Archive for Latino Achievements

Stop the Latino Apathy and Become an American Participant!

This article was first published under the title “A Matter of Influence” on October 24, 2009 in Connections, the newsletter of the Southwest Florida’s Hispanic Business Link (See A Matter of Influence).


Latinos are beginning to understand the importance of their participation in the United States’ social, legal, and political system. The significance of this understanding cannot be overemphasized. For years Hispanics have exercised little influence in U.S. politics. And while Hispanics account for 15% of the total U.S. population, the Latino participation in the electoral process has always had a significant lag when compared to the general population and to that of other ethnicities. In last year’s election, however, voter participation among eligible Hispanics increased; with the voter turnout rate rising 3 percentage points, from 47% in 2004 to 50% in 2008. Still, the numbers do not reflect the Latino potential and the Latino turnout rate does not come close to that of other groups. Among Whites, for example, the turnout rate was 66% in 2008. The main problem affecting Latino participation in U.S. politics is rooted on social indifference and political apathy. This article explores the reasons behind this Latino indifference and demonstrates how successes in Latino political leadership are driving Hispanics to finally engage in the U.S. social and political arena.

Here are some of the reasons why it is difficult to get Latinos to participate:

  1. Most Latinos are recent immigrants. Most of them have come to the U.S. looking for financial stability. At the outset, the primary objective of most new Latino immigrants is not to set roots in the U.S. Many come with the idea of living here temporarily in order to get enough financial stability to enable them to return to their country of origin. Statistics show that they do eventually set roots and the returns rarely happen; however, this new immigrant mindset greatly hinder Latino participation in a society that they are not yet embracing.Not all Latinos come to the U.S. for economic reasons. Recent political and criminal unrest in Latin American is driving Latinos here for political and social concerns as well. If these Latinos are to follow the footsteps of their Cuban counterparts who fled Cuba in the late 50s for political reasons, we can expect a different mindset when it comes to social integration. Cubans have been historically much more involved in the U.S. society than other recent immigrants.
  2. Latinos often come from countries where regular citizens have little influence in the political and social makeup of their nation. Many governments in Latin America do not give their people the level of political influence that is relished by U.S. residents. These Latinos have learned through experience that corruption drives politics and that societal change is only affected through the power granted by money and social status. Many come to the U.S. with the idea that citizen participation in government is a futile endeavor.
  3. Even when Latinos do not see the U.S. government as corrupt or power driven as that of their country of origin, many Hispanics hesitate getting involved because they may have an elevated image of U.S. government effectiveness and/or do not feel it is appropriate to get involved. Research has shown that many Latinos do not get involved because they feel they know very little and cannot make a meaningful contribution or feel that their opinions would not be necessarily welcomed.
  4. Latinos generally have a lower level of education. Some Hispanics may not understand the workings of the U.S. political system well enough to know how to engage in society at a political level.
  5. For many Latinos being involved in politics still mean following the events that transpire in their country of origin. Their political connection and engagement remains abroad.
  6. Language can be a barrier for participation at many levels of government.

Despite all of these, there are many reasons why Latinos are becoming more involved in the American society and all indicators point to an increasing level of Latino engagement in U.S. government affairs. Two factors that are helping turn the involvement tide include societal education/acculturation, and the visual presence of Latino leaders and politicians who make Latinos feel welcomed by asking for their engagement. The insurgence of Latinos in prominent positions at all levels of government and society is crucial in making Hispanics feel that they are truly a part of the American social structure.

Latino engagement and acculturation are sometimes interlaced. The first Latinos who engaged in American politics were Mexican-Americans who were already “acculturated” in the sense that the U.S. came to them (as opposed to them coming to the U.S.). After the Mexican war of 1846, Mexicans living in the U.S. were granted U.S. citizenship, and some Mexican leaders ended up being the first Latinos to become members of the Congress and the Senate. New Mexico became the first state with significant Latino influence and involvement and it is largely due to the proliferation of Latino governors, senators, and members of congress from that state. Puerto Ricans were also granted U.S. citizenship after the Spanish-American war and Puerto Ricans became more engaged in U.S. politics in the late 19th century. Cuban Americans who left Cuba during and after the revolution were granted residency and many became citizens. Leaders from this era evolved; Jose Más Canosa, for example, became a leader of Cubans in the U.S. and was effective in winning Cuban votes for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Busch. Second generation Cubans, like senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, have become great influencers in driving Latino participation.

