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Clout Party for Young Latinos

Gathering's Goal is 2,002 New Voters by the 2002 General Election

April 20, 2002|MILTON CARRERO GALARZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Araceli Vallejo said she can't stand the look of frustration on her mother's face when she tries to do her errands by phone and ends up losing her call after waiting for someone who speaks Spanish.

In such moments, said Vallejo, 18, she wishes she had the power to change the law so there would be more help for immigrants like her mother, who doesn't speak English yet.

Using political muscle to make such changes was the theme of a student conference Friday in Anaheim. Titled "2002 in 2002," its goal is to eventually register at least 2,002 young Latino voters before the November election. Among speakers were Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove); her sister Linda Sanchez, a candidate for a congressional seat in Los Angeles County; and state Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Garden Grove).

The conference, organized by the Latino Youth Leadership Institute, drew more than 500 high school and college students from across Orange County.

Because an increasing number of students in Orange County's public schools are Latino, getting them involved in Latino political issues is essential, said Ignacio "Nash" Orozco, president of the institute. Based in La Habra, the organization was founded recently as an affiliate of the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute in Chicago. Funding for the youth conference came from corporate, labor union and community donations.

"The purpose is to bring the students out of their neighborhoods and show them that there are other things to life besides their community," said Orozco, a technician for the city of Santa Ana. "We just need to let them know that if they don't get involved in the voting process, they'll never understand it."

The mood of the conference, at the West Coast Anaheim Hotel, was lively and upbeat. Students who had sat quietly through a morning of speeches came alive after lunch when speakers began playing Mexican rancheras alluding to the grape and lettuce boycotts organized by farm labor leader Cesar Chavez. When the music changed to the livelier beat of a merengue, energized students danced in the aisles, on their chairs, even on the stage.

Folk singer Jesus "Chuy" Negrete, who holds academic and honorary degrees from several universities, including Stanford and UC Berkeley, sang in Spanish and English about the Mexicans who have left their homeland to find work in the United States. Accompanying himself on harmonica and guitar, Negrete sang and spoke of their struggles and the obstacles they face trying to adapt to U.S. culture and climate. He heralded the contributions of immigrant families "whose hands pick up the vegetables on America's table." He referred to the migrants as the students' abuelos, or grandparents.

"Learn your history," he told the students, who listened intently to his 20-minute presentation. "You don't want to repeat history in Santa Ana, you want to make history."

Underscoring that point was speaker Randy Parraz, co-founder of the youth institute. He emphasized that demographic shifts in Orange County give young Latinos political momentum.

Parraz, a Southern California field representative for the AFL-CIO, urged the students to take advantage of the trend. "Those numbers don't mean anything if we don't organize," he said.

By the end of the daylong conference, 100 students had registered to vote. One of those was Araceli Vallejo, who said she was inspired by Rep. Sanchez.

"Everyone here went through different obstacles to get to were they are," Vallejo said. "You never know what difference you can make until you try."

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