Pathway to Recognition

For many advocates, witnessing the fruits of their labor serves as the greatest reward. From time to time, however, recognition helps the rest of us appreciate their work. The co-founder of the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute (USHLI), Juan Andrade had already been recognized by the president of the United States. But in May, was recognized by the president of Mexico, placing him in the esteemed company of only one other Latino to be twice honored.

“At first I had a sense of disbelief, later of being undeserving,” he admits. “Now I’m filled with pride and wish my parents were still alive.”

For the past 40 years, Andrade has been devoted to Latino political empowerment. He co-founded the USHLI in 1987, along with Hank Lacayo, Rey Gonzalez, and the late Willie Velasquez. What began as a Latino voter registration initiative has grown into an organization that seeks to arm Latinos with knowledge about the political system through education and training.

In 2001, President Clinton awarded Andrade the Presidential Medal for his work developing Latino civic participation and leadership. Last month, he received the Ohtli Award—in the Aztec Náhuatl tongue, ohtli means pathway—presented by the Mexican government to two U.S. Latino trailblazers each year. Governor Bill Richardson also received the award. Andrade is only the second Latino since the late Cesar Chavez to be honored by presidents from both the U.S. and Mexico.

“Ambos líderes, desde diferentes trincheras, han abierto senderos para el progreso de la población mexicana y mexico-americana en este país, Por su parte, Juan Andrade Jr., ha demostrado con su tenacidad, compromiso social y liderazgo, el papel que debe desempeñar la sociedad civil en este proceso de empoderamiento,” said Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan.

Andrade spoke to LATINO fresh from a USHLI collegiate conference held in his hometown of Brownwood, Texas that attracted 1,000 Latino students from rural communities within a 60-mile radius: “I chose to hold the event in Brownwood, which is literally at the center of the state, deep in the heart of Texas, because I remember growing up here and events like this never came when I was a student,” he explains. “I swore I would change that if given the chance.”

The youngest of five, Andrade says he was neither the best looking nor brightest of his siblings. His father, Juan, was born in Mexico, orphaned as a boy and raised by an uncle who immigrated to the U.S. His mother grew up near Brownwood. Both were farm workers who somehow met and married. Andrade attests that life in so remote an area of the state provided plenty of time for a young boy to watch and learn. He listened to adult conversations among his parents, aunts, and uncles and watched politicians come through town. From their debates, he learned to listen to both sides of an argument. But it was from his father, who discussed the issues with him, he learned about politics. “It’s important to know who your enemies are, especially in politics, but Latinos sometimes become loyal to someone because they think he or she is a friend until suddenly, they realize their friend is their enemy. Politics should be about the issues, not about people or personalities,” Andrade says.

Another early mentor taught him about discipline. His pastor, Jose Rivas, was a Mexican immigrant who came to Brownwood with his family to attend college. He not only completed his undergraduate degree, he went on to pursue a post-graduate degree and eventually a doctorate, all while working and raising a family. Impressed, Andrade eventually earned five degrees including a Ph.D. “It’s one thing to wish the best for people, it’s quite another to show them how to get it,” he says. “I watched my pastor continue to achieve against all odds and it inspired me.”

A firm believer in the workaholic’s mantra, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” Andrade admits that running a non-profit at the level of the USHLI presents a constant challenge. “We don’t build houses, we don’t create jobs. We build young leaders. We need to find a way to remain true to our mission and not chase they money,” he explains.

Embracing technology, the USHLI has partnered with AT&T on a special initiative for the 2012 presidential election to teach civics classes online. Financially strapped, many school districts focus on test preparation rather than civics but through Project SER, teachers can download curriculums and direct students to log on to the USHLI website, select their state, county, or city, and follow the election process.

“We’re building the biggest classroom in the country,” he proclaims. “Students who are 18 and older can also register to vote. We will revolutionize the process of Latino political empowerment. We will grow the electorate at a speed never seen before.”

By Valerie Menard