SXSW Interactive: The Latino Millennial Vote

Maria Teresa Kumar and America Ferrera discuss the Latino vote

“The importance of Latinos voting in America isn’t a Latino issue, it’s an American issue,” actress America Ferrera told the audience at Tuesday’s panel, Swipe Right or Left: The Latino Millennial Vote.

photo by Mac McCann

The first point that Ferrera made on the panel was addressing “the elephant in the room” – “It’s not a packed house, and that’s interesting.”

Explaining how she got involved with activism, Ferrera, who grew up among immigrants and first generation Americans, discussed the Catch an Illegal Immigrant Game at UT-Austin in 2013, hosted (and later cancelled) by the Young Conservatives of Texas, which drew appalled gasps from many in the crowd. She said that many Latinos at UT told her that they’ve felt unsafe and too often ignored by the campus leadership. However, Ferrera emphasized, “If it’s happening on the UT campus, it’s happening across the country.”

For a half hour before America Ferrera came on stage, Voto Latino founder and CEO Maria Teresa Kumar spoke about the issues that Latino Americans face, and how important it is for Latino Americans to vote. Then Kumar welcomed Ferrera to the stage for an interview before fielding questions from the audience.

Kumar said that many young Latino Americans often have to take on responsibility early in their lives, helping “navigate America for their parents,” simply because they can speak English. For many young Latino Americans, Kumar said, they’re a sort of “Super Latino,” who can embrace both their Latino origins as well as their American heritage.

Kumar and Voto Latino aim to appeal to Latino Millennials in English, with technology, and with pop culture. During her presentation, Voto Latino launched VoterPal, their new app that makes registering to vote much easier. The app, according to Ferrera, “is giving everybody the tool to be an organizer.”

In her opening speech, Kumar first noted that SXSW is much more diverse than it’s been in recent years, which, she said, “demonstrates where we are as a country because it’s changing quickly.”

Kumar then discussed the current state of Latinos in America, pointing out successful Latino Americans in pop culture as well as political figures like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Sonia Sotomayor. However, Kumar noted, despite increased political power for some individuals, the community as a whole still faces many problems. Deportations are at record highs. Undocumented immigrants in Flint, Mich., were refused clean water for not having ID. There are barriers to vote as well; for example, Texans can use a concealed handgun license for ID but not a student ID. Kumar noted that the average age of an American Latino is 27 years old, while the average U.S. senator is 72 years old. Economically, Latinas earn 53 cents on each dollar earned by a white male, Kumar pointed out, despite their student loans costing the same. Latino Americans are also often at risk of violence. Andy Lopez, a 13-year-old, was shot by a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy in 2013, after Lopez’ airsoft gun was mistaken for a real gun. Since 2013, Kumar said, 53% of hate crime victims have been Latinos.

While most are familiar with Trump’s racism, Kumar explained that Latinos have dealt with similar characters – like Ann Coulter, Jan Brewer, Rush Limbaugh and others – for decades. She said that Fox News and Sarah Palin deserve more credit for the rise of Trump and the state of today’s Republican Party.

Ferrera said, “The Latino vote is not a monolith,” and that many Latinos would likely agree with many GOP positions. “It’s not that Latinos are inherently non-Republicans,” Ferrera said of the GOP’s decision to write off the Latino vote with their racist rhetoric.

Kumar and Ferrera both tied their efforts to a variety of movements and causes, including Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, environmental activism, and reproductive rights.

Acknowledging that a lack of diversity is an issue throughout American society, Ferrera said that there’s no simple formula or math to get studios to include more Latinos in Hollywood. However, Ferrera said, “We actually do have a system for getting a more diverse representation in our leaders – it’s called voting! We have the power to elect people that represent us and kick people out that don’t.”

A woman asked the panel about how to hold politicians accountable, noting Obama’s terrible record on immigration and deportations despite his rhetoric. In response, Kumar and Ferrera argued that it’s not enough to simply get someone in the White House; congressional support is needed too. They emphasized the importance of staying active and participating in local politics as well as the national election, with Ferrera lamenting that too many of us vote on November 4 “and then check out for four years.”

Swipe Right or Left: The Latino Millennial Vote

Tuesday, March 15, Austin Convention Center

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Immigration, SXSW, SXSW Interactive 2016, America Ferrera, Maria Teresa Kumar, Voto Latino

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