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  April 9, 2001

Focus on Education Can Help Latinos
Achieve Political Clout, Says Speaker

The first Latina to serve as deputy White House chief of staff is not overwhelmed by recent U.S. Census numbers indicating that Latinos have become the nation's largest minority group.

"There are two things missing," said Maria Echaveste, who served in the Clinton administration. "If there's not a common unifying agenda and strong political participation, then those (census) numbers mean nothing."

Echaveste made her remarks during an April 4 speech in the Rome Commons Ballroom. Her speech, titled "Latino Faces of the Millennium," marked the start of Latino Awareness Month observances and was sponsored by the Puerto Rican-Latin American Cultural Center.

"I believe that if we search and really ask ourselves tough questions, we'll probably achieve a common agenda," Echaveste said, "and it has to do with education, access to health care, reducing crime, and all the issues that matter to people."

But reaching that common agenda means first recognizing that the Latino community in the United States is not a monolithic entity, said Echaveste.

"A Mexican migrant's story is not the same thing as the experience of a Cubano who left Castro's Cuba," she said. "We have to acknowledge that the Latino experience is diverse and try to find ways in which we can support each other."

One way Latinos can support each other, Echaveste suggested, is by addressing cultural attitudes within the community about education. The daughter of Mexican immigrant farm workers, Echaveste said her father was against her leaving home and attending college. Like many poor and working-class Latinos, Echaveste's parents lacked experience with higher education. "To my father, my job in a grocery store was better than working in the fields," she said. "Why would I want to go to college?"

Echaveste said that an effort must be made within the Latino community to breach cultural resistance to higher education.

"Sometimes we're afraid to say that there are some cultural ways of looking at the world that hold us back, for fear of being critical of our culture. I am sure, even now, that there are Latinas in high school who are being told they don't have to go away to college," she said.

"They're getting mixed messages. They're being told, 'You're going to be a housewife, you're going to be a mother, you don't need an education.' We, as a community, need to reach out to those families, not by telling the parents 'you're bad people, you're wrong,' but by telling them that an education is the first step towards assuring that every child will achieve their potential."

"The need for education is absolutely critical," Echaveste continued. "Thirty years ago, the difference between what you earned in your lifetime if you had a college education compared to a high school education was 40 percent. Today, you will earn 80 percent more."

A graduate of Stanford University and the law school at the University of California, Berkeley, Echaveste was appointed assistant to President Bill Clinton and deputy White House chief of staff in 1998, after serving as assistant to the president and director for public liaison. She was deputy director of personnel during the Clinton 1993 transition and was the national Latino coordinator for the president's 1992 campaign.

In 1993, Echaveste became administrator to the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division, where she was responsible for the management and policy direction of programs related to a variety of federal laws, including minimum wage and overtime, child labor and family and medical leave. Her anti-sweatshop campaign, entitled "No Sweat," received a 1996 Innovations in Government award, sponsored by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and the Ford Foundation.

Gary Frank

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