How we look at Latinos

By Mark Alvarez

Beware the writer who sets himself or herself up as the voice of a nation. This includes nations of race, gender, sexual orientation and elective affinity.

— Salman Rushdie

Latinos have long been considered a future force. The future is arriving.

Latinos comprise almost 17 percent of the U.S. population and an even higher number among the youth. An April report from the Pew Hispanic Center showed that Latinos represented 6.9 percent of all voters in the 2010 mid-term elections, an increase of 1.1 percent from 2006.

More politically active, Latinos also have sought more education. A recent Pew Hispanic report using Census Bureau data indicated that Latino college enrollment surged 24 percent from 2009 to 2010. The growth was “spurred by a mixture of population growth and educational strides.”

Latino cultural influence continues to increase. This goes well beyond Cinco de Mayo and Hispanic Heritage month. “Viva Frida!” and related activities went on for a month and drew impressive numbers to Salt Lake City’s downtown library. Recent Day of the Dead events at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center, Mestizo Gallery and libraries across the Wasatch Front have been well-publicized and well-attended.

The major political parties have long planned for these changing demographics. They are gearing up for 2012 with the Latino vote in mind. Democrats have floated proposals for comprehensive immigration reform. Republicans have moderated their language to balance the perceived need to maintain the loyalty of immigration hardliners with the desire to attract Latino voters.

That’s not enough for some. At a recent immigration summit in Salt Lake City, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, a Republican, said that his party had lost Latino voters: “They aren’t in danger — we’ve lost them.”

Immigration is important, yet education, jobs and the economy usually rank higher as issues of concern to Latino voters. Some difficult facts to wrestle with:

• Nearly 85 percent of Latinos are citizens or documented immigrants.

• Nearly 80 percent of undocumented immigrants are Latinos.

• Many, if not most, Latinos know people who are undocumented.

Compounding the situation is a debate over immigration that often veers into an attack on, or defense of, the Latino community. Those of us with Latino surnames are frequently assumed to hold certain views. In many Spanish-speaking countries, people have two last names, the last name of the father followed by the mother’s maiden name. My second last name is Kjarsgaard. I imagine perception changes with that knowledge.

Latinos as individuals are diverse, but stereotyping persists. This can be as true for the university professor as it is for the construction worker or the chef.

Perceptions are often media-driven. The Utah Association of Latino Journalists includes in its mission the need “to foster an accurate and fair portrayal of Latinos in the news media.”

Given the diversity of Latinos and discrete Latino communities, accuracy and fairness will require skill and attention. Paraphrasing the Utah Humanities Council, future forces and general changes in attitude occur one story at a time.

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Categories: NGLC Conference

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