I grew up in Miami-Dade County, Florida, in an area that was 64 percent Hispanic. It seemed like the high school dropout rate exceeded the graduation rate, and when one of my Latina friends became pregnant at age 15, it was considered the norm. But as a young Puerto Rican woman and the daughter of parents who struggled to succeed and who taught me the value of education and perseverance, this was never my reality and certainly could never be my future.
But it was not until I joined the Junior ROTC during my junior year of high school that I realized my full potential as a leader and the impact I could have on my community. It was in this program that my peers and I learned that we could fall on our fellow Latinos for support. Even at age 16, I knew that I would always be passionate about the issues plaguing my community because I knew they would not only affect me but also thousands of other Hispanics who were faced with the very the same things.
That was seven years ago. I have moved from Miami to Maryland, where I attended college. Here, I’ve encountered different communities of Hispanics — yet I’ve kept a close eye on my hometown. The pride I once possessed for my community has steadily diminished, and my disappointment has increased. While there are success stories of Miami teens heading to college with scholarships — the valedictorian of my high school recently graduated from Harvard after being raised in one of the poorest communities in Miami — they are few and far between. In a community filled with Cuban Americans who are no strangers to hard work, that there aren’t more success stories is beyond me. But instead of learning about and mobilizing on issues that affect this country, many of my high school friends are still engaging in heavy weekend partying, dreaming without any follow-through, and refusing to take action that will lead to positive change.
That change will come partially from choosing representatives who will move this country and its communities in the right direction, and there is no better way to start than by voting in this year’s general election.
Making up 16.4 percent of the population, Hispanics are the nation’s largest minority group, which means they should have a strong voice in the 2012 elections. But while more than 50 million Hispanics now reside in the United States, only about 43 percent of this population is actually eligible to vote. Although their voting turnout has been on the rise (50 percent of eligible Hispanic voters turned out in 2008), the rates still lag behind white non-Hispanic voters (66 percent turnout) and black non-Hispanic voters (65 percent turnout).
With less than six weeks to go until Election Day, younger Hispanics need to be aware of what both political parties are promising. Unemployment is at 8.8 percent in Florida and has increased in 26 states since last month. Are Hispanics, especially recent college grads, going to demand that more jobs be created? Immigration is still a hot-button issue. AAUW has long supported the DREAM Act, which would provide a pathway to permanent resident status for undocumented students who were brought to the United States as children, educated here, and who are working towards a college degree. It’s good to see the current administration take steps like initiating the new Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, but there are still questions to be answered. An estimated 1.7 million young unauthorized immigrants — 85 percent of them Hispanic — potentially could be safe from being deported. Are Hispanics going to ask what will happen to those who are ineligible?
These tough issues need to be addressed, and it should start with a group of people who have become one of the fastest growing blocs in this country. I do not mean to bash the community that molded me into the person I am today, but it saddens me to see my peers not making their voices heard. I have seen glimpses of what our community can become. I want to continue meeting Hispanics who are unafraid to take control of their futures and go to the polls this November!
This post was written by AAUW Advertising and Sales Account Executive Christina Soto.