Florida and the Cuban-American community took a huge leap forward on the national Latino scene when Jorge Plasencia was named chairman of the board of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR).
Last week, Plasencia became the first Floridian and Cuban American to hold that important position. Much like what the NAACP represents to the African-American community, the National Council of La Raza has earned its reputation as the most significant Latino organization in the country by scratching and clawing for parity, to ensure Latinos enjoy every right granted under the U.S. Constitution. The struggle for Latinos in this country, though not greatly publicized, has been nothing less than heroic.
One of the perks of my career as a filmmaker is that I have been able to travel our great land. On most of my trips, I met many Americans who shared my Hispanic culture. Each time I learned more about Latino communities across the nation and gained an appreciation for their history in the United States. I noted some differences from my Cuban-American experience but recognized far more similarities. And yet, sadly enough, given our common interests as Americans, there was a political, social and economic disconnect between Latino epicenters across the country and the Cuban-American community in Miami.
Cubans were the newbies on the Latino immigration scene. Undoubtedly we were gifted with privileged immigration status, which understandably ruffled some feathers. There existed an ideological divide as we did not support the same political party in the narrow and sometimes myopic American two-party system, and we were geographically distanced by a large swath of the South separating us from other Hispanics.
As Cubans gained political and economic clout in Miami several visionary leaders within the community began reaching out to national organizations like the NCLR.
One of these leaders was Guarione Diaz, who in the shadows of Jorge Plasencia’s ascension to his leadership role with the NCLR, stepped down this spring as president of the Cuban National Council (CNC) after 34 years of service. Diaz was one of the first Cuban-American leaders to understand the importance of strength in numbers — he was one of the first Cuban members of the NCLR.
Guarione Diaz is the antithesis of what many would consider a Cuban leader — quiet demeanor, unselfish, discreet and extremely humble. Diaz has indelibly left his imprint on Miami — the Cuban National Council is involved in providing help in the form of daycare for working mothers, education to at-risk kids, affordable housing for the elderly and career training for Latinos seeking a profession.
Diaz also contributed to the re-settlement of thousands of Cubans who arrived to the U.S. from the port of Mariel in the 1980s. A scant decade later he was appointed by President Bill Clinton as civilian liaison at the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo, Cuba, where he assisted some 30,000 Cubans and 15,000 Haitians, earning him the moniker of “the Mayor of Guantánamo.”
The secret to Guarione Diaz’s steadfast leadership was always his vision to extend beyond the boundaries of Miami and build bridges and share resources with the other people named Diaz, Fernandez, Rodriguez, and Gonzalez from Texas to New York to California — a group that now forms the largest minority in the United States at 50 million strong and growing.
Plasencia — Like Diaz, his predecessor and mentor — knows about uniting forces and gaining consensus.
“Latinos are part of the American fabric. I strongly believe that Hispanics will continue to add to American society for generations to come,” explains Plasencia, who runs an advertising agency in Miami and is involved in various civic causes and charities. “With a buying power that will surpass $1.5 trillion by 2015 and a growing political might bolstered by 21.5 million Hispanics eligible to vote in 2012, it is one of the NCLR’s responsibilities to ensure that our voices are heard and we continue to improve opportunities for Latinos in the U.S.”
The voices of Cuban Americans are now forming part of the national Latino political landscape — the NCLR could not have picked a more qualified bridge-builder than Jorge Plasencia.