Emerson Academy Student is a Featured Speaker at League of Women Voters Luncheon

Jonathan Oliva-Infante addresses the challenges to Hispanic voter participation

Reported by Reported by Bill McCormick, Director of Emerson Academy, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples

Jonathan Oliva-Infante joined two other panel members at the December League of  Women Voters (LWV) luncheon held at the Naples Hilton to bring attention to issues and obstacles for maximizing voter turnout in Florida. Liza MacLenaghan, a Florida government affairs specialist, updated the audience on the Florida Legislative status on a variety of voter concerns, including the state government’s exceedingly slow-motion efforts to restore voting rights for ex-felons. The lead US Census Bureau official for SW Florida on the panel, Michelle Malsbury, described the status of and plans for conducting an accurate census count in our community in 2020.

Jonathan is a senior at Golden Gate High School and 2019 participant in Emerson Academy, a college preparatory summer program. He noted that Golden Gate High School has a large Hispanic population and a minority of white ethnic Americans. He focused his remarks on Hispanic voter participation. His presentation was derived in part from his research into Hispanic voter participation conducted last summer as an intern with the Naples LWV. His work was carried out under the mentorship of Dr. Elizabeth Polli, former Professor of Spanish Language and Literature at Dartmouth College. He also has been advised regarding his interest in government service by Ms. Joanne Huskey, who had a long career in the foreign service and joined the Naples Unitarian Universalist Congregation after her work with the U.S. State Department. She also served as a seminar leader in Emerson Academy.

As a first-generation U.S. citizen, Jonathan gave the audience a most insightful perspective of issues confronting current and potential Hispanic voters. Notwithstanding his own family background, Jonathan endeavored to remain objective in his research as an LWV intern. He vividly described how Florida’s Hispanic and Latino population’s involvement in the electoral process faces multiple obstacles. His personal account and reflections about the ubiquitous sentiments of Hispanic residents toward American governmental institutions in recent times in the United States illustrated major causes for low voter turnout within the community of recent immigrants.

Jonathan described his parental background with his father’s homeland in El Salvador and his mother being born in Mexico. In both countries, many citizens are fearful of government agencies, which are overtly corrupt in many aspects of their respective
official dealings with the populace. Ordinary citizens of those countries are suspicious of government institutions and avoid contacts with authorities whenever possible. Jonathan quoted a ubiquitous expression of caution among citizens of such countries, “No abres la puerta”, which translates to, “Do not open the door.” It is a common practice in Hispanic domestic life in their home countries not to answer the door when there is a stranger knocking. This sense of fear and suspicion is an embedded part of the culture of Hispanic immigrants coming to the United States via our southern borders. Now, ironically, it is a common aspect of Hispanic domestic life in America.

Jonathan noted that the reality of being in America for people such as his parents is currently one of a most unwelcoming atmosphere at the federal level. Jonathan’s research indicates that in President Trump’s own words, he depicts Mexicans as
“rapists” and “criminals”. He described how the Trump administration has made resident Latino populations the main focus of the U.S. Immigration, Customs, and Enforcement (I.C.E.) Agency’s operations. In referencing the research of UCLA’s Professor Matt A. Barreto, Jonathan cited the Federal Government’s poor treatment and neglect of Latinos seeking asylum in America. This has led to fear among some Hispanics of even coming close to federal and state government buildings. It is common knowledge that Hispanic residents who might legitimately seek police contact for protection or to assist in law enforcement elect not to do so because they seek to avoid being identified.

Clearly the present political climate in the United States has a negative impact on the goal of creating greater voter turnout of citizens of Latino backgrounds. This situation has encouraged Jonathan to consider political science as a major course of study as he plans for a college or university education next year. Jonathan reported that 60% of Latinos are 34 years old or younger; and 44% of eligible Hispanic voters are millennials, (i.e. persons reaching adulthood in the 21st century).

He described several factors, such as economic burdens and frequent job-related location changes, which make millennial voter participation more difficult. On a more positive note, Jonathan identified various organizations, such as Voto Latino and People for the American Way, which have made significant headway to engage Hispanic citizens in the electoral process. He noted that having more Hispanic candidates on ballots, who understand the needs of this ethnic constituency, will likely bring more such citizens to the polls in effective numbers.

At this stage of Jonathan’s educational journey, he envisions a career plan to address the needs of Hispanic citizens through government service. This could well include his eventual running for elective office in the future, which will become more feasible as the proportion of Hispanic voters within our population continues to increase. Given the LWV’s enthusiastic reception for Jonathan’s informative presentation, it would appear that he is on the right path as he pursues his long term goals.