Students concerned about the political future of Latinos gathered for the “Latinos: Political Participation? Mobilization? Or Silenced & Set Aside?” conference to discuss solutions to the lack of civic engagement in the Latino community. The discussion, held May 11 in Courelyou Commons was moderated by acclaimed national journalist and host of the “Latino USA” podcast Maria Hinojosa. The event drew a large audience and prominent big name guest speakers.
The discussion panel was devoted to understanding the representation of Latinos in the news media and if the community’s reliance on identity politics has let it down. The panel was comprised of Ray Salazar, a Chicago education and Latino issues blogger, Esther Cepeda, a nationally syndicated opinion writer Hinojosa and the conservative pundit Steve Cortes, who is an informal advisor to President Donald Trump, the founder of Latinos for Trump and frequent Fox News commentator.
Cortes was playing defense for most of the panel, though he did agree with the other panelists that the government has its work cut out for it when it comes to helping Latino students. Cortes had recently gotten back from Washington, D.C., where he met with Steve Bannon, senior advisor to the President, and Bannon echoed Cortes’ concerns about Latino students.
Cortes recounted his conversation with Bannon in the West Wing of the White House, where Bannon reportedly lamented about the fact that only 1 percent of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees in California are awarded to Latino students, despite the state’s Hispanic composition of 40 percent.
Cortes’ comments were often met by grumblings from the crowd, but the conversation remained civil throughout. DePaul student Katia Varela felt encouraged by the respectfulness of the conversation, especially in the shadow of some of DePaul’s more inflammatory guests in the past.
“(Cortes’ presence at the event) did remind of me of the Milo Yiannopoulos event,” Varela said, “but this was different because it was in a different setting, and his purpose for coming was not to express negative comments, but to have an intellectual conversation.”
Hinojosa was proud of the fact that such a diverse group could assemble to have a meaningful dialogue about the issues facing the Latino community.
“We are trying to show young people that even though we’re on different political planes, we can still have respectful conversations,” she said to resounding applause.
Some attendees were originally drawn to the conference because they were fans of Hinojosa’s podcast or wanted to listen and participate in the conversation, while others came to see the keynote interview with Justina Machado, a Chicago native and the Puerto Rican star of Netflix’s reboot of “One Day at a Time”, a popular sitcom that began in 1970s.
Machado’s character is a single mother of two, estranged from her alcoholic husband, and relies heavily on her colorful Cuban mother. Her character is also a veteran who served in the Army Nursing Corps in Afghanistan, where she developed post-traumatic stress disorder, something that Hinojosa confessed she deals with herself after watching the World Trade Centers collapse on 9/11 while reporting for CNN. Machado’s portrayal of Penelope Alvarez, and the critical success of the show, represents a growing segment of shows featuring realistic, empowering, and diverse characters.
Lourdes Torres, the chair of the Latin American and Latino Studies Department, believed holding the event at DePaul would highlight the program’s initiatives in community engagement, and to create an environment where Latinos from all over, not just DePaul, would be attracted to.
“Part of our mission is to not only create programs that appeal to our students, faculty and staff, but to bring the Latino and Latin American community to DePaul. We want to show these students, especially these high school students who are looking at colleges, that DePaul is a good place and that they will have a home here, and that there is community here.”
Torres stated the motivation behind planning the event was to encourage students to “get active, and get politically involved” in light of the Trump administration’s actions and comments towards Latinos, and the high attendance of the event reflects the fact that more Latinos are interested in becoming more politically engaged.
Latinos comprise 17 percent of the United States’ population, but only four senators and 33 representatives in the House are Hispanic, representation of 4 percent and 7 percent, respectively. Latinos have faced many of the same obstacles when getting involved in the political process that other minority groups have faced, such as discriminatory voter identification laws and lack of legal status.
A lack of legal citizenship prevents Latinos from participating in elections and discourages them from attending town hall events. Even when they have obtained legal status, the fear of being culturally intrusive hinders their involvement. This is evident in the meek 11 percent Latinx voter turnout in the 2016 presidential election, compared to 10 percent in 2012, despite 4 million more Hispanics becoming eligible to vote between those years.
Besides voting for candidates that better represent them and their ideologies, Anthony Balas said Latinos can have a voice through simply choosing to consume more diverse media.
“(Change) starts with consumer choices,” Balas said. “When you do consume something online or through television, if you are seeking out people of color, then you’re letting your decision send a message to individuals who are in charge of putting people of color in positions of power and positions of influence.”