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Latino Youths, Leaders Share Honors at Gala Spotlighting Achievement

Tribute: A Carlsbad teenager's determination to attend college despite many obstacles is cited by Washington-based Hispanic Heritage.


WASHINGTON — Linda Chavira Moreno and her friends grew up idolizing distant stars like pop-diva Jennifer Lopez and singing sensation Gloria Estefan.

Nowadays, the kids in Moreno's neighborhood are looking up to her.

The Carlsbad native was one of six Latino youths honored here Friday at the Hispanic Heritage Awards, which recognize the positive contributions of Latino role models.

This fall, Moreno will become the first person in her family to attend college when she begins her freshman year at UC San Diego.

"Ever since I was kid, I knew I was going to college," said Moreno, 18, who hopes to become a geneticist. "My parents have been encouraging me since I was a baby."

After her father was incarcerated when she was 11, she said, she had to watch her younger brother Martin, while her mother, Carmen Chavira, worked two jobs to make ends meet.

Still, Moreno managed to maintain a 4.0 grade-point average at San Marcos High School in Carlsbad while competing as a star athlete in sports, including volleyball and swimming.

Now, Moreno says she hopes to overcome some of the negative stereotypes that Latinos face, using education as her vehicle.

"The fact that you are even here, that you've graduated from high school, is an achievement in itself," Jose Antonio Tijerino, the group's executive director, told Moreno and the five other recipients of the youth awards.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the high school dropout rate for Latinos is 28%, compared with 7% for whites and 11% for the overall population.

Despite the fact that Latinos enter community college at higher rates than the rest of the population, they are less likely than those in other ethnic groups to get a four-year degree.

"There is no greater inspiration to a young person than another young person that succeeds in the classroom and community," Tijerino said.

The Washington-based nonprofit organization was established to provide a greater understanding of Latinos' contributions to the United States and to promote role models who inspire youths.

The awards, which will be broadcast as an NBC television special on Oct. 12, also honor five prominent members of the Latino community.

This year's honorees are best-selling novelist Julia Alvarez, People en Espanol publisher Lisa Quiroz, internationally acclaimed recording artist Ricky Martin, Mexican-American theologian Father Virgilio Elizondo and 2002 Olympic speed skater Derek Parra.

"My fellow Hispanic Heritage honorees are living proof that Latinos are more capable of excellence in any field you can imagine," said Parra, a San Bernardino native who became the first Mexican American to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics.

The awards follow a series of recent events honoring the achievements of Latinos.

Last week, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) met with Latino leaders in Washington for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's 25th anniversary gala and Wednesday marked the third annual Latin Grammy Awards, which were televised nationwide.

Although Moreno's father dropped out of the 10th grade and her mother barely graduated from high school, her mother said she always pushed her daughter to succeed.

"I used to tell [Linda] when she was younger that she could do what everyone else was doing, or she could go out and do what I never did," said Chavira, who was 18 when she gave birth to Linda.

"She's really lit a fire in some of her cousins now," Chavira said. "They look up to her and see this is a girl they played with and grew up with, and she is really making it; she is successful."

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