Much has been made this election year about the growing influence of Hispanic voters, one example being Time magazine's latest cover story, "Why Latinos Will Pick The Next President."
In several states -- Arizona, Oregon, Illinois, Colorado and Nevada among them -- Latino voters could very well swing elections. But amid all of the talk about how the Latino population's swelling numbers add power to its political punch, community organizers are well aware that much work remains to be done to reach the electorate's full potential. The goal is not to be plastered on magazine covers in election years, but to be as active in politics and civic affairs in odd-numbered years as in years when the nation will choose its president.
One of the latest efforts to engage Hispanics in public affairs is the national Hispanic Voices Town Hall tour, which will hold its second forum of the year Friday at UNLV.
"This isn't about electing a candidate or about politics in a simple form," said Leo Murrieta, Nevada state coordinator for Mi Familia Vota, an organizer of the town hall. "This is more the beginning of a discussion in the community. We want to come together and ask the question: 'What does it mean to be a Latino or Hispanic in Nevada?' We want to talk about our opinions on issues other than immigration. What does the community feel about education? Health care? The environment?"
The tour, which was launched by Glenn Llopis and his organization 2012 Hispanic Voice, kicked off in Santa Ana, Calif., where more than 100 people attended, and will stop in the University of Colorado next.
The Latino share of Nevada's population grew from 10 percent in 1990 to nearly 20 percent in 2000, and hit 26.6 percent in 2010.
"We were approached by students about hosting the event, and we offered a venue because we saw this as a valuable community and educational event," said Jose Melendrez, assistant vice president of UNLV's Office of Diversity Initiatives. "As an urban-based institution, we want to provide venues for things to happen, for community building events that help put issues on the table. The census showed the growing demographic of Latinos, and there is more of a need than ever. These types of public venues allow you to create a voice, and the university can allow those voices to be heard and offer space for education and dialogue."
While the event is nonpartisan and is geared toward discussing issues, not political candidates, a key objective is to improve Hispanic civic participation and voter turnout.
"Hispanics are becoming more active as voters, and can move an election one way or another," said Hergit Llenas, a volunteer for Human Rights Campaign Las Vegas, which sponsors a citizenship workshop aimed partly at encouraging applicants to vote. "I've seen the tendency in the (Hispanic) community to be more engaged and more involved. But there are 70,000 people in Nevada who are eligible for citizenship and can potentially become voters. There are voters sitting on the sidelines."
According to Matt Barreto, University of Washington associate professor of political science and co-founder of polling firm Latino Decisions, about 60 percent of voting-eligible Latinos are registered to vote. That compares to 70 percent of blacks and 74 percent of whites, and has occurred despite massive voter registration drives in 2008 and 2010.
In Nevada, where the eligible Latino voter population is about 224,000, that means the estimated number of Latinos who are eligible but unregistered is approximately 90,000. In Texas, the number is more than 2 million, according to Barreto.
"We can talk about the importance of the Latino vote until we are blue in the face," Murrieta said. "But if they don't turn out and vote, it doesn't mean anything."
Although hope is high that events like the town hall, in combination with growing efforts from numerous national and regional organizations to promote Hispanic civic and community engagement, will keep momentum going postelection, doubt remains.
"Hispanic issues gain attention when it's time to vote in an election, but not when it's time for the politicians to vote in Congress," said UNLV senior Michael Flores, an organizer for immigration reform campaigns. "I definitely think it's worthwhile, and I think it's needed. We need to have that conversation every year. Why weren't we having these last year during the state legislative session? I don't want to be used like a pawn in a big chess game. For me, the most important thing is follow-upon the concerns and questions raised at the event. It should be a continual conversation."
While there is no telling if the town hall event will become an annual occurrence, Murrieta said Mi Familia Vota would not pack up shop after November.
"We've been on the ground since continuously since 2002," he said. "We are not closing anytime soon. There is the next legislative session, and more budget cuts are coming. Latinos are more engaged than ever, and we've got a mission to increase the Latino civic political power. And that work never stops."
Check-in for the Hispanic Voices Town Hall will be at 6 p.m. in room A-106 of the Carol C. Harter classroom building complex, between the student services complex and Lied Library near the center of campus. The program is scheduled for 6:30-8:30 p.m. Along with Llopis' organization, 2012 Hispanic Voice, the evening is co-sponsored by UNLV, the Las Vegas Sun and the weekly Spanish language newspaper El Mundo. There is no admission charge.
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