When members of the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic advocacy group, gathered in Phoenix, Arizona, the November election was the top item on their agenda.
Latinos are the fastest-growing segment of the American population, and candidates for every office, from city hall to the White House, are courting their vote. Presumed Democratic nominee Senator John Kerry addressed a town hall meeting on the final day of the Council's annual conference, and answered questions from the delegates.
But in this election, reaching Latino voters may be synonymous with reaching young voters. More than half the Latino population is under the age of 35. A group of these young adults held their own town hall meeting to talk about the issues that matter most to them this election season.
Education took center stage as the 10 young Hispanics from across the country held their forum. All other topics - immigration, jobs, health even politics - inevitably circled back to school. It's no surprise: a new Zogby International poll conducted for La Raza shows education tops the list of issues Hispanics care about most.
"I graduate in spring '05," said one of the participants. "I'll be the first in my family to graduate with a college degree, so that's a goal now. There is not a very large number of Latinos who are Ph.D. holders, so one of my goals is to change that, empower myself and get my Ph.D. And I encourage all of you to go for your Ph.D. if you can."
But the comments that drew the most applause - like this one, from 20-year-old Carlos Vale of Washington, D.C. - acknowledged how difficult it often is for American-raised children to explain "college" to immigrant parents.
"I think we need to start educating the parents on how important it is to get a college degree, and on the resources that we have to be able to make that available," he said. "Because a lot of time, it [the push for a college education] starts in the home."
Participants agreed one thing that would keep Latino students in school is for Congress to pass the Dream Act. The bill would allow children who have grown up in the United States, but whose parents are illegal immigrants, to pay lower in-state tuition for college even though they're not citizens.
Avilia Guardiola, 18, from Phoenix said students who know they can't afford to go to college have little incentive to succeed in high school. After the meeting, she said it affects her personally, since some of her friends can't start classes at Arizona State University with her this fall.
"It's hard for me, that I'm a citizen and have the advantages of being a citizen, to get or to qualify for a loan," she said. "My friends sitting next to me with a GPA as high as me if not higher, and they can't go because they don't have the funding."
Moderating the panel was a man not much older than the participants, MTV news reporter Gideon Yago. He urged the audience to get involved in the political process and understand the issues in this election because there's a lot at stake for them.
"Young Hispanics are often the last hired and the first fired, which puts you in a precarious position," he said. "It's young people who are struggling to pay for college educations and college educations are often least attainable for Latino youth. And it's young people including many young Latinos, who are fighting every day in Iraq." And although they didn't talk about Iraq, the panelists did discuss job prospects and how education is a way to avoid a lifetime of low-wage jobs. When Heather Caseres spoke up, the moderator laughed, since she's only 15. But she lives in rural Immokalee, Florida, where she says Mexican-Americans start working young.
"The kids in my community, on the weekends they may be working in the fields or after school they may be working in the packing houses and those are the only jobs that we're able to get," she said.
At 15, Heather Caseres can't vote, but the other panelists and many in the audience were over 18 and can. Gideon Yago asked them what they would tell the presidential candidates. Wilna Irizarry from Miami, said she'd stress the importance of listening to Latinos even after election year.
"I'd just tell them that what the youth in Latino communities face aren't just issues during an election year, they're issues always," she said. "Pay attention to me now and for the rest of your term. I'm always going to be here."
One panelist said he'd tell the candidates to throw a big party for young people at the White House. The suggestion drew laughs and cheers. But it underscored an important shift in American society. Since the last election, Latinos have added nearly one million more voters to the rolls? many of them young people. And the new Zogby poll shows that a quarter of Latino voters are not registered with either major political party. And this, say many election watchers, means that candidates would do well to listen to young people and to Latinos.