One area that greatly affected (and continues to affect) Latino participation was the segmentation within the Hispanic community. Many Latinos like the early Mexicans and Puerto Ricans united because of their country of origin and did not see themselves as members of one cohesive and much larger voting block. While segmentation by country of origin is still happening, many Latinos now are aware of the benefit of uniting as one voice. This unification was loosely established in 1976 (and formalized in 1978) with the creation of the Hispanic Caucus; an organization whose goal is to promote Latino leadership and promote issues affecting Latinos.

For Latinos to completely feel connected to the American society and to have a normal sense of belonging to their new country they need to be appropriately represented in government. While we are definitely moving in the right direction, it is crucial to continue to unite as one voice and to promote Latino leadership in all aspects of society. The sometimes prevalent Latino mentality that sees “Americans” as separate from Hispanics also needs to be addressed. To promote participation and belongingness we need to unequivocally declare ourselves as members of the American nation. By using this form of “acculturation” mentality we can more easily become a part of American politics in the way that the early Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans did.

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The Supreme Court Needs Diversity

President Obama’s historic nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the supreme court is a positive step for our country. From what I have read, Sotomayor’s life plays as one of the most inspiring Latino success stories; and her accomplishments exemplify what the American dream is all about. However, despite our country’s foundation on diversity, opinions against diversity continue to rule the land. A heated debate is expected to ensue over how her gender and Hispanic heritage could affect her role as a Supreme Court Justice. Critics worry that her background will influence her interpretation of the law. Of course it will. Just as the upbringing of the other Justices shape their own interpretation of the law. How can it not? Am I the only one who finds this whole line of reasoning absurd?

Any person by human nature bases any decision in life on what they know; and what they know comes from their personal education, background, and experiences. This is why very often there are ethnic clashes. Groups of people who share a similar background and upbringing tend to also share a similar point of view on social interactions and behavior. And ethnic groups will be at conflict when they find that what they understand to be true does not correspond with what people in other ethnic segments think and believe. Diversity is key in understanding one another because it brings to light another person’s point of view. We are more likely to educate one another in the presence of diversity and it allows us to place ourselves in somebody else’s shoes. Does it matter when we are talking about a judge who is supposed to only go by the letter of the law? Of course it does!

Judges are constantly called to make interpretations of the law. What is written is not always clear; and sometimes it is not even written at all. A large part of our “laws” are created through the decisions of judges in our rich history of cases. The system works; and case law is proven effective as more and more judges agree in the interpretation an decisions of similar cases. The ultimate court that is called to interpret the law is, of course, the United States Supreme Court. A case does not make it to the supreme court when the law is clear. The Supreme Court is always called to render an interpretation- an opinion. How can a Justice of the Supreme Court render an Opinion without using their cognitive thinking? And how does anyone do that without relying on what they know? They do; of course, and their background and upbringing is always there backing up every opinion.

When I hear that people do not want a Latino Justice because she may be biased by her gender and background, what I hear is that they do not want opinions rendered by Justices who have experienced something other than an Anglo White American upbringing. They are looking for an assimilated background to shape all interpretations. Why are we so afraid of having a perspective that represents so many other Americans in our country? How many Justices grew up in poor neighborhoods? How many had to find a scholarship to make it to law school? How many experienced the struggles that females face in this country to be at an equal stance with males? How many grew up with the difficulties poised by Hispanic discrimination and managed to rise above it all? The Supreme Court, more than any other court in our nation, must benefit from the understanding and clarity that diversity brings!

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We are not paying enough attention to Latino education!

EducationAll Latino children have a right to be educated. It is the law. Many Americans have argued otherwise because they feel that the children of undocumented [illegal] immigrants should not have the same rights as the children of legal residents and citizens. This line of thinking, however, does not match what our society dictates. If the children of undocumented Latino immigrants were born in the U.S., they are citizens by birth according to the U.S. constitution and entitled to the same educational opportunities given to any other U.S. citizen. If they were born outside of the U.S., they are also entitled to the same education rights according to the U.S. Supreme Court. [In Payler v. Doe it was determined that children of immigrants cannot bear the responsibility for their parents decision to come to the U.S. because they had no control over that decision.] Let us then agree that, according to our social system, all Hispanic children have a right to be educated- regardless of their immigration status. I’ll take that one step further and say that it is not only a matter of legality, it is a matter of necessity. Latino children are an increasingly large percentage of the U.S. children population and their educational attainment will undoubtedly affect the future of our country. I hope you will agree that it is important to pay attention to Latino education; now the question is, are we succeeding in educating Latino children? Many experts feel that we are failing miserably.

Latinos are not at fault. A combination of factors place Latino children are a significant disadvantage compared to other ethnic groups when it comes to education.

