Mona Shield Payne
Tuesday, March 6, 2012 | 2 a.m.
In Luis Valera’s opening remarks at the Hispanic Voices Town Hall, the UNLV vice president of diversity initiatives touched on several themes that framed the event for both organizers and participants.
“This will not be the first conversation nor the last conversation of this type,” Valera said, addressing the crowd of 80 who on Friday evening came to UNLV to discuss issues facing the Hispanic community and ways to form a common agenda.
“There is a need to have this conversation and to continue this conversation after tonight,” he said. “We want to engage the next generation because that’s who will benefit the most. ... And we should be careful not to get mired in political, partisan lines.”
Valera then introduced Glenn Llopis, an author and management consultant who specializes in leadership and branding for the Hispanic marketplace. Llopis organized the town hall through his California-based Center for Hispanic Leadership.
Llopis quickly went over examples of the strength of the Hispanic presence in the United States, such as accounting for $1.2 trillion in annual purchasing power, and examples of how that strength has not been fully realized: less than 2 percent of all Hispanics in the United States are in executive positions.
Llopis then led the discussion through questions: How are we preparing Hispanics to lead? What message would you like to take to the presidential candidates? What should the government be doing with the community?
“I don’t care how many people we have or what our purchasing power is. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t translate into real influence,” Llopis said. “Latinos are in danger of losing their voice and identity, and we are viewed as a leaderless and fragmented community.”
Initially, the audience was reticent to engage, waiting for someone else to be brave and speak up first. Little by little, the atmosphere loosened. Before long, Llopis was pointing from one side of the room to another, acknowledging those who were signaling they wanted to speak.
“I saw people go from being skeptical to understanding what it was all about,” Llopis said Monday. “It’s all about understanding one another, working closer with one another and establishing trust so we can focus on policy.”
True to its promise, the event did not stray into partisan politics. There was no mention of political parties or candidates. Nor was there any talk of left or right, liberal or conservative.
“It’s not about party politics,” Llopis said Monday. “It’s about the politics that our community creates for itself.”
While immigration was discussed, with the majority in attendance saying they knew someone without a legal status, many echoed the notion that they did not want Hispanics to be seen as a “single-issue” community. They are equally, if not more, concerned about unemployment, education and health care, they said.
“Immigration may be the number one mobilizing issue,” said Artie Blanco, of the nonprofit Mi Familia Vota, which promotes Latino civic engagement. “But part of that is because immigration touches on the unemployment issue and the education issue.”
Several people in the crowd said immigration may stir emotions in the Hispanic community more than other topics because they often feel the rhetoric surrounding the immigration debate is “xenophobic” and demonstrates a “lack of respect.”
Prior to the town hall event, Mi Familia Vota State Director Leo Murrieta and UNLV student Lucero Gomez-Ochoa led smaller meetings with college students and other young Hispanics. They spoke to the audience about the topics they focused on, such as the Dream Act, education and a need to feel self-empowered to take action on their own behalf without looking to mentors and the older generation for directions.
“I thought the event was interesting. It was respectful and didn’t have an agenda,” Murrieta said. “Honestly, without the younger generation, we can’t move forward. It’s important that we get engaged and work together; otherwise, nothing will happen.”
Not everyone thought the town hall was as constructive as it could have been.
Las Vegas Realtor Alex Mejia said he wished the event had been more organized and thought the discussion would have been better if there had been a clear understanding of the topics prior to the event.
“There are a lot of voices out there, and I think most people are aware of the issues that were brought up at the town hall,” Mejia, 38, said Monday. “Instead of promoting more conversation, which we already have a lot of, we should be focusing that conversation and offering solutions.”
Many people expressed that instead of issues being framed in terms of what the government and country should do for Hispanics, the overarching theme needed to be what the Hispanic community contributed to the country.
“People see the Dream Act as some sort of reward for breaking the law,” said UNLV student Kenneth Zamora. “If we were seen as leaders, if we were recognized for everything we can contribute to this country, that wouldn’t be the case. We are educated, motivated people who want to start businesses and help move this country forward.”
How does the Hispanic community move forward? For many in the audience, the answers were education and cooperation.
“Access to quality education is very important,” said UNLV student Jose Rivera. “As a community we need to look for ways to improve success. We need to find better ways to help kids transfer from one level of education to the next, and to take more advantage of the resources that are available to them, like scholarships.”
Llopis slid out of the room quickly after the town hall ended, having served as a catalyst for conversation. On March 27 he will lead another Hispanic Voices town hall at the University of Colorado, Denver.
The moderator was gone, but many in attendance stayed behind to mingle, make introductions, continue discussions and ask where the next conversation would take place.
“I wasn’t really thinking about the next one,” Murrieta said. “But when it was over, everyone kept coming up to me and asking when we could do this again. So, I guess we’ll figure it out, and maybe we can make this a regular thing.”
As for the big take away from the night spent in a UNLV auditorium? Blanco summed it up with a comment that received the loudest applause of the evening.
“As a community we should not be waiting for someone to do something for us,” she said.