The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there are nearly 46 million people of Hispanic, or Latino, origin living in the United States. Latinos make up the largest and fastest growing ethnic minority group in the country. As the Hispanic population increases, the Latino Summit movement is growing too. Each year, more Latino leaders across the country are organizing conferences to encourage action in their communities.
I had the opportunity to attend the first-ever Latino Summit in Houston, Texas, held at Minute Maid Park Stadium in February. More than 300 leaders came together to discuss issues affecting Latinos in Houston and across the nation.
The Big Issues
The summit focused on immigration reform, education, voting, politics and more. City councilman James Rodriguez is the man behind the Houston summit. "The most asked question from everyone here is: What do we hope to accomplish?" said Rodriguez during his opening remarks. "We answered that question by getting 300 leaders in one room to start that dialogue."
Rodriguez spoke on many topics, including the need for more elected and appointed Latino officials. With more government representation, there is more opportunity for Latinos to be heard. He also said there should be more opportunities like the summit for local Latino leaders to connect with each other. He hopes the Houston summit will continue to meet regularly.
Rick Noriega is a former Texas state representative. He had a strong message for the fellow leaders in the room. He noted that Latino leaders of the past have attended similar summits and discussed many of the same issues. It is time to take action, Noriega urged.
"We are the lowest wage-earners and the group with the highest high school dropout rate," he said. "You could say that 30 years ago and you can say it again today. Our mission [is to change it so that] you can't say it again in five years." One way to tackle these problems is for Latino leaders to act as mentors to Latino youth, Noriega said. He encouraged summit participants to mentor someone this year.
Statistics from the U.S. Department of Education show that 22% of Latino students dropped out of high school in 2006. That number is lower than previous years, but Latinos still have the highest dropout rate compared to any other group.
Diana Davila is a trustee of the Houston Independent School District. She encourages Latino high school students to enroll in early college programs. This would allow them to receive credit for high school and for college. After completing the program, students graduate with high school diplomas and associate's degrees. Now the student only has to complete two more years of college to get a bachelor's degree. This program is designed to prevent high numbers of high school dropouts, Davila says.
How important is education? According to national statistics, staying in school pays. People without high school diplomas earn twice as less as a college graduate with a bachelor's degree.
Never Too Young
So, what can kids do to help their communities? They can come to summits like these, says Dr. Laura Murillo, who heads the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "One misconception is that our children are too young to participate and contribute. But one of the best ways [to develop the next generation of leaders] is to invite children to these kinds of functions."
As for the adult leaders in the room, Murillo says none of these issues will be solved unless everyone pitches in. "We must stand together to move forward."