Latino leaders pulled no punches at the Cesar Chavez Leadership conference in Ashland, telling local high school students how to become leaders, learn their ethnic "story," vote, serve their community through their whole lives — and how to overcome thorny issues of skin color, high school dropouts and immigration barriers around education.

Latino leaders pulled no punches at the Cesar Chavez Leadership conference in Ashland, telling local high school students how to become leaders, learn their ethnic "story," vote, serve their community through their whole lives — and how to overcome thorny issues of skin color, high school dropouts and immigration barriers around education.

Latinos are 50 million strong in the U.S., but have a household income 1/18th of the white population or about $7,000 a year and "neither party is speaking our language; their comments show a flagrant disregard for our experience, yet Latinos will make the difference in determining who is president," said Southern Oregon University English and writing professor Alma Rosa Alvarez, author of "Liberation Theology in Chicana Literature."

"Because of our lack of political clout, we are rightfully called a sleeping giant," said Alvarez in a keynote address to Latino students at SOU — a day-long conference organized by leaders of the same program in the Portland area for the past two decades.

Latino presenters often referred to the late Chavez, organizer of the United Farm Workers, as the Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King of la Raza, with Alvarez decrying the fact that Latinos have a 28 percent high school dropout rate, which relegates them to continuing the trend of low-income jobs — and, therefore, the day envisioned by Chavez "has yet to come."

Students have to learn the ropes about the "broken immigration system" and how it can block access to higher education and the path to employment and income, said John Almaguer, a lawyer with Idiart Law Group in Medford and the child of Mexican immigrants. A little-known law, which Almaguer spelled out in detail, allows any child of an immigrant with a green card to be a citizen with all the same rights to in-state tuition, since 2001, if the child is cohabiting with the parent.

Almaguer urged students to learn about the proposed DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors), which provides permanent residency in the U.S. for illegal aliens brought here as minors, but who graduated from high school here.

"It's the most important student movement of this century," said Almaguer. "Knowledge is power. You've got to learn this and advocate it. Win people over."

Almaguer detailed a 1982 Supreme Court decision stating that undocumented children "are persons," so they're entitled to equal protection under the 14th amendment to the Constitution and are therefore eligible for higher education and "are not to be punished for the acts of their parents" as illegal aliens.

North Medford High School student Karina Zapata said, "We're learning about all the opportunities we have of going to college and the laws they've passed to aid Latinos. I want to study criminal justice."

Nora Chavez, an ESL teacher with South Medford High School, said times have changed greatly from a generation ago because "more of us are involved from the Latino community and white people are working with us. We're highly accepted. The prejudice is a thing of the past."

"The doors are wide open and we're learning everything that has to do with leadership," said SOU engineering senior Miguel Delgado, one of many los Raiders mentors to the high school students.

Sonny Montes of the Portland Metro/Willamette Valley Cesar E. Chavez Leadership Conference told students, "We're having such a huge impact in the U.S. We're the largest minority in the nation and in Oregon, but it won't do any good unless we practice leadership ... with dignity, pride and passion."

Montes called the dropout and suspension rate in high schools "a tremendous problem that we need to rectify. Get involved. That's what leadership conferences are all about, a lifelong commitment to community service that will make this planet and country proud."

SOU Spanish Professor Ariel Zatarain Tumbaga traced the history of "colorism" (whiter is better) in the colonial U.S. and Mexico, noting that Spaniards, being already mixed with races around the Mediterranean, had little claim to superiority from limpieza de sangre (cleanness of blood) but vigorously enforced a caste system based on colorism anyway.Tumbaga said the colonial standard was that if you married a European for three generations, then the fourth generation could be considered "white," but that, in the present day, Latinos have adapted to the reality that "We see each other through a rainbow of colors."

Organizers of the conference plan to make it an annual event at SOU and Jonathan Eldridge, vice president for student affairs, urged, "Put yourself out there, volunteer for nonprofits, learn critical thinking and work on problem solving. Each of you has a cause you feel deeply about. We need educated people to get out there and do it."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at 541-482-3636.