- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 25, 2003

HOUSTON Joe Romero badly wanted a car dealership. He had sold cars for years and starred in television ads for local dealerships for almost 10 years. He even got the good seats in restaurants on the merits of his pitchman-familiar face.

"I was the number-one salesman of Fords in the 1970s," says Mr. Romero, now a silver-haired gentleman of 61.

But when the Mexican-American salesman asked Ford in 1979 for his own dealership, where the real money was, well…

"It was long understood that you couldn't get a car dealership if you were Hispanic," Mr. Romero says. "That went to blacks. And I had friends in the business who were black, and they understood that as well. It's just the way it was."

And maybe still is.

In 2001, a group of Hispanic auto dealers formed their own minority advocacy association, breaking off from the 22-year-old National Association of Minority Auto Dealers (NAMAD).

Their gripe was similar to Mr. Romero's: Programs created to help minorities tended to assist only blacks.

"We have too many dealerships handing these over to blacks only," says Lou Sobh, a Buick dealer in Atlanta. "We are part of a minority, but not the part that is getting good franchises."

At 58, Mr. Sobh is the guru of Hispanics dealership owners. His corporate portfolio includes five dealerships in Atlanta along with three BMW and two Chevrolet franchises in Mexico.

He cites a statistic that rankles the 30 or so dealers nationwide who are part of his cadre: Of some 26,000 U.S. auto dealerships, about 2 percent are Hispanic-owned.

"We want opportunities, and we are too proud to beg," Mr. Sobh says. "We simply ask for a chance and an equal playing field."

That level playing field has been a familiar request from the nation's blacks in all aspects of business for at least four decades.

"All NAMAD would do is pay us lip service," says Martin Cumba, who once headed the association's board of directors. He now is aligned with Mr. Sobh.

"My efforts to get more representation for Hispanic dealerships were always shot down by African-Americans on the board," says Mr. Cumba, who owns a Chevrolet dealership in Pittsburgh. "I really couldn't get anything done."

By its own admission, the association realized only recently that protecting the interests of minorities includes helping Hispanics, NAMAD President Sheila Vaden-Williams says.

"When this association was founded in 1980, it was an African-American organization," Miss Vaden-Williams says. "In the last three to five years, we have become more inclusive."

Of the group's 548 member dealers, 289 are black, 115 are Hispanic, 32 are Asian and 10 are American Indian. The remaining 102 are not categorized.

Silvestre Gonzales, a DaimlerChrysler dealer in California, was one of the first Hispanic dealers to call for secession from NAMAD four years ago. He has since changed his tone.

"The response from NAMAD has been to place 10 Hispanics on the board of directors and two on the executive board," Mr. Gonzales says, noting that he is one of the new directors. "So they have embraced us."

The auto industry prides itself on "diversity" efforts based on skin color, and was among the first major industries to embrace the concept as a mandate.

"We mirror what the government has done in recognition of minorities," Ford spokeswoman Paige Johnson says. "But in the last year, Ford has focused on the Hispanic population. And that can be very hard to balance these outreach efforts between African- Americans and Hispanics."

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