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DRAWING THE LINE

SAN LUIS VALLEY HISPANICS, SHUT OUT OF POWER, GO TO COURT TO CHALLENGE VOTING BOUNDARIES.

It was only three years ago in the sprawling San Luis Valley that whites and Hispanics--two groups long plagued by tensions--came together to fight a common enemy. They united to battle a water development company whose attempts to buy up water rights for distant cities threatened the way of life in the southern Colorado ranching and farming area.

At the time, says Martin Gonzales, an Alamosa attorney and member of the San Luis Valley Hispanic League, the Hispanic community was won over by assurances from the area's power brokers that the days of white domination at the polls were over--no Hispanic in the valley had been elected to the state legislature since 1936. Underlining those assurances, an association of commissioners from the valley's six counties passed a resolution acknowledging that problems posed by racial bloc voting by the white majority would be addressed.

That harmony lasted through hearings with the state Reapportionment Commission in 1991. Almost to a person, Hispanic and Anglo leaders supported district boundaries encompassing the entire San Luis Valley, where white voters outnumber Hispanics. And when the votes were counted at the 1992 election, Hispanics again found themselves on the losing end.

Feeling betrayed, area Hispanics joined with the Colorado Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights to file a Voting Rights Act suit in U.S. District Court in Denver to overturn the boundaries of House District 60, whose voting population was 45 percent Hispanic, and establish a district with a Hispanic majority.

After a courtroom battle that ended in May, the case now awaits a decision from Judge Daniel Sparr. It's the first court challenge of the legislative district boundaries drawn after the 1990 census.

"At the [reapportionment] hearings, I spoke for keeping the valley together," says Gonzales. For him, however, disillusionment became complete when a Hispanic woman widely acknowledged as "very competent and extremely capable, a perfect candidate" ran as a Democrat for a seat on the Alamosa County Commission and was beaten when vocal Anglo support for her failed to translate into votes on Election Day. The Valley Hispanic League analyzed the voting precinct by precinct, says Gonzales, "and it was very clear that people who were voting Democratic came to her name and jumped ship."

It wasn't the first time that the valley's Hispanics had been slapped down. A corner of sorts seemed to be turned last fall when Jacqueline Lujan-Bircher was elected county assessor, says her father, Joe Lujan, chairman of the Saguache County Democratic Party. But when she arrived at the assessor's office to take over January 1, he recalls, "all the Anglo workers there got up and walked out." He adds with a laugh, "It's a little different down in this part of the state."

There's wide disagreement among residents and observers of the case on the best solution.

The alternative districts suggested by the plaintiffs' attorneys all include Hispanic precincts from the outskirts of Pueblo. The problem with that is the assumption that "basically all brown people are the same," says Maria Montoya, an assistant professor of history at the University of Colorado. "You can't assume that just because you're dealing with Hispanics you're dealing with a cohesive group. Mining and steel workers like those around Pueblo have interests very different than those of a small farmer in the valley."

But Gilbert Roman, a Denver attorney and member of the Colorado Hispanic Bar Association, argues that studies used in a successful 1982 federal court challenge to congressional district boundaries showed that Hispanics in the Pueblo area actually are very similar economically and culturally to Hispanics in the valley.

That argument doesn't impress some valley Hispanics. The three alternative district configurations suggested by the plaintiffs all would dilute the voting power of valley residents, contends Juan Gomez, a liquor store owner and community leader in the Saguache County town of Center. Given the number of voters in Pueblo, Gomez says, "we could end up without any elected representative from the valley."

Plaintiff attorney Richard Westfall of the Denver firm Davis, Graham and Stubbs says a statistician offered the alternatives only to illustrate options. "None of those are set in concrete," he says. "We'd defer to the state's experts and the state's computers in drawing a district that contains a majority Hispanic population."

But Montoya contends that "there's no way" to construct a Hispanic-majority district "unless you reach up to Pueblo."

And others say that there's really no reason to. "I argued there was no need for a suit because Hispanics have already proven they can be elected in the valley," says Selso Lopez, former treasurer of Conejos County. He offers Rio Grande County sheriff Desi Medina as proof. "Rio Grande is very Anglocized and they voted to have a Hispanic carry a gun and enforce the law." Another Hispanic recently served as Saguache County sheriff, he adds, and there are several Hispanics seated on county commissions in the valley. Lopez says a valley Hispanic will be elected to the legislature when the right candidate comes along.

Westfall, however, notes that there's been no Hispanic elected to state office from the San Luis Valley in almost sixty years. "District 60 doesn't provide an equal opportunity for Hispanics to elect candidates of their choice," he says. "The state's own expert, Election Data Services, concluded there was white racial bloc voting in the San Luis Valley."

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