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Off the beat: With Latinos' growing clout comes responsibility
Tucson Citizen
AUGUST 29, 2003

Here's something you don't hear everyday: This is an exciting time to be Latino in America. We are now officially the largest ethnic group in the United States. We number 37.4 million people; that's 13.3 percent of our nation's population according to a 2002 U.S. Census Bureau report. And now everyone from Hollywood to Washington, D.C., is posturing for our attention, votes and consumer dollars.

At no time in my 1970s childhood spent watching "Chico and the Man" and listening to the idiocies of Cheech and Chong did I believe for a fleeting moment that Latinos would ever be little more than second-class citizens; always a problem of one sort or another for the white guys in charge.

But today with our newfound clout and ever-expanding numbers it's easy to see the impact Latinos are having on the nation's psyche. I believe we are on the verge of epitomizing the American dream. The Latino face will soon become the face of America. What an exciting thought.

But what ruins this excitement is knowing that we may not understand the great opportunity we've stumbled upon. We don't seem to be preparing ourselves for the increased responsibility inherent in such high census numbers.

That same Census Bureau report states that of Latinos 25 years and older, only 57 percent have completed high school compared to 88.7 percent of non-Hispanic whites in the same age category. And only 11.1 percent of the Latino community report having a bachelor's degree compared to 29.4 percent of non-Hispanic whites.

Furthermore, more than one-fourth of all Latinos have less than a ninth-grade education. To make matters worse, Mexican-Americans make up the largest portion of Latinos in the nation at 66.9 percent, but are dead last behind every other Latino group in getting a high school education.

Cuban-Americans manage to graduate high school at a rate of 70.8 percent, though they make up the smallest portion of the Latino community at 3.7 percent. Educating America's youth is vital to ensuring our nation's affluence and continued leadership role in the 21st century and beyond (if that's of any importance). But this concept seems to elude many Mexican-Americans - to our nation's detriment.

These dismal numbers are not only depressing, they indicate that, as a group, we have yet to demonstrate an understanding of just how important we've become to America's future success. We  are quickly becoming the heirs of this great nation, but continue to be ill-equipped for the role. To put it bluntly, we have been, and continue to be, extremely short-sighted and irresponsible.

Some will argue the above statistics are the result of a poor education system at the elementary school level in order to shift the blame to the system and away from Hispanic families. But, though I'm no fan of America's education system, I don't believe it has disintegrated to the extent that hard work by students and parents can no longer produce high school graduates armed with the basics to succeed as college students; remember, 88. 7 percent of our white fellow-citizens are doing it. Why can't we? What makes us so different? Nothing at all.

But what is all this bad news good for if I'm unwilling to offer a solution to our mess? Well, I don't have a solution that most Latinos want to hear. I'm certainly not going to offer anything that requires the spending of more money by already overburdened taxpayers.

The answer is not more social programs. The answer is not more feel-good school programs aimed at treating Latino students different than the millions of other ethnic teens who have arrived on these shores before them prepared to work hard or die. The answer is not more coddling by white social activists who look at us all as victims deserving special treatment.

The answer to our mess is in our laps. We must change. We must re-explore what it means to be American and why our parents and grandparents chose to leave their ancestral land and settle here. We must come to terms with the idea that, though our ethnic traditions are important, our very survival and the survival of the United States as a world power are dependent on our ability to embrace America and its very unique culture as our own.

Our educational deficiency is less about America's education or economic system than it is a moral dilemma. We have listened far too long to those who tell us: "You can't do it on your own. You need our help." Self-appointed Hispanic leaders and activists who espouse a social agenda marginalizing hard
work, sacrifice, self control, independence, accountability and faith in something more powerful than government have poisoned our trough and left our youth believing the nation owes them something.

Well, America owes us nothing more than what is written in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution. But most of our youth - and many of our contemporaries - don't see it this way. But you and I do. And knowing this I believe there is so much hope that now in the early years of this new century we can begin living as an example for our Latino brothers and sisters to emulate. Just maybe through us and people like us, the greater Latino community will get back to the American fundamentals that made this nation great.

I believe Latinos will soon bear America's torch and carry it proudly - shoulder-to-shoulder with Americans of all backgrounds - to wherever the 21st century takes us. But to undertake this important endeavor we must - today - start thinking of ourselves as worthy of the honor. We owe this to ourselves, our children and all Americans past, present and future - Latino or not.

Romano Cedillos is a Tucson Citizen copy editor and a fellow of the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute at Vanderbilt University.