By Sara Hoover
Hispanics make up the fastest growing population in the United States. Forty-five
million Latinos live in the country with 10 million remaining undocumented. Before
the recent election for mayor, sheriff and 5th district commissioner, Latino Memphis hosted the first debate in Shelby County from
the Hispanic perspective. The U of M had a presence with associate professor of criminology
and criminal justice Dr. Wayne Pitts in the College of Arts & Sciences serving as
The concept for the debate was developed by adjunct professor of criminology and criminal
justice Jose Leon, Latino Memphis’ Mauricio Calvo, attorney Bryce Ashby and Pitts.
Jose Leon (left) and Dr. Wayne Pitts organized the first election debate from the
Hispanic perspective in Shelby County. (photo by Lindsey Lissau)
“Hispanics are key players in where our society, politics and our future is going,”
said Leon, also the Hispanic Victims Witness Coordinator for the Shelby County District
Attorney General’s Office. “The debate came from the need for local politicians to
hear Hispanic concerns and angle their proposals toward the Hispanic community.”
The decision to host the event at Latino Memphis in Hickory Hill was for accessibility
to the Hispanic community and to serve as a neutral site.
“It’s not partisan,” said Leon of the organization. “It’s a place where Hispanics
that are rich, poor, white, black, female and male go. It’s like a safe house to go
there. It doesn’t matter who you are – illegal or legal. We would not have been able
to have as much Hispanic presence if we would have done it somewhere else. It was
a lot easier to get people to a location that they already knew.”
There were several purposes for the debate.
“The goal originally was to inform the candidates, inform the public and encourage
the candidates to go on the record with a number of important issues, especially things
affecting trust of Latinos in the community, like victimization and crime,” said Pitts.
The Hispanic population in Shelby County is 4.5 percent of the overall census, but
the unofficial numbers could be higher.
“We recognized from the beginning the number of actual Latino voters is pretty small,
and insignificant in effect to the larger population,” said Pitts. “We are talking
a few hundred people in all of Shelby County who are likely and eligible to vote who
are Latino. If you look at the census, it’s a very small percentage. Estimates done
by the U of M say somewhere around 60,000 in Shelby County, but it could be as high
as 100,000. We really don’t know the total number of Latinos in Memphis. The unofficial
count is somewhere between 10 and 20 percent.”
Pitts was invited to be moderator by the organizers because of his neutral position.
“He’s nonpartisan, and he wants to improve the relationship of the Hispanic community
with local law enforcement, with local politicians,” said Leon. “Dr. Pitts is a great
contributor in every aspect to the Hispanic community and his only interest in the
outcome was to improve the relationship between our local politicians and our Hispanic
community. There wasn’t any political interest behind it. That’s why Dr. Pitts was
the perfect moderator.”
“Typically people involved in academia can be neutral in a setting like this,” added
Mauricio Calvo, executive director of Latino Memphis. “Wayne also has a very good
understanding of the Hispanic community, its language, culture, challenges and opportunities.
He has lived in Latin America and he teaches courses related to Latinos and the legal
system. It takes a special set of tools to understand Hispanics living in the United
States, and Dr. Pitts definitely has what it takes. Finally, we felt that as part
of our partnership with the U of M, their involvement and exposure was important.”
Pitts had input from others, but ultimately developed the questions and format himself.
“I didn’t want it to become a forum only about illegal immigration or undocumented
immigrants. I wanted to recognize that there are legal immigrants who live and work
here in Shelby County who are interested in things like jobs, business enhancement
and attracting Latino businesses and Latino-serving businesses to this community.”
The major topics of the debate included crime, immigration reform, housing, education,
worker’s rights, economic growth, access to health care and making Memphis a Latino
The format included a 30-minute debate for each seat – mayoral, sheriff and 5th district county commission, which has the largest Latino population in Shelby County.
The attendance was standing room only — between 70 and 100 people were in the audience.
Radio Ambiente ran the first hour of the debate live, and it was interpreted in real
time. Television media outlets Fox, NBC, ABC and CBS stations were present, and newspapers
Prensa Latina and The Commercial Appeal covered it as well.
Candidates were not given the questions beforehand but they were sent the topics along
with a synopsis of basic themes under each topic, including the creation of a Shelby
County ID card, a topic that caused some controversy after candidates retracted their
The organizers hope the debate achieved what they wanted.
“People were made aware that there is a Hispanic presence here and that they play
a big role in our society and that services are needed,” Leon said. “The Hispanic
community was happy to see that these politicians were interested in going to Latino
Memphis. All six candidates, none of them need(ed) the Hispanic vote to win. It was
very nice and considerate of all six to show up and say, ‘Here we are. Ask us some
questions.’ That says a lot. That was really appreciated from everybody.”
The next group that Pitts and Leon plan to involve is their students.
“I’m teaching a class, ‘Crime, Public Policy and the Criminal Justice System,’” said
Pitts. “I expect students will have an opinion. I want their opinion to be more elaborate
and sophisticated than just, ‘Round them up and send them home.’ It’s a complex issue
with complex solutions. Some of them are going to make us feel very uncomfortable.”
Leon has a different angle.
“I would make my students aware of the rigorous process that Hispanics as immigrants
have to endure to become legal and work lawfully,” said Leon, who is Venezuelan and
has gone through the immigration and citizenship processes.