Opinion: La Calle Sesame

In September 2011, Sol Liliana Rivera our beloved five-year old will be among the four million other American children beginning kindergarten. Like the other members of her high school Class of 2023, she will nervously say good bye to her even more nervous mommy and daddy and take that giant step into the rest of her life. Stripped of the entire hi-tech, I-pad, interconnected world that will put all human knowledge at her little fingertips, much of what she experiences in school will not be that much different than what you and I faced at that hinge in our personal history. She will love some teachers, others not so much. There will be classes that captivate her and others that bore her. Some kids she meets will be nice, others mean. She and her classmates will be by turns attentive, restive or rowdy, eager or stubborn, brave or crying, “I want my mommy!”

But if Norman Rockwell was still around to capture those all-American moments, his painter’s palette would be much different than it was during the roaring-20’s when he painted those instantly nostalgic covers for the Saturday Evening Post magazine. The nation is much darker than it was, and the hot new color is brown.

Analyzing the first results from the once-every-decade, 2010 edition of the U.S. Census, the four million five-year olds entering kindergarten will include many more minority students than at any time in our nation’s history, (48.3%). While black, Asian and Native American kids are all part of the definition of “minority” for Census purposes, most of those new kindergarteners will be Hispanic. Come September, and that awe and panic-inducing first day of school, one in every four American kindergarteners will be Latino; one in four.

Young Latinos is by far the fastest growing ethnic/racial group in the country. Its explosive growth will eventually re-make America from the classroom to the Congress. And the demographic tsunami it represents is unprecedented in U.S. history; surpassing the huge Irish wave that re-made the east coast from Savannah to Boston in the 1850’s. And those little Latinitos will be everywhere in the United States. In New York, where Sol will be going to school, and in New Jersey, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Texas, the dramatic growth of the Hispanic population is perhaps unsurprising. But the browning of America is affecting states as far-flung as Georgia, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Idaho, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Oregon, Maryland, Illinois, North Carolina, Arkansas, the Dakotas and Virginia.

In those heavily Hispanic areas, now found in the four corners of the United States, decisions will have to be made by increasingly cash-strapped school districts about how to educate the 16% of those Latino children who still speak Spanish at home, according to the Census. Will they be thrown in with their English-speaking peers to sink or swim linguistically? Will there be money for bi-lingual or English as a Second Language (ESL) education, especially given the controversy over whether those programs do more long-term harm than good? Will there be drives to recruit bilingual educators or will that be prohibited by teachers’ unions’ intent on preserving the jobs of those with tenure and seniority, even if they can’t communicate with their students?

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Given the number and relative fertility of Hispanics entering childbearing age, the phenomena I describe is both incontrovertible and unstoppable. The Latino effect that impacts first in September’s kindergarten class will come to infuse every other aspect of American life. From retailing to entertainment to the Armed Services, Latinos will be increasingly prominent. And wait until states start re-shaping congressional districts based on the results of the 2010 Census as they are required by law to do. Since most population gains came from an influx of Hispanics, there can be no doubt that our electoral strength will continue to grow.

In the meantime, our job in media, law, politics and community is to monitor closely the congressional reapportionment process to insure there are no backroom, unlawful attempts to dilute the Latino vote by gerrymandering. We must also make it our sacred duty to urge everyone 18 or over to register and vote because that is the only way we can reliably have a voice in shaping our own destiny. And in September when we walk our nervous little ones into their first day of kindergarten, we are honor-bound to support them in every way we can because education is power.

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