SACRAMENTO — What demographers have long predicted became reality last week: Latinos have achieved parity with the non-Latino white population in California. Latinos are now 39 percent — or 15 million — of California residents, according to the state Department of Finance.
“We are a multicultural success story,” said Orlando Fuentes, president of the Latino Democratic Club of Sacramento at a July 1 press conference held on the north steps of the state Capitol.
“For years we have been here as the social and economic driving force in our state. We have been harvesting your foods, waiting your tables, your gardeners, cooks and dishwashers. We are the hardest-working people in the state of California without question,” he added.
For years, studies have shown the steady growth — and growing power — of the Latino population. The Pew Hispanic Center has released studies tracking the growth through birth and immigration rates while the white population has decreased through lower birth rates and people moving out of the state.
In California, the Latino share of the population has grown from 25.8 percent in 1990 to 32.4 percent in 2000 to 38.1 percent in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Latinos are 21.4 percent (3 million) of the state’s voters. Nationally, there were 6.6 million Latino voters in the 2010 mid-term elections (up from 5.6 million in the 2006 mid-terms), according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Latinos comprised 6.9 percent of all voters.
Latinos are the majority of students in the K-12 grades.
Latino purchasing power totaled $310.5 billion in California (and $1.2 trillion nationally). The national figure is projected to reach $1.7 trillion by 2017.
When it comes to business, Latinos are entrepreneurs.
Over half a million Latino-owned businesses in the state had sales and receipts totaling $80.3 billion and they employed 458,922 people in 2007.
That impact is being felt more in politics, where the Latino vote in re-electing President Obama has powered the immigration reform effort.
At the state Republican Convention earlier this year in Sacramento, Republicans recognized their losses across the board at the state and national levels and addressed need to reach out to the growing Latino population. Discussing strategies on how to reach out to the demographic took front and center stage.
“We realized that our messaging needs to resonate with Latinos. We need to get out there and do a better job of engaging them. It is important we talk to them about the importance of voting and how ballot propositions and measures have a direct impact on them. We need to do a better job explaining overall,” said Marcelino Valdez, Central Valley Regional vice-chair of the state Republican Party. Republicans are well aware that the Latino vote is crucial for their parties’ existence in the coming years, he said.
“This growth is a big wake-up call for u, said s and a call to action,” said Valdez. “We are behind as informed voters compared to the general population. Many Latinos are first time voters who don’t necessarily have a big commitment to the Democratic Party even though the numbers show they mostly vote Democratic. There are many things Latinos value that are in common with the core value system of Republicans,” said Valdez.
Valdez said educating and informing Republicans on messaging and reaching out to Latinos is a priority. “The Latino voter in California is a big voting block. They represent an opportunity not just for Republicans but also non-Republicans and we recognize that we need to do a better job. As a Latino myself, I help in those efforts because I don’t speak on the basis of statistics and the numbers and what I read in the papers — I speak from experiences that I have personally lived,” said Valdez, a Mexican-American.
Voting and civic engagement is not the only problem that Latinos face, said Valdez.
Although the growing demographic represents opportunity, it is also met with a series of deeply embedded challenges that need to be addressed, said Valdez.
“There is a lot that is negative about the Latino community. And there is some truth to it all. You can’t argue with the numbers, but it means we need to do something about it. We need to own our problems and say, how are we going to fix them?” said Valdez.
Latinos are the least likely to vote in mid-term and special elections. They have the highest high school dropout rates at 32 per cent (six times higher than their white counterparts). Only 14 per cent have a university bachelor’s degree and 2 percent own a post-graduate degree; Latino household earnings are the lowest in California, and 33 percent live in poverty, according to the Latino Community Foundation in San Francisco. State Democratic lawmakers believe education needs to become a priority in the Latino community if there are to be any positive changes in the coming years.
“Education is key to success and closing the achievement gap has been a difficult one to tackle for a number of reasons. Primarily, it is hard to be in school when you are helping support your family, and when you have an educational system that is not designed to speak to you. When there is no expectation of achievement in your family or a legacy of educated individuals, it is hard to make it a priority,” said Assemblymember Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento.
Latino success is dependent on a changing mentality, he said.
“Statistics show that education is a gateway. When a person has an education, they can achieve success and then it takes them to positions of power where they can become role models and have influence on others like them,” said Dickinson. “The unspoken message here is one Latino inspiring another. If one sees that he can do that and be that, it will change their way of thinking into, ‘I can do it too,’” he said.
The time for Latinos to come to terms with the challenges they face is now and addressing them cannot be done alone, said Carlos Alcalá, chair of the Chicano Latino Caucus for the California Democratric Party. “The significance of this milestone is that we have to take advantage and seize the moment. There is a great unrealized potential that we need to tap into. We have much strength as a community and we now have the opportunity to show improvement,” said Alcalá.
“There are many things important to Latinos including good jobs, education, voting and immigration but they are all inextricably interwoven. They are all related and cannot be accomplished in a vacuum,” said Alcalá. Latinos will not remain statistic and they will reach parity with their counterparts in the coming years and many civic leaders see more optimism than pessimism from the dire statistics.
“We do the work that nobody wants to do and that is the bottom line. We are all trying to reach the American Dream and we don’t expect a government check to put food on our table. We are resilient and we have overcome a lot. I am positive our future will be bright,” said Fuentes.
Latinos should not be treated as political pawns by either Democrats or Republicans, said Fuentes. The opportunity to really be informed and engaged as voters to combat the negative statistics is going to take genuine effort from Latinos.
Getting knowledgeable about the political process and the issues and subsequent decisions that are made that are critical to the community should surpass political party affiliation alone, said Valdez.
“Latinos owe it to themselves to begin positive changes by voting for leaders and issues they care about, not just because a person is a democrat or a republican. We are doing a disservice to our community, our state and our country if we allow ourselves to vote on just party lines. We are better than that and we deserve better than that. The last thing we want is for a political party to take the Latino vote for granted,” he said.
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