing strategies.
Ceja espouses the need for education in all walks of life. "Education gives you mobility and that is the message we all want to get over to the young Hispanic men and women," she emphasizes. "Our wines reflect our hard work and know-how and I think they speak louder than anything we can say."