Latinos seek a louder voice at polls

'Su voto es su voz - Your vote is your voice,' is a rallying cry for an effort to register Hispanics. Organizers say a measure on this year's Arizona ballot to eliminate bilingual education is one of many reasons it's important to vote.

The Latino Vote 2000 drive begins this week in Pima County, with a goal of registering at least 1,500 new voters to help decide the next U.S. president and the future of bilingual education in Arizona.

Arturo Gonzalez, regional field organizer in Los Angeles for the voter registration drive, predicts Arizona will have a “hot election” this fall because of the November ballot measure that could abolish bilingual education.

It is exactly that measure that prompted 18-year-old Javier Herrera to volunteer to sign up new voters. The University of Arizona political science major supports bilingual education because he believes that method is better for Spanish-speaking children than immersing them in English classes.

“This issue is especially important for Latinos and we need to get out and vote. If you don’t vote, then you don’t have a voice,” Herrera said. “More politicians are becoming aware of the Latinos and it is about time. Our apathy toward voting has to end.”

Monique Martinez, an 18-year-old senior at Salpointe Catholic High School, also is eager to pound the pavement and the malls to register young voters.

“My grandparents were not citizens and did not have a right to vote. They lived here most of their lives and paid taxes, but did not have a say in politics.

“I want to have a say in issues that affect me, like taxes, health care, education and growth,” Martinez said.

She also favors bilingual education and said she is better off because of it.

“I work for AT&T. I’m an operator and I get paid lots of money because I am bilingual. Starting pay is $7.85 an hour, but I get paid $11.25 an hour,” she said.

Herrera and Martinez are among some 50 young people, ages 18 to 24, expected to go door-to-door over the next three months in south, west and northwest neighborhoods where there are high concentrations of Hispanic households.

In all, about 100 volunteers will register people during the drive. Sign-ups will take place at various community functions, including Mexican Independence Day festivals on Sept. 16. Volunteers also will go to ball games, golf tournaments and church functions.

The kickoff event will be held Wednesday at El Casino Ballroom, 445 E. 26th St.

“Dolores Huerta will be a big draw,” said Richard Fimbres, national vice president for the far west region of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Huerta, a civil rights leader and co-founder of the United Farm Workers union with Cesar Chavez, is set to speak at a 7:30 p.m. political rally for county Supervisor Ra?l Grijalva.

“We will set up a display and hope to register lots of youth,” Fimbres said.

State LULAC chapters are among Hispanic organizations working with the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project hoping to register 5,000 Latino voters in Arizona during the campaign.

Voter registration drives are also scheduled in Maricopa, Yuma, Pinal, Santa Cruz, Cochise and Coconino counties.

According to 1997 census estimates, Tucson is about 30 percent Hispanic, and Hispanics make up about 20 percent of registered city voters. There are 337,600 registered voters in Pima County.

Arizona is among more than a dozen states targeted for increasing Hispanic turnout in the presidential election, said Gonzalez.

The nonpartisan campaign hopes to register 1 million voters by early October, with about 500,000 coming from the Southwest.

That many new voters would bring Latino participation to a record 8 million registered voters, and organizers predict 6 million Latinos will vote in November, Gonzalez said.

When Southwest Voter Registration drives started in 1974, there were less than 1,500 Hispanic elected officials. Now, there are more than 5,000 nationwide, he said.

In Arizona’s Legislature, there are 18 members of ethnic minorities; a dozen of those are Hispanic.

“Su voto es su voz – your vote is your voice” is one of the rallying cries during the project, which has added about 14,000 Hispanics to Pima County’s voting rolls over the last 14 years, said Teri Martinez, LULAC’s state vice president for women.

“Our primary goal is getting Latino voters, but we will register anyone to vote and provide voter education as well. We are nonpartisan,” said Martinez. A person must be age 18 and older and a U.S. citizen to be eligible to vote.

There are an estimated 1.03 million Hispanics in Arizona, including 545,000 living in Maricopa County and 233,500 living in Pima County, said Luis Ortiz, Hispanic studies director of the Phoenix-based Behavior Research Center.

The center released a “Latino poll” last month showing that respondents viewed education, job development and training, health care and immigration policies as the top four issues presidential candidates need to address. The responses came from 500 Hispanic heads of households surveyed.

“Overall, parents wanted their children to receive a quality education so they could get into good jobs,” said Earl de Berge, center research director.

“Some spoke about bilingual education, and the Hispanic community is fairly divided on the issue. The older Hispanics believe full acculturation means adopting the English language. Others want their children to be fully bilingual,” de Berge said.

The poll shows the second most-pressing issue is low wages and the need for Latinos to benefit from job-training programs to be able to move to higher-paying jobs. Health care costs and the lack of insurance was the third-highest concern, and discriminatory practices by U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials ranked as the fourth.

“Latinos feel INS officials treat them as if they are all in this country illegally simply based on their skin, facial appearance and hair color,” said de Berge.

“They believe it is a discriminatory pattern and it singles them out for harassment and roundups at the workplace,” he said.

That’s one reason Herrera urges them to vote. “People complain about what is going on in office,” he said, “but most of the time the people who are complaining are the ones that are not even voting.”

Contact Carmen Duarte at 573-4195 or at [email protected]

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