Voto Latino

Broad social networks of young Latinos are being courted successfully by Voto Latino, a non-profit group working to persuade them to participate in the 2010 U.S. Census. The accuracy of this year’s Census count is particularly important for the future of burgeoning Latino communities. Voto Latino, with a shoestring annual budget of $1 million, is making it “cool” to be counted.

Led by founder and actress Rosario Dawson and executive director Maria Teresa Kumar, Voto Latino leverages technology to help persuade young Latinos and their families to complete the new Census form. The group has also urged Latinos to register to vote via text messages and public service announcements featuring hip musicians, placing them on radio stations. Voto Latino has also reached out to diverse Latino audiences at community colleges and soccer parks. Kumar explains, “The reason we’re so involved with technology, celebrities and media is that they are so helpful in reaching a wide audience.”

Kumar described one resourceful Latina’s efforts, which were sparked by reading about the organization’s Be Counted campaign on Twitter. She wrote a “tweet” about her enthusiasm for a Disney celebrity involved in the campaign. That persuaded Gabriela, 17, of Los Osos, California. to learn more about Voto Latino by researching it online. Once she did, Gabriela created a Powerpoint presentation about the benefits of completing the Census and presented it to members of her church congregation, urging everyone to “take the pledge” to complete the U.S. Census.

Among the reasons that some foreign-born and undocumented Latinos are hesitant to complete the Census is fear that the information they provide will allow U.S. government officials to track them down. Through young people, Voto Latino works hard to dispel such myths about the Census. The group emphasizes the message that information gathered by the Census is private and is used only to decide upon political representation and allocation of public funds for investments in services and infrastructure, ranging from schools and health clinics to roads, bridges, and water treatment plants.

According to Kumar, the messages are getting through due to effective messengers such as actors Rosario Dawson, Wilmer Valderrama and singer Malverde, as well as radio disc jockeys. Latinos in the corporate community are also pitching in: Two Latina marketing managers at Apple Computer persuaded the company to offer 25 free downloadable iTune songs to young Latino cell phone users, age 16 and older, who sign a pledge to complete the Census form and urge their peers to do so too.

Why the emphasis on Latino youth? “Because they are often leaders within their families and influence action,” Kumar explains. “The Census requires that the person who completes a Census form is 15 or older.” She adds that the English-dominant teenager can explain why her/his parent should participate in the Census, namely because it’s foolish “to leave any money on the table.” Kumar cites a statistic that for every person who participates in the U.S. Census, $10,000 from the U.S. Treasury are allocated to her/his community. “Our message is: You need to get the share of tax dollars that you and your family have contributed,” Kumar says, adding that “fundamentally, what we are trying to achieve is strengthening the U.S.” She added that she is astounded at how many poor communities do not understand how the federal appropriations process works.

As Kumar says, “We’re trying to make citizenship cool.” These young people “feel they are Latino and American. We’re building pride in citizenship.”

By Dianne Saenz