Friday, May 29, 2009

Should You Care Who Governs Your City?

How many of us know our City Hall representatives, why we must elect them, or what they do once they hold a seat in city government?

Last May, only 4,186 ballots were cast from more than 93,000 registered voters in the special election to fill the District H seat vacated by Adrian Garcia. The number of voters accounted for less than 4.5 percent of the potential voter pool.

The low voter turnout was also reflected in the 2007 mayoral election, when only 117,098 out of 930,000 registered voters in the city of Houston showed up at the polls. Yet the presidential election attracted 1.18 million, or 60.3 percent of Harris County registered voters to cast a ballot in 2008.

Hispanics can no longer be used as scapegoats for the voter turnout since voter presence at council elections is lacking from the general population and not from a single ethnic group. Take District H as an example, where the electorate is 42 percent Hispanic and 45 percent Anglo.

So why don’t Houstonians attend to their local elections like they do to presidential and other national voting? The lack of participation in local politics may stem from the belief among constituents that their vote won’t make a difference in the overall future of the city or from the poor performance of past and current council members that alienates citizens from visiting the polls.

Indifference toward city elections also derives from failing to provide constituents adequate information about the candidates, the work that their position entails and the political process itself. Local elections call for the civil education of Houstonians. The city should take responsibility for teaching every resident about their leaders and representatives, the role of city council, and why their voice is important in community elections.

If you plan on brushing aside the June 13 run-off election for District H councilman or the November 3 election for city of Houston mayor, consider first what is at stake.

The council works with the mayor in matters of legislation and budget. It supervises city agencies, confirms the mayor’s appointments and approves city expenditures. A leader elected by a minimal percentage of the population may not be able to see to the demands of an entire city or community.

Houston’s city council is made up of 14 members, nine from specific districts and five elected citywide; each member is allowed to serve up to three two-year terms. Today there is only one Hispanic councilman serving a city that is 40 percent Hispanic. The District H election presents the opportunity to place a second Hispanic in city council and maintain the representation formerly assigned to Adrian Garcia before he left to become Harris County sheriff.

Voting for a city council member is as important as electing a mayor, a governor, or even a president, considering city council represents the needs of your particular community. Decide wisely. Your representative will have an impact on decision-making that targets issues such as land use, public safety, transportation, flooding, education, housing and the environment.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Texas' Future Demands Our Action

High dropout rates across Texas pose a risk to the financial future of the state, particularly in big cities such as Houston.

According to a study by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, more than 120,000 Texas students failed to graduate in 2006 and 70 percent of all non-graduates were minority students. Hispanic males were the lowest-performing group, graduating at a rate of less than 53 percent.

A study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that most dropouts leave school because classes are not interesting or they have missed too many days to catch up. Other reasons include failing, pregnancy, a lack of motivation to work hard, the need to get a job, and not getting along with teachers and classmates. Whatever the reasons for dropping out, the increasing loss of students in Texas has serious economic implications for the state. The graduation crisis not only affects the labor opportunities of individuals who don’t finish school, it also damages the economic health of their communities.

Almost 20 percent of Houston adults ages 25-64 didn’t finish high school and have an income averaging less than $15,000. The average annual earnings in the U.S. are $20,000 for people who didn’t finish high school, $30,000 for high school graduates and nearly $60,000 for individuals with bachelor degrees.

Texas Kids Count reports that keeping everyone in school would cost Texas an additional $1.7 billion for more teachers, more textbooks, more after-school programs and more space. However, if every 16-19 year-old in Texas graduated from high school, then the state’s earnings could increase by $865 million per year, or $3billion in four years, which would be more than enough to cover the education costs.

Higher incomes are only available where jobs are available. A study from the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation reports that dropouts reduce Texas employment by more than 302,000 jobs. The pattern is simple: Quality well-paying jobs require well-educated and productive workers. If Texas residents fail to receive a good education, they reduce the productivity of the Texas economy. Dropouts accept jobs with lower earnings that result in reduced spending. Less spending translates into less demand and less available jobs.

Dropouts are also more likely to need government assistance than high school graduates, increasing state spending in food stamps, housing assistance and Medicaid. Moreover, approximately three-fourths of state prison inmates are high school dropouts, accounting for an extra $12 million annual expense. The Friedman Foundation study concluded that high school dropouts are costing Texas taxpayers $337 million per year in lost tax revenue, increased Medicaid costs and increased incarceration.

Lowering the dropout numbers is essential to fuel the future of our city and our state. The cycle that starts with less high school dropouts and ends with a prosperous economy is challenging, but collaboration between school districts and their surrounding communities offers a potential cure to the “silent epidemic.”

Texas has a responsibility to feed its youth a proper education and prepare a strong work force. It is time to act collectively to eradicate dropouts if we want to keep our cities safe from a crumbling economy.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Cinco de Mayo: What Comes to Mind?

As you get ready to drink your margarita, wear your sombrero and hit that piñata this Cinco de Mayo, consider first what it is exactly that you are celebrating. Or not celebrating.

While Mexicans in their native country don’t generally recognize the Cinco de Mayo holiday, partygoers in the United States have turned the date into a large festivity. The reasons for the American celebration have more to do with the U.S. Latino culture and alcohol than with history.

Cinco de Mayo marks the 1862 Battle of Puebla, where Mexican forces defeated the French army. General Ignacio Zaragoza led the Mexican troops to win despite the more numerous and better equipped French forces of Napoleon III.

The victory in Puebla is a good reason to celebrate, but Mexico ultimately lost the war against the French and one of Napoleon’s relatives, Maximilian of Austria, was left to rule Mexico from 1864 to 1867. This may be the reason why Cinco de Mayo goes largely unnoticed south of the border, except in the state of Puebla where the battle took place.
In the United States, Cinco de Mayo also made its first appearance during the 1860s. Mexicans in San Francisco lent their support to their mother country during the war by commemorating the date of the battle with private dances and speeches that addressed the significance of the day. The celebration continued with dances and parades until the 1950s.

During the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 70s, Cinco de Mayo evolved into a tool for recognition of the Chicano culture. To Chicano activists, the Battle of Puebla symbolized perseverance and unity, and they saw the holiday as a way to build pride among Mexican Americans and celebrate their bicultural identity.

Unfortunately beer companies trumped the fight for civil rights and the original intentions to promote Latino culture. Cinco de Mayo as we know it in the United States today is the result of an exploitation of Mexican history on the part of the alcohol industry.

In his book Anything but Mexican, Rodolfo Acuña discusses how a minor holiday became the opportunity for brewers to “make alcohol a staple of Latino social life.” The Molson Coors Brewing Co. needed to save its image and market to Latinos after a group of Mexican-American activists complained about the company’s discriminatory hiring practices in the 1960s. Chicanos, on the other hand, needed funds to launch their Cinco de Mayo celebration. To silence the Chicano opposition, Coors sponsored their holiday with millions of dollars in “donations.” In exchange, Cinco de Mayo had to promote beer drinking.

Another deal in 1985 involved Mexican American organizations--the National Council of La Raza, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the American GI Forum. The organizations withdrew a boycott against Coors’ labor practices when the brewing company promised them $350 million. This growing dependence on beer companies has offset the Latino efforts for civil rights.
Latinos should celebrate their culture and heritage but not at the expense of neglecting the roots of their holidays and propagating negative drinking stereotypes. So before you get out those green, white and red streamers, think about what it really means to be Mexican, Mexican-American or Latino, or at least take some time to genuinely learn about these cultures.