Championing Young Latinos

The great population shift of the past 20 years continues to change the face and makeup of the United Sates. Hispanics now make up 16% of the population in the United States. In April, the Pew Hispanic Center reported that Hispanics are the largest and youngest minority group in the United States. In numbers it means that today, 25% of the children in elementary school are Latino and 25% of all babies born are Hispanic. In eighteen years, these babies will make up one quarter of the workforce. These children will help shape what kind of society America will become in the 21st century. It is clear, that if America is to continue to prosper and grow it must raise the educational and economic status of Latinos.

Unfortunately, the situation for many of the children is dire. Hispanics now make up a greater portion of many communities, and yet many Latinos are still lacking in health care, live in marginalized communities with few or limited services. Half of all Latinos live in urban areas, many in areas without grocery stores. They also lack physical activity opportunities. Latino children are still the largest group of uninsured children and the largest group to drop out of high school. They also have some of the highest obesity and overweight rates of any other group of children, compounding the health risks they already face.

Since 1997, the National Latino Children’s Institute (NLCI) has been championing young Latinos by working with community-based organizations and highlighting the needs of this population. Through cultural strategies, innovative programs and strategic alliances, NLCI has been working to reverse the trends that will leave one third of the population unprepared to meet the future. NLCI envisions communities where young Latinos are heard, valued, and a priority for the future of our nation.

NLCI focuses the nation’s attention on the contributions and challenges of young Latinos by advocating for their success and well being through partnerships and programs. Through its programs and initiatives NLCI ensures that the challenges young Latinos face are not only a part of any conversation---education, health, community---but also that their contributions are recognized. NLCI administers La Promesa de un Futuro Brillante, a recognized network of best organizations serving young Latinos. For more than 14 years NLCI has recognized these champions within the communities that fight every day to make a better future for young people, many of them without enough funding, staff, or materials. Yet somehow, they persevere and ensure that there is at least one place where young Latinos can go to succeed.

On April 30, NLCI established El Día de los Niños: Celebrating Young Americans. On this day, NLCI encourages communities to increase public awareness of young Latinos’ contributions as well as the issues and challenges they face within the community; in addition, it is an opportunity to inform public policy that impacts the lives of children and their future interests grounded in knowledge and practice from the community. This is a day for the entire country to honor and recognize the young people in their communities. Borrowed from Mexico, the day includes parades and other activities for children. It is also a day that people can use to see how well the community is taking care of its future---its children.

NLCI works to create programs that are not only bilingual, but also created in-culture, a process that ensures that Latinos would feel that the program was for them. Each of NCLI’s programs addresses a problem in the community. For instance, it was found that Latino children died in car crashes in greater numbers than other groups, so NLCI created Corazón de mi Vida, a child passenger safety program. To combat the growing numbers of HIV cases and to ensure that Latino pre-teens learned to make better choices NLCI created Onda Sana.

But one of the greatest health concerns facing the Latino community is obesity and overweight. The statistics are alarming - the past 20 years has seen a rise in the rates of both obesity and overweight Americans. In fact, the Healthy People 2010 identified reducing the rate of overweight and obesity as one of its top ten leading health indicators. Yet each year, the rate has not been reduced, and in fact, more Americans are overweight or obese. What is even more alarming is that this rate has increased at an even greater rate for Hispanics. Almost 30% of Hispanics are obese. In the Mexican-American community, which is the largest group of Hispanics, one in six children ages 2-5 are obese. Obesity, especially when developed at a young age and carried into adulthood, is associated with Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, asthma, sleep apnea and some types of cancer. A Latino born today has a 50% chance of being diagnosed with diabetes in their lifetime. Coupled with the fact that Hispanics make up 25% of the children born today, this is alarming, a health crisis on the horizon.

Salsa, Sabor y Salud is a healthy lifestyles program for Latino families. Created by NLCI with funding from Kraft Foods and their Foundation, the program uses cultural values and traditions to teach simple steps that lead to success. This includes physical activity that the whole family can do together and easy steps to change the way both children and adults eat. Since 2003 more than 36,000 families have participated, and in the past year, the Y-USA was invited to become partners in the program, adding 120 YMCAs that will offer the program by early 2012.

The Latino population has for centuries been a part of this country, and it has a stake in the continued growth and strength of the United States. The National Latino Children’s Institute wants to ensure that the children enter into the workforce healthy and educated. You can read more about the Institute at or get involved in its programs.

Rocky Egusquiza is VP, Multicultural Markets of AARP.