April 19, 2002 - Orange County Register: Hispanic conference seeks tomorrow's leaders today

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Headlines: Peace Corps Headlines - 2002: 04 April 2002 Peace Corps Headlines: April 20, 2002 - Orange County Register: Gaddi Vasquez speaks to Orange County youth at Leadership Conference : April 19, 2002 - Orange County Register: Hispanic conference seeks tomorrow's leaders today

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Hispanic conference seeks tomorrow's leaders today

Read and comment on the Hispanic conference that Director Vasquez addressed this week at:

Hispanic conference seeks tomorrow's leaders today *

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Hispanic conference seeks tomorrow's leaders today

Anaheim event gives O.C. youths a civic opportunity in own back yard.

April 19, 2002

By COURTNEY PERKES The Orange County Register

Veronica Perez, 16, basked in every moment at a Hispanic leadership conference last fall in Chicago. She listened to inspirational stories of success and spent late nights with new friends from around the country.

Only one thing seemed to be missing. More kids like her from Orange County.

"It was impressive to see people of my own generation interested in the same thing," said Perez, of Santa Ana. "I told a lot of my friends, 'You should have gone.'"

They'll have their chance today.

A grass-roots group of Hispanics that sent a small group of students to the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Conference in Chicago has organized an affiliate conference for Orange County. It raised $50,000 - the cost of sending 50 kids to Chicago - to put on the Latino Youth Leadership Institute Conference for 1,000 students.

"Instead of going to Chicago every year, we can invest in our community," said Bob Martinez, 56, an organizer and a code-enforcement officer in Santa Ana.

When the conference begins today at an Anaheim hotel, Perez, a junior in high school, will help rally her peers along with Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Santa Ana, and Gaddi Vasquez, chief of the Peace Corps. Perez will give a speech about what leadership means to her.

"I see leadership as working together as one," said Perez, who wants to become a lawyer. "Learn to accept who you are, as well as people you're working with."

To put on the event, the leaders formed a nonprofit organization and gained the support of the Chicago leadership. They sought donations from restaurants, corporations, unions and elected officials. The day's events will include workshops, a college and career fair, and a scholarship banquet. All the organizers are unpaid volunteers.

With a rapidly growing Hispanic population, organizers say it's crucial for students to take an interest in civic activities. Hispanics make up nearly one-third of Orange County, where the median age for Hispanics is 25, compared with 40 for whites. They also are the largest ethnic group of students in the public school system.

"This is a historical change, and they're part of it," said Randy Parraz, 34, a union organizer who is helping to plan the conference. "We have not developed a base of power equal to our numbers."

The goal isn't just to create more officeholders like Sanchez, but other concerned citizens who will vote, volunteer and voice their opinions. Organizers say the younger generation understands American and Latin culture and often speaks fluent Spanish and English.

In 1999, Martinez and others sent 35 students to the four-day conference in Chicago, after raising about $35,000. They have sent students every year since. The conference draws 8,000 Hispanics of all ages from around the country. Previous speakers have included former President Clinton.

For many in the Orange County delegation, the experience changed their lives.

Sergio Contreras recalls the 1999 trip as his first time traveling by plane. Contreras, 28, grew up the son of working-class immigrants in Westminster.

"I always lived in Westminster," Contreras said. "I never even left the place. When I went (to Chicago), it was breathtaking. There were so many people there willing to help you."

After the conference, he ran for school board in Westminster. He lost and is running again this year.

"I never knew I could make a difference now and not when I'm 80 and join Kiwanis," said Contreras, who said he's the youngest member of his Kiwanis club.

Rudy Lopez, national field director in Chicago for the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute, said the students, even those too young to vote, will go home with voter registration forms to share with others. The institute sponsors the Chicago conference and is co-sponsoring today's event.

"I think too often we discount young people when we tell them, 'You are the future,'" said Lopez, who will attend. "They think, 'I'm going to be a leader later.' We can't wait for that. There's things they can be contributing right now."

Teresa Mercado- Cota, director of community relations for Rancho Santiago Community College District, has been involved in a civic leadership program at Santa Ana College. She said the conference is important, especially in a place like Orange County, where many voters supported state propositions to end affirmative action and to curtail services to illegal immigrants.

"Therefore, what's happened is that people have now united and said, 'We're not going to stand for this,' " Mercado-Cota said. "We want to move our county forward. We don't want to continue the discrimination and backlash that we've suffered."

Leticia Vargas, a counselor at Saddleback High School in Santa Ana, said more than 150 students will attend the conference as a field trip. She expects them to benefit from exposure to Hispanic role models.

"It gives them skills to be part of the community, to try to do their best for the community," Vargas said.

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