Latinos must wield their newfound clout carefully

Posted: July 19, 2012

Ever since the latest census confirmed that Latinos are the largest ethnic minority in America, I've been thinking about Spider-Man's motto: "With great power comes great responsibility." As a Latino American, I feel the need to temper my enthusiasm about our new place in our country with a healthy sense of responsibility.

If we honor four of the foundations of Latino culture — family, education, financial security, and civic engagement — we ought to do just fine.

Latinos are intensely proud of our sense of family. Now it's time to expand the concept of family to include the communities we live in. Beautifying an abandoned garden or playground, mentoring teens at a church, coaching Little League, organizing a block party, and volunteering at a shelter are among the activities that can have the most meaningful impact on those around us.

Second, Latinos must be serious about improving our education. We can no longer accept a 35 percent high school dropout rate. And we can no longer accept disproportionately low rates of higher education.

We need to instill in our children the belief that learning paves the path to lasting success. As an immigrant who came to this country at the age of 10, I remember my mother saying, "An education is the only thing that will get you the life you want."

Latinos own 2.3 million small businesses in the United States, according to the Small Business Administration. From the bodegas in barrios throughout the Northeast to construction and landscaping businesses on the West Coast, we have adapted the American ethos of entrepreneurship and made it our own. But now we must invest in technology and retrain employees so we can provide better services to increasingly wired clients.

Last, to truly be part of an engaged citizenry, we must hold ourselves accountable by becoming naturalized citizens if we were not born here, by registering to vote if we have not done so, and by making sure we meet and engage political candidates when they have town hall meetings or stand at busy intersections in our neighborhoods.

But we must assert our independent spirit, especially at the local level. We cannot be a candidate's rubber stamp simply because he or she has a familiar-sounding last name. Doing so often guarantees the worst possible results, because it teaches politicians to pander to us during election cycles instead of holding them accountable during their terms.

In short, Latinos have to take the values that define us and apply them on a larger scale — starting with our families and branching out to the rest of the country — so we can have the type of meaningful influence that can propel our country toward a more inclusive and equitable future.

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams writes for the Progressive Media Project.

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