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Conservative trend in Hispanic movement. Advocacy group shifts priority from social to economic issues

Oscar Moran has no quarrels with space exploits or with exploring the deepest depths of the sea. But he firmly believes the United States is in danger of losing the promise of another, more accessible frontier: its growing Hispanic population. ``We're the fastest-growing ethnic community in this country, and also the most ignored,'' says Mr. Moran, recently elected president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the country's oldest Hispanic advocacy organization.

By placing economic concerns just ahead of LULAC's more traditional goals of education and political activism, the mustachioed businessman from San Antonio signals a reshuffling of priorities for this 56-year-old organization.

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This reordering of priorities was first suggested in July when Moran became one of the few Republicans ever elected to head the heavily Democratic, 125,000-member organization.

Moran's campaign literature touted economic strength as ``the true path to political and social equality.''

``We can look all we want toward space, but I really think [Hispanics] are the last frontier,'' Moran says.

``This country has not come to grips with this frontier yet,'' he adds.

He says this youthful and burgeoning minority, now numbering 16 million, will play an increasingly important role in the labor force, in consumer trends, and in politics as it grows beyond 25 million by the year 2000. For years LULAC had been perceived as safely within the liberal camp. The overwhelming pro-Moran vote was thus interpreted by numerous media commentators as a major shift.

A column in a Dallas newspaper referred to LULAC's ``lunge to the right.''

Reference to such commentaries causes a grin to spread across Moran's face. Seated in his new offices overlooking San Antonio's Mercado -- a Mexican-flavored collection of shops, restaurants, and caf'es -- Moran says his election reflects the Hispanic community's conservative roots.

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``Long before Reagan began talking about the family and patriotism and school prayer, that was already there'' among Hispanics, he says. His election also reflects a certain impatience to share in the country's economic mainstream, he says.

His election does not signal any complacency with things as they are, he adds, or any retreat from activism. He says elected officials and business leaders must find solutions, with the help of Hispanics, to the high Hispanic high school dropout rate (45 percent nationally).

He also believes the federal government, as well as ``corporate America,'' must develop means of making Hispanic entrepreneurs ``equal partners'' in the country's economy.

Moran notes that as more ``Anglos'' (white Americans) retire, a growing percentage of the jobs they leave will have to be filled by Hispanics. In many areas, Hispanics will constitute the majority, and will thus be depended upon to fuel the economy, pay taxes, and maintain programs such as social security.

In addition, he says his organization will not accept any immigration law that does not provide fair and expeditious amnesty to aliens who have made their homes in the US, or which exacerbates poor working conditions with an expanded guest worker program.

Perhaps the greatest significance of his election, Moran says, is that it indicates abroadening and ``bridge-building'' taking place within the Hispanic community.

``The vote in my favor was overwhelming, which tells me that both Republicans and Democrats decided we need to try something a little different,'' he says.

Agreement with this assessment comes from Ruben Bonilla, LULAC counsel and a strong liberal force within the organization. He says Moran's election is only one indication of a ``maturing of our community, a very critical broadening'' that he says can only strengthen Hispanics' political clout.

Moran says his election indicates a desire among Hispanics for better communication with today's more conservative political leaders. ``Hispanic Americans will be watching closely,'' he says.``They'll say, `OK, now we're talking the same language,' and the onus will be on those who have criticized us as being too liberal, to deliver.''

He says, for example, that he's scheduled to meet with Califonia's Republican Gov. George Deukmejian in late September.

``The perception has been that he is not concerned with Hispanic issues,'' Moran says.

``But I think Republican officeholders have to respond to the percentage of Hispanics who voted Republican the last time around.'' Last year President Reagan garnered about 50 percent of the Hispanic vote.

The '80s may very well be a turning point for the Hispanic Americans, as hundreds of thousands of Hispanic young people are either educated and integrated into the economy, or their productive potential is lost, Moran says.

``The '80s have been called the decade of the Hispanics,'' he says. ``But we're already halfway through, and as yet the decade's potential has not been realized.''

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