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Apathy Hinders Latino Political Group : Activism: Bureaucratic inertia, lack of funds have also stalled the growth of Latin American Voters of America.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Three years after being founded to boost the involvement of Latinos in politics, a local nonprofit organization has found more apathy than registered voters and has encountered more bureaucratic obstacles than money.

Latin American Voters of America, headed by a group of Orange County attorneys and educators, was incorporated in 1992 to get Latinos interested in politics by registering voters, sponsoring debates, publishing a newsletter and promoting college classes that would emphasize how politics affects Latinos. The programs, if successful, were expected to form the basis for similar programs nationwide.

But the organization’s first two years were spent on planning meetings, and the past year has yielded no more than 170 newly registered voters and raised only $50,000, according to group officials.

“It’s $50,000 we wouldn’t have had otherwise,” said president and Santa Ana attorney Jess J. Araujo, adding “Unfortunately, every organization deals with this initial problem. A lot of our time and energy this first year has been writing proposals.”

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Besides a lack of money, organization officials say, talks have been going slowly with universities about holding candidate and issue forums and sponsoring classes emphasizing Latino political issues. Group officials say it is not so much that universities are opposed to the projects, but that numerous consultations and approvals are needed from department heads and administrators.

At stake is the political voice of one-fourth of Orange County’s residents, and statistics show that while Latinos account for 27% of the population statewide, they constituted only 8% of the voters in last November’s election.

“They are dismal statistics,” Araujo said.

“The Latino community has been historically underrepresented in the electoral process due to a multiplicity of factors,” according to the group’s mission statement, “including language and cultural barriers, the absence of significant similar democratic institutions in their countries of origin for immigrants, and a lack of awareness of and appreciation for the principle of voting dynamics and empowerment.”

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Another reason is the median age of Latinos, which at a relatively young 27 is an age group notorious for political apathy no matter the race, according to Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, which works in states throughout the West.

And although many Latinos are legal residents, they are not necessarily citizens, and as such would be ineligible to vote.

The arrival of Proposition 187 on the November, 1994, ballot, which would prohibit health benefits to illegal immigrants, was expected to boost Latino interest in voting. But interviews and exit polls have indicated that many Latinos were indifferent, cynical and sometimes uninformed.

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They are similar problems to those Araujo said he faced when he stood outside a Santa Ana Target store with voter registration cards in hand. The No. 1 obstacle he encountered, he said, was people “fed up with the system” who wanted nothing to do with politics. He said another reason people did not bother to register was a feeling that their votes did not count.

Organization officials believe they can overcome the statistics by using university classes, workshops and pamphlets to inform--and excite--Latinos about voting. Registering voters is another part of the process, as is sponsoring forums to educate voters.

But group officials acknowledge that they have made few inroads into Latino voter apathy so far.

“It’s a very, very small step,” Isaac Cardenas, a Latin American Voters of America board member and chairman of the Chicano studies department at Cal State Fullerton, said of the group’s accomplishments to date. “A beginning.”

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The group was hoping to raise up to $60,000 from a fund-raiser in Santa Ana on Saturday, attended by actor Ricardo Montalban, who also chairs the organization’s board of governors. It was not until earlier this year that State Farm Insurance Co. awarded them a $35,000 grant. Other money has come from other corporations and membership fees, Araujo said.

Araujo said the bulk of the $50,000 will be spent to hire a staff member and buy computers. Other money will be used to mail its first newsletter by early next year.

Officials hope the organization will take off as more money becomes available and people become interested in the 1996 presidential election. But Cardenas said it will take at least five years for programs to make a noticeable difference in the political landscape.

Araujo declined to set any timelines or goals for registering voters, but says that if things continue to move slowly at the university level after January, he will lobby the state Legislature to write a bill asking that schools implement Latino-oriented political events and programs. He also said that by mid-1996, he wants to hold a town-hall style forum on why people should vote.

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Latin American Voters of America was incorporated as a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization in 1992, but did not have what Araujo calls its “coming out,” or public membership drive, until November, 1994.

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It was also last November that the group received proclamations of support from Gov. Pete Wilson, state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) and the Orange County Board of Supervisors. And Montalban, famous for his role on the television show “Fantasy Island,” said that he chooses his causes carefully.

“I think voting is one of the most important privileges granted to man to change things peacefully,” Montalban, who was born in Mexico City, said in a phone interview from his Beverly Hills home.

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