“In 2008 all eyes were on the Latino vote. That year we had 19.5 million registered Latinos that were active to vote,” Miriam Peña, the executive director for the Colorado Progressive Coalition and Colorado Progressive Action, told an Omaha audience. Since then “in the 2012 all eyes were on the Latino vote because that number went up to 23.4 million eligible voters.”

On the evening of Thursday, April 18, area students, community leaders and Omaha City Councilman Gary Gernandt congregated at the Latino Center of the Midlands in the heart of South Omaha for a presentation by Peña.  She visited Omaha to stress the importance of voting to area Latinos. The event was sponsored by the DREAMER’s Project Coalition, Movimiento Nebraska, Latino Men of Impact and the Association of Latino American Students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Peña’s organization fights for social justice and they work on “community organizing and bridge that with public policy in order to create longer lasting systemic change.” Peña is a passionate activist of immigrant rights. The work she has done through local immigrant rights organizations in Colorado as a board member and the work she continues to spearhead as the executive director of the Colorado Progressive Coalition and Colorado Progressive Action has helped her realize the importance of getting Latinos civically involved in their communities.

“At this point we make up 17 percent of the entire population, so there is a huge number of Latinos that are eligible to vote,” however the speaker concluded that not enough Latinos are getting to the polls to vote. From a Latino’s perspective, some feel like “politicians don’t speak for me or the issues that I believe in,” and they are hearing rhetoric in the communities that they live in that tell them they don’t belong here, that immigrants are taking U.S jobs and that they should assimilate into the American culture. Additionally, some politicians in the U.S are pushing for anti-immigrant legislation all over the country. This makes Latinos feel like they do not belong in the United States and the negative anti-immigrant rhetoric ultimately affects how many Latinos want to vote.

“Somebody once told me that if you are not at the table, you are on the menu,” said Peña with a laugh. “That always sticks with me because if our communities are not there, then the decisions are being made for us,” which means the interests of Latinos are not being considered. The speaker indicated that the 17 percent of Latinos in the U.S roughly translates into 53 million people that could get involved in their communities.

When Latinos starts voting, one can start seeing their strength. In fact, the speaker shared that “during the last election, in just three states where there is a pretty big base of Latinos — Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado — Latinos were the margin of victory.” Even though it was close, “in this case the Latino vote won it for Obama,” she explained.

While Latino communities across the United States supported President Obama in high numbers during his first term in office, it seems that Obama did not have all Latino issues at heart. During Obama’s first term the United States saw a record number of deportations, even more than during former President Bush’s time in office. Latinos don’t offer their loyalty to just one party, indicated Peña, and some are becoming concerned, especially after the deportations. “Latin voters are now asking questions,” something that is important according to Pena. “The population that we represent now cannot be ignored. It is important that we start asking questions and start thinking about how we can get our community to become more active regardless of the party they associate with.” Peña added that, “we need to be at the table making the decisions.”

“The Latino electorate is already powerful and will continue to get stronger.” Even though some people across the United States have a vested effort in suppressing the Latino votes through legislation and through other mediums, Peña urged Latinos to get educated about the issues and choose a way to become active. “We should see active engagement as a yearlong task,” urged Peña.

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