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Audio: Open with drumming musicFor starters, the teens got a dose of history and culture: an opening ceremony featured an Aztec drumming group. The performance rekindled the spiritual roots of Mexican and South American culture - roots a majority of the Latino youth share. Nancy Leon, President of the National Hispana Leadership Institute in Washington D.C., instructed the teens to never forget where they and their families come from.
Leon: So don't ever let anybody tell you, or make you feel than less than, about who you are, or about where your people come from - because we have a lot to be proud of. And that is one of the things we have to remember as Latinos, because you know what kills our community? What kills our community, is that we forget who we are.Leon's message carried added weight following a recent report on the high drop-out rate of Latinos. The National Center for Education Statistics says nearly one-third of Latinos aged between 16 and 24 leave high school. Leon told the group that they must remain in school if they are to pursue their ambitions and their dreams. And she urged them to dream big.
Leon: There is a world out there that will allow you to have your dreams, but it means that you have to go after them. And then, you go after them. And when you make a decision like that, the universe opens up for you.Eighteen-year-old Teresa Nesshengel lives in St. Cloud. Though she was adopted by a white family, Teresa embraces her Mexican heritage by attending a Spanish-speaking camp each summer. But it hasn't always been easy. She's faced discrimination and other obstacles along the way.
Nesshengel: In Spanish class, kids would be like, "Why are you here? You should know your language." Or, if I'd wear a Spanish shirt, they'd say, "Why don't you go back to your country if you like it so much?"Nesshengel says it's important to get together with other Latinos her age to share stories and compare notes. She says if she can hear other people's stories of adversity - and how they've overcome it - then she'll gain the wisdom she came to the conference looking for.
In Minnesota, the Chicano/Latino population of about 85,000 is on the rise. Nationally, Hispanics make up about 10% percent of the population, and collectively, they proved to be a powerful voting bloc in last year's national election. Ramona De Rosales, of St. Thomas University, works to help Latino youth get into college. She says as Latinos become an even more powerful voting bloc and political lobby, far greater economic and social gains will benefit the group.
De Rosales: I think in the past, the public has seen the Latino community as somewhat passive and silent. But that's not happening any longer. We in the community have taken over and educated our people, and you're going to see even bigger change in the next few years.
But, says Nancy Leon, the majority of Americans must re-think changes in immigration policy and reconcile the social and economic benefits immigrants bring to the U.S.
Leon: Who is going to pick the crops? Who is going to clean the hotel rooms? Who is going to bus the dishes? I mean, that's the bottom line. Immigrants are a very important part of this economy and if they didn't pick the crops, the prices at our grocery stores would be a lot higher. And that is the one thing that no one seems to be talking about.Leon, and others who spoke at the conference, told the teens that they are the nation's future leaders. A message that - by the end of the weekend - clearly rang true for 18-year-old Angelina Castano-Weber.
Castano-Weber: Endless. There are endless possibilities.Conference workshops ranged in topics from Minnesota Latino History, to Career Development to Building Self Esteem. It was the first of what will become annual gatherings in Minnesota.