Thousands of youth from Chicago and surrounding areas filled the Sheraton Chicago Towers ballroom today to help kick off the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute's (USHLI) 30th annual national conference. Teachers and parents escorted teenagers who are preparing to enter college to the conference to listen to dignitaries, get advice for their future and be inspired to become leaders in their communities.
The mission of the USHLI conference is to train a broad section of Hispanic leaders by promoting education, unity and leadership development and creating a servant leadership community.
The conference also provides an opportunity for "vendors to meet consumers, unions can meet prospective members, universities can recruit students, constituents can meet national policy-makers, and employers can meet future employees," according to the USHLI website.
Today's event began with the 2012 Student Leadership Series. Representatives of the Great Lakes Naval Station gave a presentation of colors as everyone in the room held their right hands over their hearts while Whitney Houston's rendition of the Star Spangled Banner played.
USHLI President Juan Andrade spoke first and welcomed everyone to the organization's first 2012 conference. This is one of 40 that USHLI plans to present in 30 states this year.
"We are grateful that you are here. This is for you," Andrade said, then welcomed a group of 80 students who drove through the night from Omaha, Neb., to be present at today's conference.
Andrade, who once was escorted out of his classroom and arrested for speaking Spanish to his students, encouraged today's attendees to maintain the language.
"Don't let anyone keep you from speaking Spanish," he said. "Educate yourselves and empower yourselves and your family and community. And you can tell anyone in this country that 'I am Latino and I am proud and I will speak Spanish anywhere and anytime I damn well please.'"
The guest speaker to kick off the 2012 Student Leadership was Capt. Ken Barrett, deputy director of the U.S. Department of Defense.
"I'm pleased this morning to have the opportunity to look directly to the future of our vision -- you students, you may not realize, but in fact, you are the future and we need you, the nation needs you to take on tough challenge," he said. "Focus and commit yourselves and never, ever, no matter what, give up."
The Cesar E. Chavez Community Service Award this year was given to Lorraine Cortes-Vazquez, who accepted the award in honor of her grandmother, who started the Hotel Workers Union in New York in the 1920s.
"She saw a better life for me, for her children, for her great grandchildren and everyone else," she said.
Cortes-Vazquez is the executive vice president for Multicultural Markets and Engagement at AARP. She also is the executive director of ASPIRA NY, director of the NYC Department for Aging, and president of the Hispanic Federation.
"The country is going to be in your hands in a very few years and you have to make sure ... that you open a path so that no one stays behind. Each and every one of you has that responsibility," she said. "Every time that you think you're going to give up, you just remember what your mother went through, what your grandmother went through, and everyone else. And you stand up and say, 'I'm moving forward.'
"Believe in yourself, have faith in yourself, honor your history and your family and most of all, stretch your hand and make sure you pull somebody up with you," she continued.
Next, Andrade introduced Jose Hernandez, a former astronaut, whose family grew up as migrant farm workers. Hernandez shared a "recipe of five simple ingredients" that his father told him once he divulged his aspirations to become an astronaut.
"First, know what you want to be in life. Second, know where you are in life, and how far is that goal. Third, draw a road map so that you know all of the steps to get there," he continued. "Fourth, get yourself a good education, and fifth, that same work ethic you had in the campo (as a migrant farm worker), you apply to your books, and then apply that to college and your job."
He said you mix all of this and "you do whatever you want because this is the United States, the tierra de oportunidad, the land of opportunity," he said. "The only thing I would add would be a sprinkle of perseverance."
Hernandez said it took him applying 12 times before he got accepted into NASA as part of the 2004 19th class of astronauts. He spent 14 days in space.
Hernandez currently is running for Congress in the state of California.
Andrade again addressed the younger generation and said that when they are older, and starting their families, for the first time in the history of U.S. there will not be one single ethnic or racial group who will (make) the majority in this country.
"We will become, in 2042, a nation of minorities," he said. "Together we're all in the same boat."
The Student Leadership series is only the first in upcoming events that will go through Saturday, Feb. 18.
HispanicBusiness magazine will be covering the highlights. Visit our website and follow us on Twitter: @HispanicBizMag and on Facebook: HispanicBusiness Media Inc. to receive updates about the USHLI conference.
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