WASHINGTON -- After nudging President Barack Obama to raise the number of Latinos in his Cabinet to four, Hispanic leaders have been imploring President-elect Donald Trump to nominate at least one.
Trump has just one spot to fill in his Cabinet — the Agriculture Department — and a Latino, former California Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, is on the short list.
But even if he is chosen, Latinos still would be left with far less representation in the Cabinet than their share of the U.S. population, 17 percent. There are 16 Cabinet positions.
At least one Latino has served in presidential Cabinets in every administration since 1988. That year Ronald Reagan appointed Lauro Cavazos as education secretary.
Latino leaders are still hoping Trump comes through, but some privately have concerns that the only agency that may be headed by a Latino will be the one that largely oversees policies on farming, food programs, agriculture and some natural resources.
It's not that they consider the agency unimportant. But there is worry that having the only Latino in the Cabinet in that spot reinforces a view of Hispanics as largely recently arrived immigrant who are here illegally and whose most significant contribution to this country is plowing fields and picking crops. Only about a third of the Latino population is foreign born.
"I'm the son of a migrant farmworker and clearly I view it as an important segment of the economy," said Cristóbal Alex, Latino Victory Project president. "But as a community, not only do we feed the country, but we also defend the country and educate the country and represent the country internationally and in business.
Nonetheless, Latino leaders and groups have been trying to drum up support for former California Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado.If picked, Maldonado, a Republican, would be the first Latino to serve in the job.
In 2010 about 9.3 percent of the population living in rural areas and small towns was Latino, an estimated 6 million people. According to the Census, Hispanics are responsible for more than half of all rural and small town populations growth in the past decade.
Despite being a historic appointment, the country would be left with a stark shift in the representation for Latinos delivered in the Obama administration.
In his two terms, Obama appointed six Latinos to his Cabinet: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Hilda Solís in his first term; Small Business Administrator Maria Contreras Sweet, Labor Secretary Tom Perez, Housing Secretary Julián Castro and Education Secretary John King, who is part Puerto Rican, in his second. He also put a Latina on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Their service and the Latinos they hired, as well as Obama’s election were seen as setting a new standard and paving a way for a Latino in the White House.
Some Latino political and group leaders clamor for at least one Hispanic in the Cabinet, saying it's a needed portal to the administration. But some have privately grumbled that even one Latino nomination would be a throwback to a “check the box” approach to diversity that allows Trump to tamp down demands for equity.
The country is beyond arguments that Trump is picking “the most qualified people” and not looking at race or ethnicity, said Arturo Vargas of the National Association of Latino Appointed and Elected Officials.
"Anyone who makes those arguments today, “is turning a deaf ear to decades of progress ensuring everybody in this country, regardless of race or gender or sexuality is able to participate fully in this country,” said Vargas, whose group wrote a letter encouraging Maldonado's nomination.
“What matters is to have a federal government that understands and (whose leaders) have lived the life of the people of the United States,” he said. “That’s why it was important to have a Supreme Court justice with experience being a low-income Latino, who although Puerto Rican, had a migrant experience – to have that perspective on the Supreme Court because so many Americans live that reality.”
There is no shortage of potential candidates, said Danny Vargas, a communications strategist and Republican who serves on the board of the Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino. But he said it's up to the president-elect or any president to make those choices.
"Whether it's one, none or five Latinos appointed to Cabinet positions, what probably matters more is going to be policy," he said.
The diminished opportunity for a Latino in the Cabinet follows some heavy efforts over the years to develop Latinos and create "pipelines" of future Hispanic leaders. The missions of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute are to nurture new leaders, each under the respective organization's preferred ideology.
Latino Victory Fund, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda are some of the groups trying to increase increase Latino representation in government. The LIBRE Initiative runs a mentoring and leadership program to develop new leaders.
But how real can the aspirations of future or up and coming Latino leaders be if a Cabinet only has one or no Hispanic Cabinet nominees?
"Picking a Latino for the last spot sends a message that it’s more a pragmatic pick than an aspirational appointment," said Felix Sanchez, whose organization National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts regularly assesses Latino representation in movies, television and media.
“The fact that it is the last major Cabinet office says you are not first in their mind and it makes you feel that your value is always an afterthought or last minute choice … (to) make that argument of balance,” Sanchez said.
Javier Palomarez, a former Hillary Clinton backer who has since joined the president-elect’s National Diversity Coalition, has been among the most vocal in pushing for Maldonado’s nomination. He has praised him for his business acumen and touted his immigrant-to-business owner story.
Maldonado's father is an immigrant from Mexico who was a guest worker in the Bracero program. The family started with a half-acre farm and expanded it and became business owners.
In politics, Maldonado rose from mayor – a position he won at age 26 – to state lawmaker to lieutenant governor, appointed to the job by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. But voters turned Maldonado out of office about seven months later in the 2010 election.
Palomarez told NBC Latino that although he’s frustrated with the lack of Hispanic nominees for the Cabinet, he is less concerned about their racial makeup or skin color and more concerned with whether the nominee understands the challenges of America’s small businesses and the Hispanic business community.
Asked whether he thought Trump’s nominees possess that understanding, he said former Goldman Sachs partner Steven Mnuchin, Trump’s Treasury pick, understands access to capital and credit and lessening regulations to allow businesses to grow and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry “has a phenomenal track record as it relates to that sector in Texas.”
“Of course, I would love to see a Hispanic up there,” he added.
But Palomarez has gotten pushback from within the Latino community. Latino Victory Project's Cristobal Alex has criticized Palomarez for giving Trump “cover” and paying him “lip service” rather than “looking out for the well-being of our community as a whole.”
“There are non-negotiable issues for our community that Latino leaders need to keep in mind,” he said in a statement. One of those is ensuring diversity in the government.
“Clearly this administration doesn’t care about our community, in fact, (Trump) launched his campaign on day one by attacking our community. I don’t think making one appointment (of a Latino) is going to change anything. I think that would be fake news to think that would have an impact in any meaningful way,” Alex said.
Trump has surrounded himself with people with racist, xenophobic views, some with extreme proposals, including rolling back health care, defunding Planned Parenthood "so the idea that one Latino Cabinet member is sufficient to represent the entire community and is going to be able to stand up against this extremist right wing is laughable," he said.
The impact of a diverse Cabinet goes beyond the person at the top and will be felt by Latinos wanting to work in the administrative branch, said Sanchez of NHFA.
“The reality of how the departments usually work is if you have an African American secretary at Transportation that person hires a lot of African Americans to balance the numbers. If you have a Latino at Labor, that person hires as many talented Latinos as possible,” he said.
Latinos in the Cabinet can be a critical voice in the administration, but only if they are strong and willing advocates for the community. In the end, representation for the community is only as good as that person who is willing to speak up for the community, Sanchez said.
The National Hispanic Leadership Agenda has focused on increasing Latino representation in presidential Cabinets and in the federal workforce. Hispanics are 8.5 percent of the workforce, far below their share of the national population. Before Trump’s election, the group already had been identifying potential Latino nominees for a Hillary Clinton administration, hoping for four.
The organization includes groups aligned with Republican principles and those with more Democratic views. As a result NHLA advocates only on policies that have the non-partisan group’s consensus, such as immigration reform, health care access and affordability and equitable representation in the federal government and its workforce.
“We must have a trusted Latino voice,” said Sanchez. “We have many people who are going to be anti-Latino and anti-immigrant and we need a Latino that can push back against the extremist policies.