  • The statistics show that Hispanic adults have very low levels of education compared to other ethnic groups. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 60% of Hispanics age 25+ were high school graduates in 2004, compared to 89% of non-Hispanic Whites. The parents’ lack of education places the Latino children at a disadvantage. The U.S. Department of education says that the parent’s level of education directly affects their children’s academic performance.
  • Hispanics are poor. According to the U.S. census, the poverty rate of non-Hispanic White children in 2005 was 14%. In contrast, the figure was twice as high for Latino kids- 28%. Poverty means that Latinos have limited resources. What happens if a child cannot see the board in class but does not have a way to obtain eyeglasses? How does coming to school hungry affect their education? How about not having access to healthcare and coming to school with ear infections that go untreated? From lack of prenatal care to growing up in a home without educational toys and books; poverty greatly affects the children’s academic performance.
  • While Hispanics care very much about giving their children the opportunity to succeed, most new immigrants lack a very basic knowledge of what it takes to become successful. I grew up in a household where I was expected to go to college and was constantly reminded that succeeding in life was a very attainable goal. I had good role models. My father grew up poor in a small town in Cuba but managed against all odds to study at the University of Havana and to start his own business when he was still in college. Most Latino children are not that fortunate. Many Hispanic immigrants struggle to make ends meet and do not understand how the American system works or how to guide their children to succeed.
  • Latino children also lack role models in their community. They often live in poor neighborhoods that do not offer the opportunity to relate to successful individuals that can encourage and support their educational achievement. Even sports coaches and other leaders that work with Latino children often lack the ability to guide them appropriately.
  • Hispanic parents do not understand the importance of parental involvement. They do not know that in this country everyone has the ability to get involved and even battle the public education system. My daughter, who is turning four next month, has speech delays. My wife and I had her tested at an early age and she was receiving publicly funded speech therapy since she was two years old. When she turned three we enrolled her in the public school preschool for special needs. This year we noticed that she was not progressing adequately with the speech teacher that was giving her therapy twice a week. My wife argued about her lack of progress and backed everything up with copies of all communication with the teacher. After meeting with the school principal and the case manager we succeeded in getting her assigned to the best speech therapist in the building. Latino parents do not know that they have the ability and the right to advocate for their children that strongly. They often see the school as a distant and powerful institution that “knows” what is best for their children. They are also intimidated by their own lack of education and many who are undocumented do not feel they have a right to get involved.
  • The lack of Hispanic parental involvement is evident in many public schools. Teachers often complain about not being able to communicate with Latino parents and about their lack of participation in school activities, not providing student homework support, and not attending parent-teacher conferences. Parent associations like the PTA also have a hard time recruiting Latino volunteers. The problem is that many Hispanics lack very basic information regarding how the American public schools work. They do not think that it is right to participate because by doing so they feel they would be perceived as going against the school system. I am often told by Hispanics that I interview that they feel inadequate questioning the school on matters regarding education and believe that the school would think negatively of them (and their children) if they do so.
  • Latinos often live in neighborhoods that are dangerous. Safety concerns results in Latino children not participating in extracurricular activities that would necessitate coming home late from school. Drugs and gangs create negative social pressures that drive underachievement. It is a documented fact that children who succeed in school often hang out with other children who are also high achievers. Latinos do not have the opportunity to relate to high achievers in their poor neighborhoods.
  • Sending children to preschool is not the norm in the Latino community; yet many experts have argued that a preschool education is crucial in a child’s academic success. This is especially true if at this early age the children do not have good educational opportunities in their home environment.
  • Hispanic immigrants tend to be very hard workers. They often work hard with the hope of being able to provide a better future for their children. Unfortunately, Latinos often work long hours or at more than one job. Many mothers are single mothers who cannot afford not to work outside of the home. The children find themselves at a disadvantage because they do not have the ideal level of parental support.
  • There is a high correlation between student school performance and their participation in extra-curricular activities. Unfortunately, Latinos students tend not to participate in extracurricular activities because of safety concerns (as mentioned earlier), lack of transportation, and lack of parental support. Those who try to join find that most clubs and sport activities are made up mostly of non-Hispanic Whites and feel out of place being there.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of Latino educational disadvantages. There are many other issues that affect Latino education. If you are interested in this important subject I highly recommend the book The Latino Education Crisis, by Patricia Gándara and Frances Contreras. It is an extremely well written and researched call for action on what they identify as a national crisis. I would like to close this post by quoting a paragraph from this book.

As a group, Latino students today perform academically at levels that will consign them to live as members of a permanent underclass in American society. Moreover, their situation is projected to worsen over time. But as alarming as this is for Latinos, it is equally so for the U.S. population as a whole; neither the economy nor the social fabric can afford to relegate so many young people to the margins of society.

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