When the Rev. Michael J. Graham came to Cincinnati in 1984, he said it was rare to see Hispanic faces around the city.
The Xavier University president was among the civic officials and leaders Monday night at the Hispanic Chamber Cincinnati USA’s dinner gala. More than 900 turned out at downtown’s Hyatt Regency Cincinnati for the annual celebration and fundraising event.
It’s a crowd that has been growing every year.
“It’s the biggest Latino event in Ohio,” said Claudia Cortez-Reinhardt, executive director of the Dayton Hispanic Chamber.
“It’s a great event every year,” said Lourdes Ribera, director of the Ohio branch of the League of United Latin American Citizens. Known as LULAC, it’s the oldest Hispanic civil-rights organization in the United States.
Adding to the excitement for this year’s attendees was the keynote speaker, Ernesto Zedillo. Now director of the Center for the Study of Globalization at Yale University and a director of Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble Co., Zedillo served as Mexico’s president from 1994-2000. An economist by training, his term marked the end of seven decades of uninterrupted rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (known by its Spanish initials, PRI) — largely as a result of electoral reforms he instituted.
Zedillo’s official topic was the importance of the United States' economic ties with Mexico, but his 30-minute address included many thinly veiled references to U.S. presidential politics. He said he has often been asked to comment on statements by “a certain person” about Hispanics in America. He reiterated to Monday’s audience what he said before: He doesn’t involve himself in another country’s domestic politics just as he wouldn’t want others to meddle in Mexico’s politics.
That, though, was just the polite set-up for the payoff line that drew loud applause. “Maybe we should invite that person — I won’t say his name — to an event like this to see what we are doing and what we’ve accomplished.”
“That person” — the “he who must not be named” for U.S. Latinos — is Donald J. Trump, the flamboyant New York businessman who has consistently led 2016 Republican presidential contenders in polls. Trump alienated Latinos from the start of his campaign with a wide-cast assertion: “[Mexico is] sending people that have lots of problems. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
Few were mollified by Trump’s following faint praise: “And some, I assume, are good people.”
Diana Lara, the event’s emcee, had actually beaten Zedillo to the punch, urging Monday’s audience to tag Trump’s Twitter account in their posts from the night.
Zedillo offered his experience of immigrants as people “doing their best,” contributing to the American economy and to the richness of its culture. He cited comments from earlier in the evening by Alfonso Cornejo, president of the Cincinnati Hispanic chamber.
In his review of the past year’s achievements, Cornejo noted members of the Hispanic chamber’s board now serve on advisory boards for 27 other community organizations; touted four new corporate partners, Cooper Tires, Northern Kentucky University, St. Elizabeth Healthcare and Union Institute & University; and new milestones of engagement for the chamber’s website.
“Just look at the millions of stories of sacrifice, dreaming and, importantly, of accomplishment,” Zedillo said. "Cornejo’s examples of Cincinnati are just a small sample."
As for “that person,” Zedillo said Hispanics shouldn’t worry too much about campaign rhetoric. “The United States will do the right thing ... after trying everything else.”
That, he said, includes acknowledging that Latin America is an engine of economic vitality in a world stymied by stagnation. Japan’s economy has been in the doldrums for years, he said, and Europe isn’t likely to see growth again soon, especially with the added stress of refugees fleeing violence in Syria. Even China, the seeming juggernaut, has been tamed by slowing growth and a burst stock-market bubble.
“That will make it more important for the U.S. to look to the vitality of those who came from the south,” Zedillo said.
He said he expects America’s Latino immigrants to continue to set a strong example.
“I am very confident that the Hispanic community in this area and throughout the U.S. will have the wisdom and commitment to continue to put their energy to strengthen these communities.” That will benefit all the U.S., he said.
He received an enthusiastic standing ovation from the crowd.
Earlier, Cornejo, who has led the chamber for 12 years, praised the widening cultural diversity in the Tri-State. When he came to the region 27 years ago, he said, there were two authentic Mexican restaurants and two stores that offered international foods. The lack of diversity cost the city many good corporate recruits, he said, who dubbed the city “Cinci-nothing.”
Today, he said, there are more than 100 Mexican restaurants in the region and 35 Latino stores. He ticked off a roll call of other regional achievements, ranging from the overhaul of Washington Park, the Banks and vitality in Northern Kentucky, including the Ascent, to the coming streetcar. The last drew noticeably scattered applause, a contrast made all the more plain by the enthusiastic reaction to Cornejo's mention of FC Cincinnati, the city's new professional soccer team.
He also touted July’s Four As One networking event, which brought the Hispanic chamber together with three other minority chambers, the African American, Chinese and Indian.
Between Cornejo and Zedillo, Ruben Contreras, vice president and education director of the chamber, presented scholarships awarded to 23 Tri-State students of Hispanic origin. They were spread among the University of Cincinnati, Miami University, Northern Kentucky University and Cincinnati State Technical and Community College.
With Mayor John Cranley out of town, Vice Mayor David Mann led the official city welcome to attendees, reading a proclamation declaring Monday as Ernesto Zedillo Day in Cincinnati. Afterward, Mann said the annual gala’s growth is “amazing,” adding that it reflects the changing makeup of the community and the growing importance of Latinos in the city.
A special city task force on immigration is to release its report Oct. 28, he said. Its goal is to guide policy to attract, encourage and retain immigrants in the community.