WASHINGTON — The nation's oldest Latino civil rights organization is focusing on its youngest members — Latino youth.
Every 30 seconds, a young Latino in the United States becomes eligible to vote, according to U.S. census figures, and it’s that potential power at the voting booth that the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) is looking to harness this election year.
LULAC is using its 600 councils nationwide to ramp up voter efforts, using social media as part of its voter education awareness campaign and sponsoring voter registration drives in colleges and other places with large numbers of young people.
“There’s a hunger for our community to be involved and speaking up, of being face-to-face and personally involved and participating,” LULAC CEO Sindy Benavides tells NBC News. “We must vote. Our lives depend on it.”
This week, LULAC brought more than 150 young Latinos and Latinas from around the country to the nation’s capital for sessions on community activism. The young people participated in LULAC's sixth annual Emerge Latino Conference, a multiday leadership training initiative.
“It’s ensuring that our future leaders are harnessing power and are being trained on how to be advocates for our community,” said Benavides, who adds that the young people will take what they learned in Washington and help mobilize their classmates, friends, and families.
Bianca Rubio is a junior at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. “Becoming more involved means that I’ve become more aware of the problems my community faces, and I want to have an impact and change that,” she said. “Our opinions do matter and we should have the freedom to speak on it and do something about it.”
Yadira Sánchez, co-executive of director of Poder Latinx, a youth advocacy group, said, "Young people are the future, but they're also the now."
The immediacy of participation is front-and-center for Stephanie Ramos, a senior at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, who participated in a college voter registration drive this month before arriving in Washington. She wanted to make sure her fellow classmates were ready to vote in the March 3 primary, part of “Super Tuesday.”
Texas will award 228 delegates to determine the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, the second-largest among the 14 states participating that day.
“If I don’t participate and I don’t encourage others in my age group, then we don’t have a say in what happens to us," says Ramos, the first-generation daughter of immigrants from El Salvador. “Going to college really opened my eyes about what is really going on in my community and how I can actually help.”
Younger voters turned out in greater numbers for the 2018 midterm elections, and groups that advocate for Latinos say they want to see the same surge this year.
Raymond Solórzano is a junior at Northwestern University in Illinois and will be a first-time voter this year. “I think young people are seeing that this year is a very important election year. A comment I hear among my peers is that 2016 was very upsetting, and that was a wake-up call for a lot of young people to get active," he said. "I think advocacy has become very important this year and for us to get involved.”
LULAC is one of several national Latino organizations actively involved in promoting participation in this year's census.
A recent poll by the Washington-based Pew Research Center found that nearly half (49 percent) of Hispanics still believe that a citizenship question will be included in the census even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against its inclusion.
LULAC is conducting census outreach through its councils in the mainland U.S. and in Puerto Rico, which include workshops and forums on how to fill out the forms, including assistance in Spanish.
Since 2012, the organization has partnered with the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund as well as other civil rights and labor organizations in the "ya es hora ¡HAGASE CONTAR! Campaign," a national effort to promote census participation.
In the Washington training session, young Latinos said they plan to boost census participation as part of their community strategy.
“I definitely expect to go back and help get the word out about how important it is to fill out the census,” said Rubio. “If we don’t fill it out, we are not counted and we lose out.”
Solórzano said it’s about understanding that participation is not just about casting a ballot. “The census determines so many things, including congressional representation, and representation has been something that the Latino community has long been deprived of. So, of course, it’s important to fill it out.”