News / Culture

Making This Election Personal

Contrary to stereotypes still lingering in the 2008 election- Latinos speak English, we are Republicans, Democrats, Independents and we do vote. Maria Teresa Petersen, Executive Director and co-founder (along with Rosario Dawson) of Voto Latino (VL), breaks down the 2008 election and the importance of the young Latino demographic in this process. She tells us more about VL efforts, the power Latinos hold in key swing states, and why candidates still don’t understand the young Latino demographic in this country.  The numbers tell a different story when 50,000 Latinos turn 18 every month in the United States, of which 92 percent are eligible to vote. How do we mobilize this generation? Read more on what VL is doing to get out the vote.


Remezcla: What is Voto Latino?

Maria Teresa Petersen: Founded in 2004, Voto Latino seeks to enfranchise a new generation of Americans through celebrity voices, leveraging the latest technology and youth themselves in civic participation. We started with a series of Public Service Announcements and have grown to include unique programs including text messaging voter engagement, a DJ coalition in 5 cities, over 35 artists, the first embedded reporter contest (“Crash the Parties”) and more.  We’ve scaled from just one staff to 5 staffers and three regional offices. Headquartered in Washington, DC, we have offices in California and Colorado too!

RE: Tell us about your personal background and how you got involved in public service.

MTP: I was born in Bogotá, Colombia, raised in Sonoma, California, since age four. I feel both cultures intensely and both cultures help inform my work.  I was fortunate to go back to Colombia every summer, and these were the visits that shaped me, because I witnessed the distinct realities of a war-torn country with limited opportunity for someone from humble beginnings such as my own. As many others, I am the first to go to college in my family. I received my degree in International Affairs from University of California Davis and promptly started on Capitol Hill working for a Congressman. I loved it and was hooked on public service because it’s an opportunity to create legislation that shapes and impacts the lives of millions of people living both within our borders and beyond. Working on Capitol Hill, I can share that we need more Latinos influencing and shaping policy.  My colleagues told me not to worry about getting a higher degree, but I knew that being a Latina, receiving a Masters from Harvard would pay off because the degree validated my work. I encourage all Latinos to seek higher education degrees. The doors and the people that they open up are invaluable

RE: What do you say to the criticism that VL does not appeal to Republican Latinos?

MTP: Voto Latino is a non-partisan organization, and we work hard to maintain that balance. This is reflected in our board that is both Republican & Democratic. It’s reflected in our programs – Voto Latino sent representatives to both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Finally, even our coalition has mixed views: Daddy Yankee supports McCain, Fat Joe supports Obama. And that’s healthy. Voto Latino’s fundamental mission is to spark dialogue and get our community thinking about civic participation. We do not endorse a particular candidate. That’s not our job — that’s the candidates’ job.

RE: Who are the “Latino Swing States”?

MTP: It’s imperative that ALL Latinos regardless of where they live, register and vote! Especially because during this election, you’re not just voting for President but your voting for your Congress member and in many cases your Senator. They are the ones that bring money and projects back into your community on a federal level–not the President. That said, there are five states where the Latino vote will determine the presidential race: Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, Texas and Arizona. These six states have a Latino electorate of 10% or more. The last presidential election was decided with just 2 million votes. Latino voters are over 18 million — we will swing the election if we register and vote!

RE: Tell us about VL at the RNC and DNC?

MTP: Voto Latino co-hosted cafes throughout both conventions with MySpace. We also had our SiTV embedded reporters Wendy Carrillo and Michael Monrroy speaking to delegates, congressional members and other elected officials throughout the convention. This was the highlight for us — for young people to hear coverage by young up-and-coming journalists. Voto Latino also participated in various panels discussing the Latino vote.

RE: What have you found to be the most detrimental stereotype(s) of young Latino Voters?

MTP: There are several. The first one, general, mainstream media and politicians are surprised that American Latinos speak English! The second is that they are under the misperceived idea that we don’t care. In fact, 52% of all Latinos that participated in the 2008 primaries this past year were UNDER 29 years old. Young Latinos voted in record number!

RE: Why aren’t the candidates reaching out to this demographic?

MTP: Candidates still don’t understand this demographic and while big corporations understand our influence in making key decisions for our families, politicians don’t realize that impact.  We are a bridge to our families in helping to translate cultural norms. I call our generation cultural ambassadors; helping our families navigate through the American process and the key is that we influence many decisions whether it’s purchasing a product or where to go to school. Why not use our good and influence to impact our family’s decision in civic participation?

RE: How can other people (not celebrities or business people) motivate youth to become active in the electoral process?

MTP: Voto Latino is 98% volunteer run. We really depend on online street teams and on the ground volunteers to spread the word! So [they can] join Voto Latino by simply adding a voter registration button on their MySpace page  or if they want to host a voter registration drive locally, contact us at info@votolatino.org and we can send materials. Celebrities are great at getting the message out and shedding light on the issues but it’s truly a community effort. There are 46 million voices and we need each and every one of us to care, and spread the message. This election is when we need peer pressure. These past two years, our community is hurting with horrible anti-immigration rhetoric in the media. We have to register and vote ourselves and our families to change those that influence policy to create policies that are tolerant.  We have to stand up and say “Enough!” We’re American and we aren’t going to let anyone tell us differently. This election, we have to make it personal.

RE: What has been your most effective tool to get Latinos to register to vote and become interested?

MTP: Our most effective tool has been our online street teams. It’s powerful. We released an iTunes digital benefit album for just $3.99 and the album hit number one in just 3 hours and stayed there for 3 weeks! Now with our iTunes partnership, we’re working on voter registration on the site–something never done before. It’s also our street team that has generated so many voter registrations online! They place a voter registration button on their sites and we’re seeing a huge difference in our numbers. And it’s so easy to do. Anyone can visit votolatino.org and get an embedded code to place on their MySpace or website. Voter registration has to be a community responsibility.

RE: Are there plans for a sequel to “La Pasión de la Decision” ( A spoof Telenovela series on the importance of registering to vote)?

MTP: Well…we’re working on it! It was such a fun project–simply an idea that we pitched to our partner Declare Yourself and together we just ran with it. Working with Wilmer Valderrama on his directorial debut was terrific.  I have to say that I love my work; everyone–regardless if they’re celebrities, executives, high school teachers, students or people working hard — everyone cares about this issue. It’s personal for them because they see their families impacted by unfair policy or misunderstanding of who exactly Latinos are every day.  Latinos, we are not monolithic. What holds us together is a common belief and pride that we are American. That’s why it’s so critical that we participate in this election. And it’s easy: register to vote at www.votolatino.org!