By Janet Murguía, UnidosUS President and CEO
As part of our efforts to better represent and advocate for youth across the country, I recently attended a roundtable discussion with college students at Centro Hispano Daniel Torres, a UnidosUS Affiliate in Reading, Pennsylvania that works to improve the quality of life for the local Latino community.
During the two-hour meeting, six students expressed their fears and hopes for the future to me, many of them centered around immigration, financial stability, and the Latino identity.
ON CIVIC ENGAGEMENT
I began the roundtable by asking the students if they had anything to share. Almost immediately, one student—José—spoke up.
“Why is it that when people have political campaigns they don’t focus on young voters?” he asked.
Six out of 10 Latinos are millennials are younger, and even though 12.7 million Latinos are registered to vote, there are another 12 million Latinos who are eligible, but not registered to vote. Currently, every year one million Latino citizen youth are turning 18—meaning that getting Latino teens registered and interested in voting could decide our country’s future.
I explained that older voters have a stronger voting record, so politicians would rather invest their time and money on the group most likely to go out and vote for them. But, there is no reason why José’s peers can’t change this perception.
“You are all in a good position to show that the assumption that young people don’t vote is changing,” I told them.
I also made sure to point out that there are many resources that can explain the registration process and encouraged eligible students to seek assistance with Centro Hispano, or through UnidosUS’s website.
Most of the students that I spoke with at Centro Hispano Daniel Torres have DACA. One of them named Rainy, spoke with tears in her eyes. “This administration is very scary—my biggest fear is losing out on opportunities,” she said.
As we have seen from the day Trump began his campaign calling Mexicans rapists and criminals to his unspeakably cruel and un-American policy of separating parents from their children at the border, Trump has unleashed an agenda of bigotry directed at the Latino community at every turn.
Bianca too expressed the fear that prevails in her community as a result of Trump’s actions. “I am here legally, but my aunt and friends are undocumented and they are fearful every day…it makes you fearful for them,” she said.
Reading is a predominantly Latino community where the students feel protected. “We are so used to saying ‘hola, ¿cómo estás?’—we don’t know how the world is outside of Reading,” José said.
José graduated high school this year and is attending Penn State in the fall. Still, despite the new opportunities that have opened up for him, he is concerned about what will happen to his family when he moves out.
“My biggest fear is what is going to happen to my parents. We are thinking about the youth because they are our future, but sometimes we forget about the people who don’t understand. My parents didn’t graduate from high school—they are documented, but they don’t know how to do things in the country. I am basically the second head of house. I have to make appointments, translate, call to pay bills,” José explained.
Adriana mentioned that she was fearful for her financial situation—hers and her family’s. “When we came to the United States, my parents and I lived in a three-bedroom house with twenty other people,” she explained. “We just recently moved to our own apartment and things seem better, but when I got accepted into university and saw the financial aid package I couldn’t help but think: how am I going to pay for this?”
Adriana’s father works full-time at a local mushroom factory while her mother works at a farm milking cows for a living. On Saturdays from 7 p.m – 2 a.m., Adriana accompanies her mother at the farm and milks cows beside her. Come September, Adriana will be an incoming freshman at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.
Bianca echoed Adriana’s anxiety around financial aid. “When I was a senior, everyone was excited about going to college… but when you get the financial package you’re hit with reality, and some say, ‘maybe I’m not going to college.”
“The norm is that White wealthy kids go to college, not us,” Adriana added. The students noted other difficulties with accessing higher education. Bianca explained that: “When I was a senior, everyone was excited about going to college…. but when you get the financial package you’re hit with reality and some say, ‘maybe I’m not going to go to college.’”
Bryan, who immigrated from the Dominican Republic, also noted difficulties that ESL students have in the Reading school system. “The biggest issue that I found is that ESL students don’t get as much help as regular classes do. ESL students get the last resources—first it’s AP, then honors, then regular. They don’t care about ESL students,” he said.
Michael Toledo, Executive Director of Centro Hispano Daniel Torres and a UnidosUS Board member, explained that the center participates in Escalera, a program in partnership with UnidosUS, which helps students in their junior and senior year of high school become exposed to STEM careers. He added that the center tracks students through their high school graduation and has an endowment for college that allows them to give scholarships to eligible students to help cover costs.
“The Centro is always open to support you and your family in any way that we can, as we have been doing for the past 50 years,” Toledo said.
Even a discussion centered around identity still turned back to racism. One student, Alexandra, explained that being a Dominican woman sometimes makes her feel fearful. “It’s hard to adjust to a world that doesn’t care for me, because I know it’s an uphill battle, nothing is going to come easy just because I was born like I was born, so I hope I can continue to fight.”
Alexandra shared this concern as she discussed that she will be a freshman at Brown University in Rhode Island in the fall, and while everyone in Reading knows her, she wonders how she will be perceived in New England.
Rainy described a similar journey in accepting her identity. “In the Dominican Republic, I was Dominican. When I came here, I didn’t know what I could identify as. I wasn’t Black because I didn’t speak English well, and I was too dark to be Hispanic. I wanted to change the color of my skin. I wanted to be lighter. But today, I accept my skin color, and I am happy identifying as an Afro-Latina.”
I wanted to talk with the young people at Centro Hispano Daniel Torres—and others like them—because their choices will define the world around us. They have the power to take their concerns and challenges and change our society.
Right now, the best way for young people to push for change is through registering and voting in November. That’s what makes UnidosUS’s Power of 18 campaign so critical. It’s aimed at registering eligible Latino youth to vote and participate in every election—not just national elections, but local too.
We can push back and defend our community and advance initiatives—but we must come together, and we have to vote.
As I stressed with these remarkably candid, bright and eager students, if we don’t like the headlines in our community, we can change them. And that’s how we can help create a better America—and a better world—for all.
I was quite moved by the insightful and emotional conversations I had with these students from Reading, and I appreciate their willingness to share their stories.
I invite you to read what I learned in the other youth roundtables I’ve held around the country this year: