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Hispanic Dissent Over Race Preferences

The debate deepens among entrepreneurs over the benefits of affirmative action

Members of the Hispanic business community attribute their success mainly to hard work, intense drive, and deep faith. While affirmative action may lend a hand, many Latino business leaders express mixed emotions about government programs aimed at increasing opportunities for minorities.

"There's a down side to affirmative action. If you get somewhere, people think you didn't do it on your own merits," says Alfred Placeres, a practicing attorney and president of the New York State Federation of Hispanic Chambers of Commerce (USHCC). "I get turned off by this, because it makes it seem like we have a handicap, like we need a head start to be able to compete."

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Mr. Placeres was among some 10,000 Hispanic business owners in Denver last week for the annual convention of the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which drew members from 250 chambers in the United States and Puerto Rico. Currently, there are approximately 1.5 million Latino-owned US businesses, generating annual revenues of $200 billion.

Growing clout

Hispanics are the fastest growing minority group in the country, and with 5.2 million Hispanics registered to vote in 1994, according to the US Census Bureau, their views on issues such as affirmative action, immigration, and welfare reform will assume greater importance.

In key electoral states such as California, Texas, and Florida, Hispanics represent significant voting blocs. Traditionally, Hispanics have voted for Democrats.

Not too surprisingly, the USHCC, the umbrella organization that promotes economic growth and development of businesses owned by Hispanics, officially opposes state and congressional efforts to dismantle affirmative-action programs. But Placeres is representative of an emerging middle class of Latinos, and other minorities, voicing dissatisfaction with affirmative action.

"The bulk of Hispanic businesses don't benefit from affirmative action," says Placeres. "More than 90 percent of Hispanic businesses are service businesses - they operate in Hispanic neighborhoods and have Hispanic customers. Affirmative action does nothing for them. Yet there's the impression that these businesses are being held up by it."

Ada Diaz Kirby, who 18 months ago founded the Denver-based multimedia firm CommTech International Inc., shares a similar view. "I haven't had any help from the government, and I'm proud of that. I don't want to be given any special privileges. I believe people should be given equal opportunity," Ms. Kirby says. "But I think we should try to compete on our own merits." When it comes to hiring, she says she selects candidates on the basis of their qualifications.

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"I do hire the high-tech stereotype of white males. Hispanics don't often go into the technical fields. They lag behind the general population in this area," she adds.

Still a need

But some business executives - like Elizabeth Lisboa-Farrow - president and CEO of Lisboa Associates Inc., a multimillion dollar communications firm in Washington - still say affirmative action opens doors for Latinos.

"People say affirmative action is an artificial program, but I do think it helps people get their foot in the door. It just gives them the opportunity to go in and compete," says Ms. Lisboa-Farrow.

Before founding her own company in 1979, Lisboa-Farrow worked as a corporate employee. "I hit the glass ceiling five feet from the ground," she says. "This is not a colorblind society. We need something to level the playing field."

Lisboa-Farrow, named National Hispanic Businesswoman of the Year by the USHCC, says educational opportunities, mentoring programs, and access to capital are also essential for Hispanics to compete in the business arena.

Still, the chief ingredient for her own success is something else altogether, she says: "Tremendous faith in God is the most important thing."

Manny Lopez, a Kansas City, Mo. restaurateur and USHCC board member, also acknowledges the value of programs that increase opportunities for minorities. But as a businessman, he says he dislikes the government intrusion.

"I don't like any mandates at all. I really resent being told how to run my own business. When the government says I have to do this and do that, it cuts me out completely."

Defying stereotypes

Although Hispanics are typically viewed as favoring Democrats, that stereotype seems to fall apart in the business community. Many Latino entrepreneurs say they support policies espoused by each camp. Still others say they are waiting to be impressed.

"When it's an election year, every candidate says, 'We love the Hispanics, we love you people,' " says Mr. Lopez.

"I hate it when they pat you on the back and say that. What do they really know about the needs of a Hispanic business owner?"

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