George Zimmerman, who says he killed Trayvon Martin in self-defense, identifies himself as Hispanic.
Acquired by Orlando Sentine
George Zimmerman, who says he killed Trayvon Martin in self-defense, identifies himself as Hispanic.

Story highlights

Latino civil rights group criticized for silence by Rush Limbaugh

Group says Limbaugh, others are trying to divide blacks and Latinos

Spokeswoman: "The fact that George Zimmerman is Latino is irrelevant to his actions"

The killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin has sparked a national dialogue on race; now CNN wants to hear from you. At 8 p.m. ET Thursday at CNN studios in New York, Soledad O’Brien is hosting a town hall meeting called “Beyond Trayvon: Race and Justice in America.” The special will air at 8 p.m. ET Friday on CNN.

(CNN) —  

The National Council of La Raza responded to accusations on Wednesday by critics such as conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh that the civil rights organization has not been vocal enough during the Trayvon Martin controversy.

“We really regret people trying to use this to divide blacks and Latinos,” said Lisa Navarrete, a spokeswoman for La Raza. “It’s disturbing to us that Rush Limbaugh has this theory. The only time he apparently cares about what happens to a Latino is when they may have happened to kill a young African-American man.”

In response to a caller on his radio program on Tuesday, Limbaugh suggested La Raza, the largest national Latino civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States, has not stood behind Zimmerman after it was publicized that he identified himself as Hispanic.

“You know, that’s an interesting point,” Limbaugh said in response to his caller. “You’re right. I haven’t heard a word from La Raza about this.”

Outcry mounts; answers sparse

Limbaugh went on to criticize the group’s president, Janet Murguia, for not referencing Zimmerman as Hispanic in her sole commentary on the Trayvon Martin incident, which was released on March 22.

“The fact that George Zimmerman is Latino is irrelevant to his actions,” Navarette, who is an adviser to Murguia, said in response to the criticism. “Personally that’s the media’s fault. Everything has to fit into a narrative and a paradigm. Initially it was a white guy who shot a black kid. Now they’ve split the difference,” she said.

What the witnesses are saying

“Unfortunately, being Hispanic does not mean that you aren’t capable of bigotry or discrimination,” Navarette said. “It does not condone or preclude him (Zimmerman) from having acted in a discriminatory manner.”

As for why La Raza has not been more vocal about the incident, Navarette said behind the scenes the group has been showing its support since the beginning, despite the perceived tensions between blacks and Latinos.

Evolution of the hoodie

Although La Raza has been largely out of the spotlight during the controversy, other Latino groups have stepped up to show their support. On March 20, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus released a statement asking for the Department of Justice to pursue the matter as a federal hate crime.

“The Department of Justice is sending a message to the Martin family and to communities of color that our children’s lives have value and deserve equal protection under the law,” said Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, D-Texas, leader of the caucus.

In Orlando, Navarette said one of the first people to reach out to the Martin family lawyer was Marytza Sanz, who is affiliated with La Raza and runs a Latino leadership nonprofit near Sanford.

“Look, there are tensions between our two communities, but it would be a further injustice if this incident was used to further that,” she said. “We’ve been in touch with Rev. Al Sharpton and Ben Jealous at the NAACP, and as this continues we’ve offered our support to them.”

La Raza said it supports the Department of Justice decision to “rectify this situation” and said the group is waiting for “all the facts to come out” before it makes further comments.

“We’re very supportive of accountability,” Navarette added. “There’s no question that there’s a lot more to this than the police initially thought.”