November 17, 2006

Young Latina Women Changing the Face of U.S. Politics

By Daffodil Altan

WATSONVILLE – On Tuesday night, 16-year-old Claudia Guzman made a last minute plea to voters on behalf of a candidate just barely a decade her senior. She was one of many young women volunteers working the phones for city council candidate Mireya Gomez. In another office, 13-year-old Jessica Ruiz dialed voters and asked them in Spanish if they needed a ride to the polls.

“A lot of women helped out in this campaign because we saw ourselves in Mireya,” said 17-year-old Claudia Guzman about Gomez who, at 27, looks not much older than her young supporters. “She’s Latina, she’s young and she believes a lot of the things that we believe,” said Guz-man. Candidates like Gomez are paving the way for other Latinas to enter into politics.

In fact, young Latina woman, are making inroads in the American political landscape. Latina women are graduating faster and in higher numbers than their male Latino counterparts from college. Many of them are choosing a career in politics. Between 1996 and 2006, the number of Latina candidates elected to office nationally and locally increased by 73 percent, compared to a 26 percent increase among Latino male elected officials.

Gomez, who came of political age during Proposition 187, the California ballot initiative that would have banned undocumented immigrants from receiving many state services and generated the largest marches in California history, decided to run after Watsonville’s first female Latina mayor asked her to consider taking over her city council seat. Motivated by her confessed idealism and her belief in young people, like herself, Gomez ran a bare bones campaign against the incumbent for her district in Watsonville, 69-year-old Dale Skillicorn. Gomez who grew up poor and was orphaned with her sisters before she was 20, is a youth program coordinator at the local YWCA. She raised $7,000 and ran her campaign with the help of young people, immigrants and by knocking on a lot of doors in the community she grew up in.

The vibe was decidedly young at Gomez’s campaign headquarters in this historically white city 90 miles south of San Francisco. Today, Watsonville is three quarters Latino. Many among the group of young women and a few young men who have been supporting her campaign won’t even come of voting age until the next presidential election.

Gomez was moved by the range of people who came out in support of her campaign. “People who would not have come out to help on any campaign came out to help on our campaign,” Gomez said. She said she was thrilled that young girls, most of whom had never worked on a political campaign, decided to spend their time volunteering. “They were excited about being here and asked what they could do and took it back home to their families.”

Eighth grader Jessica Ruiz, who was also making evening phone calls, took a break from her volunteer work to take her grandmother to the polls. After working for the first time on a political campaign, Ruiz said, “I feel like our voice can get spoken out there if we, like, vote and we put our effort into what progress we want in the future.”

According to a report by Youth Voter Strategies, young people who are unregistered represent the biggest potential group of voters among Latinos. Thirty-four percent are less than 18 years old, compared to 23 percent of the non-Hispanic white population. And single, young women, between 18-29, among all ethnic groups, represent the second fastest growing voting bloc.

“It’s important for us to vote, young people, especially wo-men because women know what they want,” said Aimee Ramirez, 17, who volunteered for Gomez’s campaign and hopes to run for city council someday.

That’s what excites Gomez, “New thinking is going to come from progressive young thinkers,” she said.

Gomez lost Tuesday to her incumbent, but she garnered nearly 40 percent of the votes in her district. “I’m going to continue to organize and I’m going to try again because I don’t take no for an answer,” she said. The entire campaign was worth it, she said, because she succeeded in encouraging and inspiring the young people she worked with. “I want to be the kind of leader who has a direct connection with young women so that they don’t have to limit themselves in their thinking of what they want to be or what they want to do,” she said.

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