What is one of the biggest obstacles to Latinas trying to get ahead and get involved in electoral politics?
In the opinion of the Illinois Senate's lone Latina, it's Latinos.
Illinois state Sen. Iris Martinez, D-Chicago, told an entirely female gathering of the National Conference of Puerto Rican Women, she thinks women need to pursue places in electoral politics, and should not be stopped by the opposition of their male counterparts. Martinez was a guest speaker at the National Conference of Puerto Rican Women held at the Radisson in Merrillville.
"The biggest obstacles we still face are Latino men," Martinez said. "Their sense of machismo gets in the way. Many of them still don't feel we're ready to be in the political arena."
She cites the situation of the Illinois General Assembly as evidence, where the first Latino member of the state Senate was Miguel del Valle - who was elected in 1987 and remained there until becoming Chicago city Clerk in 2007. There have been a few other Latinos to serve in that legislative chamber throughout the years.
By comparison, Martinez was elected to the state Senate in 2003, and remains the only Latina to serve there. "For me to be the only Latina in the state Senate, that tells you how far behind we are," she said.
Martinez claims she has received more support from other women in the General Assembly, regardless of political party, ethnicity or race, and from male counterparts who are not Latino.
She cited support in recent years from retiring state Senate President Emil Jones, D-Chicago. Jones, who is African-American, included Martinez among the ranks of the Senate's leadership, giving her the title of "assistant majority leader."
"Jones believed in me and supported me in ways that my Latino counterparts have not," said Martinez. "There are three Latino senators, and they aren't in my corner."
Martinez noted how she had to fight for re-election this year when political officials in Chicago were willing to sacrifice her career and ambitions because of an area state representative who was being squeezed out of his Illinois House seat by the daughter of a Chicago alderman and decided he would try to stay in politics by taking Martinez' Senate seat instead.
Martinez defeated him in the February 2008 Democratic primary, but she remains upset about the campaign's hostile tone, and she says she continues to hear political sniping directed at her.
With Jones' retirement, the Illinois Senate will have a new leader come January 2009. She says she has heard speculation that the new leader would pick a team of assistant leaders that would exclude her, possibly replacing her with a Latino senator.
"This ought to be our opportunity to negotiate two seats (for Latino senators), but instead people are talking about keeping us at just one," she said.
While Martinez' political career has been entirely at the state government level, she said Latinas ought to give serious thought to running for office at lower levels to increase the number of Latinos as a whole involved in government.
"All those school boards and local councils create public policy, we don't have to go to the state or (Chicago) City Council level to matter," she said. "There are so many opportunities for us to affect peoples' daily lives."
And what would happen if more women got involved in public policy?
"We would not take over, but we would multiply with other women," said Martinez. "I'm not going to stand here and bash men (in politics), some of them did a great job. But we can do a greater job."