Latino leaders and students tackled voting, education and leadership in panel discussions hosted by award-winning journalist Soledad O’Brien who opened Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology Week on the Edinburg campus.
The discussions, held Oct. 5, are part of O’Brien’s “I Am Latino in America” tour. The event also featured performances by Los TexManiacs and UTRGV’s Mariachi Aztlan before the university’s president, Guy Bailey, introduced O’Brien, a former CNN and NBC news anchor and now CEO of the multimedia production and distribution company, Starfish Media Group.
The first segment featured Eliza Alvarado, former board president of the Advocacy Alliance Center of Texas, speaking about the potential impact of the Latino vote. In the 2012 presidential election, only 48 percent of eligible Hispanic voters cast ballots. O’Brien said Texas is home to nearly one in five of all Latinos in the United States. In order to combat the low percentage of voting, the nonprofit organization AACT hosted a summit that successfully registered 5,000 18-year-olds to vote. In this region alone, AACT managed to register 20,000 citizens.
Greater voter participation will mean more Democrats will be elected to the Texas Legislature, Alvarado said.
“The numbers alone show that Latinos predominantly vote for Democratic candidates. With 2020 having such a great number of Latinos, the state will most definitely have a Democratic stronghold,” she said.
Alvarado pointed out that the nation will fall into the hands of the younger generations and that present-day officials and candidates need to reach out to youth for input on current issues.
The next segment featured U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa (D-Texas) on the topic of education. One in four American public school students are Latino and in Texas, 2.6 million Latino children represent about half of the student population, according to the Pew Research Center.
Throughout the past two decades, Hinojosa noticed that making changes in education to accommodate students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds took so long because employees didn’t feel driven to make a difference.
“I feel that the biggest challenge that we have is that the people who work in the position to help us turn things around and increase the graduation rate, for example, to be able to increase the numbers that enroll in community colleges or universities, just does not want to make it happen,” Hinojosa said. “They simply turned a blind eye to what needed to be done.”
Hinojosa was part of a congressional delegation that visited China and questioned how they were beating U.S. students in education. An individual responded that they focus on early reading and writing, which leads to success in their schools. Since then, numerous programs have been created to encourage early reading. As a result, the dropout rate among Latinos decreased from 32 percent in 2000 to 14 percent in 2013.
The third segment featured Student Government Association President Alberto Adame, doctoral physics student Louis Dartez and high school senior Aleida Olvera speaking about young Latino leaders. Together, the trio discussed and agreed that the greatest issue young Latino leaders face today is education due to the lack of emphasis in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields in primary schools.
“On the other side in Brownsville, where Forbes magazine just ranked us the No. 4 least educated in the U.S., and I want to make the Rio Grande Valley the next Silicon Valley, so my aspirations are to bring standard education reform to the [RGV],” said Olvera, a student at Veterans Memorial Early College High School.
The next segment featured Cristela Alonzo, a Latina comedian who created, produced, wrote and starred in the sitcom, “Cristela,” on ABC. In “Cristela,” she tried to portray her family, which was something the network and the studio didn’t understand. Her goal was to be able to tell that particular story, or a story that has yet to be told.
“I grew up in San Juan; we didn’t have money,” Alonzo said. “We grew up very poor. The fact that I got this opportunity is amazing; it shouldn’t have happened. I keep telling everybody this shouldn’t have happened. But the fact that I got there means that other people like me, other kids like me, can get there, too. I [have] to tell both stories.”
The final segment, which focused on improving and expanding the STEM fields, featured former UT Brownsville President Juliet V. García, immigrant rights activist and businesswoman Julissa Arce and Hispanic Heritage Foundation President and CEO Jose Antonio Tijerino.
“We should not let ourselves be defined by one issue [such as immigration],” said García, who is now the executive director of the UT Institute of Las Americas. “There are so many other things that are vital to us. We need to stop allowing others to define and refine who we are. The paradigm needs to shift.”