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Giving talented Hispanic youths a head start

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The traditional hierarchy and authoritarian nature of the Hispanic family must be taken into account in dealing with Hispanic youths, according to Nieto. ``We bring something of old-world values to American society, which is good,'' he says, ``but we have to help these kids build on that.''

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Nieto says many Hispanic youths must learn to deal with what he calls the ``green-card mentality,'' the constant crossing of a cultural bridge between a strongly ethnic upbringing and broader American life. The ``green card'' is the common name for the document many border Mexicans hold to cross legally into the US.

To combat this, the program sets up a mock state government with an elected governor, a legislative branch, and supreme court. ``No one is allowed to sit in the galleries,'' says Ms. de Leon, ``and everyone is really encouraged to fight hard for ... ideas they believe in.''

Participants say the program's importance to them is not so much in the laws they pass or defeat, however, but in what they learn about their capabilities. ``The most valuable aspect of this whole experience is that it has students coming together and voicing opinions in a way they never imagined possible,'' says Rudy Villareal, a high school junior from Harlingen, Texas, who was elected this year's governor. ``Hispanics are slowly coming up, and I think having us sit in the seats of power in the capitol and discussing issues like AIDS and tax reform will help that process.''

Adds Elva Vargas, whose son Abraham attended this year's institute, ``There's a special need with Hispanics for something like this. There aren't many Hispanics who leave our high school [in Cameron, Texas] and go on to college, and there are only a few [Hispanics] on the faculty to set a high example.''

The need for role models was evident in a participant survey where nearly two-thirds could name no Hispanic national political leaders. In addition, 96 percent said their parents belonged to no political or community groups, and nearly three-fourths said their parents had no more than two years' college experience.

That information was shared with 44 representatives of colleges and universities from across the country, who on Saturday held a college fair for the students. A number of college placement officers said the program was a good place to find bright college-bound Hispanics, but they added that more must be done.

``This is the cream of the crop here, these are kids who would've found their way to college anyway,'' said Arturo Sierra, director of the University of Iowa's Upward Bound project. ``All of us, public schools and colleges, need to do more to find the rest.'' Mr. Sierra, noting that Iowa has a legislative mandate to increase minority enrollment in higher education from 5.1 percent to 8.5 percent by 1991, said his school would use contacts he made with session participants as an entree with other students.

As Tony Perez, the son of a migrant family from Mission, Texas, reviewed information from such schools as Dartmouth, Rice, Texas A&M, and the military academies, he reflected on what he had learned over the week. ``It's never too soon to shoot for whatever I want to achieve,'' he said.