Ruben Hernandez

Civic-minded Latino millennials: an Arizona-bred model

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In January, President Barack Obama sent one of his campaign team to meet with new Phoenix City councilman, Daniel Valenzuela. 

With the presidential election looming in November, Obama’s representative was eager to learn how Valenzuela’s council campaign in District 5 increased Latino voter turnout by 500 percent from the last city election.

Valenzuela revealed his “Team Awesome” concept – young, bilingual Latino Millennials who knocked on 72,000 doors to get Latinos registered and voting.

Valenzuela says, for his council race, hundreds of bilingual Millennial volunteers were recruited. These young Latinos and Latinas targeted and canvassed neighborhoods. They went door-to-door in the summer heat. They made sure to register residents eligible to vote in a non-partisan push, and especially to sign them up for the Permanent Early Voting List (PEVL). 

“Team Awesome was about community empowerment. We had so many volunteers contributing so much time that we worked other candidates’ districts as well. We increased Latino voter turnout by 500 percent in Phoenix’s District 5, but the overall city Latino turnout increased over 300 percent.” 

Latino Millennials (ages 18-29) are the fastest growing segment of the Latino population and this segment is fast approaching majority percentages in some states, including Arizona. The majority of them are U.S.-born children of the wave of Hispanic immigrants who arrived in the 1980s and 1990s.

Unlike their parents who kept low profiles, Hispanic Millennials aren’t afraid to stand out. Also unlike their parents, many are educating themselves in universities and want to be business owners, teachers, engineers, elected officials, and, because they now see a black person in the White House, dream of being president one day. 

However, U.S.-born citizen Millennials weren’t the only volunteers on Valenzuela’s team. Among the volunteers who worked Valenzuela’s campaign was Carla Chavarria, a 19-year-old DREAMer. DREAMers are Millennials without citizenship, brought to the United States as children. She was seven years old when she arrived with her family from Mexico City. 

Chavarria says that the DREAMers are even more patriotic than citizen-Latinos, because they have more to lose if they are deported.

“DREAMers have a vision of really working hard and living the democratic principles of this country,” she says. “This is the only country we’ve ever known, and we want to be able to make a difference here.”

Carmen Cornejo, executive director of the CADENA DREAM Act Advocacy organization, says Chavarria and other DREAMers had no choice but to become politically active. 

Their ultimate goal is the passage of the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act by the U.S. Congress that sets a path to citizenship for the estimated 800,000 DREAM youth in the U.S.  

On June 14, President Obama announced an immigration policy change that would halt the threat of deportation of DREAMer youth. Many DREAMers consider this a first step toward a national DREAM law. [For details, see sidebar, page 24]

“They [DREAMers] were forced to be political activists,” Cornejo says. “They are patriotic, and have learned more about how the federal government and state legislatures work than many citizens.”

The increased voting and activism among young Latinos is their generation’s brand of bold patriotism that drives them to want to change things for the Latino community, in Arizona, and in America.

It is also a distinctly Arizonan model of political participation, observers say, born of desperation. Years of attacks against Latinos in Arizona have made the state the “ground zero” of immigration activism, an activism characterized by grassroots street canvassing in blistering summer heat.

“What we have created here in Arizona is a special movement,” says Phoenix councilman, Michael Nowakowski. “We are coming together for a common cause, and speaking with one voice. Civic activism by young Latinos is peaking, and, because of it, we have created a dialogue of change.”

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