Instead of asking Luis Caban what he has been involved with in the Latino community, it may be easier to simply ask what he has not had a hand in. Throughout a career spanning forty years, Caban has worked tirelessly across the country on behalf of his fellow Latinos, focusing on education, housing and economic development, and voting rights and civic engagement.
He retired May 2012, but continues to reside in his South Hartford home with their family, two sons and their families including two grandsons. Not one to fall idly into retirement, he currently chairs the boards of the Center for Latino Progress, Connecticut Association for Human Services, Nuestra Casa, and Proud Nation. Additionally, he sits on the boards of Greenshare Technologies, Metropolitan District Commission, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Community Development Advisory Council, United States Hispanic Leadership Institute, and the United Way’s Governance and Nominations Committee.
What lead you to work on behalf of the Latino community?
My work in the early 70s was as an education advocate. I worked with troubled youth representing them before Juvenile Court judges and with parent organizations to help improve schools. With the urging of an 8th grade teacher, I tutored students in math and prepared high school juniors to take the statewide Regents Exams. Legislative advocacy efforts led to the decentralization of the New York City school system and at age 23 I was elected to the Board of Education, District #7, Bronx. During this time, I earned a living as Assistant Education Director for United Bronx Parents, an education advocacy organization. Our work led us to receive a major grant from HEW (U.S. Department of Health Education and Welfare) to develop a manual for parents to evaluate their schools and principals. I co-authored the manual. Young, naive, and idealistic, this experience quickly matured me, and although I was disappointed with elected office, politics was appealing and attractive. Upon completing my term at District #7, Bronx Borough President Abrams appointed me to the Community Planning Board, giving me an opportunity to utilize my engineering studies and spring board into the housing and economic development field.
The local community development organization recruited me to head its technical assistance unit where I designed a comprehensive neighborhood mapping survey including documenting every aspect of the real estate inventory in Community District #1. It encompassed structural composition, number of units, commercial/residential, vacancy rate, general condition, etc. The document was used by City Planning as a model and resulted in improving the allocation and targeting of funds for neighborhood development projects. This work led to meeting a coast to coast national network of Latino community leaders with a focus on advocating for housing and economic development resources. A group of Mexican, Cuban, and Puerto Rican individuals from around the country decided to organize the National Hispanic Housing Coalition to help local communities obtain resources for neighborhood revitalization efforts. I left the Bronx for Washington, DC and took on responsibility for its national training and technical assistance effort which covered 20 states and Puerto Rico.
How does your work at CPRF and other positions you currently hold benefit Latinos and affect change in the community?
The benefit and change I can affect by sitting on boards of directors are principally in two areas. First, for those organizations that are service providers, my knowledge and experience gained over a 40-year career allows me to improve governance, mentor executive directors, and train personnel. With a 30,000-foot view of how government and politics work, I’ve been able to help guide policy development, management, and service provision in responsive and responsible ways. Organizations must have the ability to ascertain community need, identify appropriate resources, and deliver a service that will not be a stop gap, but will help individuals and families over the long term, on a permanent basis. This is most certainly easier said than done and has become more difficult in these economically trying times.
The second area in which my board work is important is by being “at the table” when decisions are made and establishing cooperative and respectful relationships with other decision makers. Nothing improves relations better than working together on common causes. Non-Latinos believe they know very little about us. Working together on boards provides an opportunity to see how much we have in common, how family-oriented we are, how much we believe in helping others, how our view of the world is not out of this world, and most importantly, how much we can contribute to a better tomorrow.
You have quite a long history working for Latino and Hispanic organizations. What organization do you feel like you’ve made the most difference?
My work in the 1970s with the National Hispanic Housing Coalition out of Washington, DC and in the 1980s, and 1990s with the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute out of Chicago is where I believe I’ve made an important difference. This work provided opportunities to work with the variety of folks we call Latinos or Hispanics, as well as represent a national consciousness capable of making national impact. This national consciousness has become more cohesive over the years and has yielded political benefits we are experiencing today. I will never know how little or how much I influenced the development of young minds as much of the USHLI work was focused (still is today) on youth leadership development.
Why do you think it’s important to give back to the Latino community? What legacy would you like to leave and how would you like to see the Latino community move forward through your work?
I believe giving back to community is rewarding and pleasurable for every human being. Each of us, however, must define community for ourselves. Betterment of the Latino condition has been my drive throughout a 40+ year career. As good fortune would have it, at a young age an opportunity to work with Latinos from throughout the country presented itself and I left my home, the Bronx, to work out of Washington, DC. Extensive field responsibilities took me into every corner of Latino community concentrations in 26 states. The vast majority of the territory was principally Mexican-American, or of Mexican ancestry. Many local communities within the various states, however, had significant populations of other Latino nationalities. Thus, I’ve had an opportunity to work with community and political leadership from the spectrum of what may be nationally known today as “Latino community.”
As a puertorriqueño, or Boricua, I felt a sense of pride having grown up in the barrios of New York City and took pride in how I represented “my people.” I was charged with organizing local housing advocacy efforts in large and small municipalities throughout the country. I met Latinos who had heard of Puerto Ricans, but had never met one. In Colorado I was asked, “Are you Puertoricano?” In New Mexico, “You’re not Mexican, are you?” My mission became clear – I had to articulate a vision of national Latino unity in order to forge a united front in pursuit of improved housing and economic opportunity. I had to become a trusted resource in every community. My goals had to be clear and transparent, and my values and ethics beyond reproach. I grew from a community minded soul to an experienced, well-traveled, and mature Latino national operative with ambassadorial –like responsibilities.
My national work experience in the housing and community development field, and especially in the political and civic participation field, provided the greatest satisfaction and, hopefully, what folks will remember me for. I had the opportunity to comfortably talk about the similarities and differences between the various groups of Latinos in the United States. Both are found in language, history, culture, values, life priorities, and how we interpret the universe. The similarities are voluminous and the differences few and minor. My 1970s vision of a national Latino consciousness that transcends local nuances and influences national policy and politics is becoming a reality. Needless to say, I was not alone, there were others before me, and yet others continue to this day. Latino contributions to the United States of America have been many and date to before the signing of our Constitution. However, the contributions yet to be made, based on a politically conscious and active national Latino community, will help strengthen America well into the future. The outcomes and side effects of an evolving and shifting global economy will require a more cooperative and collaborative existence in the Americas. A territory of approximately 16 million square miles with a population approaching one billion, that is multiracial, multiethnic, and predominately Latino.
My work with the multitude of Latinos across the country provided an opportunity for us, as a national community, to get to know each other, work with each other, and trust each other. Needless to say, it has not become a panacea, but much has been accomplished. National Latino/Hispanic organizations today have numerous nationalities represented on their boards of directors; this did not exist in the early 1970s. The National Hispanic Leadership Agenda was organized in the 1980s and continues today as a unifying public policy instrument. From single digit numbers of members of Congress in the 1970s, today we boast two U.S. Senators and 28 Representatives (including Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner).
Although not yet on par with our population, the numbers of state, county, and municipal officials has increased immensely. Most importantly, the Latino vote is now a force in national politics. Certainly, this trend cannot be reversed, but my hope is that it will accelerate for we are mainstream America and our leadership is essential to nation’s success. I’ll never know how little or how much, but having personally participated in efforts that registered millions Latinos, I am very pleased with my contribution and hope that increased Latino civic engagement is what I am remembered for most.