A generation ago, there were far fewer Latinos in the US and most were concentrated in California and the Southwest. Besides the relatively small Cuban population in Florida, Hispanics were overwhelmingly Mexican, either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Chávez emerged as the preeminent Hispanic leader because there were no Hispanic governors, members of Congress, or senators. In championing the farm workers, Chávez filled the leadership void of his time and became the face of our nascent civil rights movement.
Today, we Latinos are not as homogenous as we once were. While we share a common ancestry, we have differences rooted in religion, citizenship, degree of assimilation, preferred language, education, income, and political affiliation. What's more, Hispanics are dispersed all over the country. Between 2000 and 2008, the Hispanic population in Georgia rose by 80 percent. In Minnesota, it rose by 86 percent.
As Latinos have become geographically and culturally diverse, a new generation of leaders has appeared, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois. These politicos owe their election not to their heritage but to their ability to deliver on promises to all voters, regardless of ethnicity. They also tend to be known regionally, not nationally.
At 47 million strong, the sheer size of the US Hispanic population makes it impossible for us to rally around a single leader. Justice Sotomayor is probably the closest we will come to a unifying figure, but she is not a leader. She is a role model.