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After the protests, Latinos start to come together politically

By Luis Andres HenaoContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / August 10, 2006

'Today we march," the banners read, "tomorrow we vote." Seventeen-year-old Paulo V., an undocumented Brazilian student who marched at an immigrant rally in Boston three months ago, was among the Latinos who saw hope in those words. "This was the determining point," says Paulo. Before the marches, "I didn't know anything about the topic. But after, I understood how much I could be a part of it."

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Recently, he took a break from painting houses with his dad to teach Edirson Paiva, the editor of a local Portuguese-language newspaper who just got his US citizenship, how to register to vote. "Even if I can't vote," Paulo says in his native Portuguese, "I can get 10 others to vote."

Five months after pro-immigrant protests swept through more than 100 US cities, an unprecedented Hispanic political force seems to be taking hold, one that may finally unite what could be the fastest-growing voting bloc in the United States.

In the latest poll after the marches, 63 percent of Latinos surveyed said the rallies signaled the beginning of a new social movement, according to the 2006 National Survey of Hispanics by the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C.

"It's important because Latinos have not been a major political force in the US," says Gabriel Escobar, the center's research director and coauthor of the study. It's even more significant "because they represent the fastest-growing minority in the nation. Every year the population will grow and more Latinos will vote."

Currently, 4 out of every 10 adult Latinos are noncitizens and therefore cannot vote. Historically, their voter-participation numbers have lagged. In the last presidential election, only 18 percent of all Hispanics voted, compared with about half of the non-Hispanic white population and more than one-third (39 percent) of the black population, according to Pew data.

The marches may have been a catalyst for change. In the last Pew poll, three-quarters of Latinos said the debate would prompt many more of them to vote in November.

Others are skeptical. "We've been hearing this for years," says John Keeley, director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) in Washington. He might be persuaded if a poll found that naturalized citizens who did not vote in '04 were more likely to in '08.

In order to wield more political power, Latinos need to tackle several issues. One is unity. Mexicans, Brazilians, Salvadorans, and others feel connected to their native lands but have a harder time identifying themselves as "Hispanics." The policy debates that launched the protests may have changed that. The Pew survey showed that most Latinos (58 percent) now believe they are working to achieve common goals.

The decentralized nature of the movement has helped unify those nationalities around a common goal, says Maria Elena Letona, director of Centro Presente, an immigrant-advocacy group in Cambridge, Mass. "There's not a leader or an organization in particular that stands out [as] in past movements," Ms. Letona explains, "where we have a Martin Luther King Jr. or a César Chávez, because it's not the vision of one but of many."

In order to make that vision a reality, US-born and naturalized Latinos must vote.

"There's an incredible apathy problem," says Jim Gimpel, a professor of government at the University of Maryland in College Park. "Many Latinos seem difficult to mobilize. They tell you: 'What if I do it wrong?' They don't have a sense of advocacy or self-esteem and it's hard to overcome."

The language barrier has also been a problem, says Tom Patterson of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. "If you don't speak the language well, how do you navigate this bureaucracy? How do you reach the polls?"