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Hispanic Group Plans Voter Classes

By Tania deLuzuriaga | Sentinel Staff Writer

March 9, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

DELTONA -- As the political atmosphere heats up in the city during the next few months, for the first time the Hispanic community will have a place to turn to learn about the issues in Spanish.

The Hispanic American Voters League received permission from the City Commission last week to have its first Spanish-language voter education classes in city meeting rooms.

"I'm convinced that the reason more Hispanics aren't voting is because of a lack of understanding of the process and the language barrier," said John Hernandez, president of the Volusia County chapter of the Hispanic American Voters League. He hopes to start the classes at the end of April.

Although the number of Hispanics in Volusia County has more than doubled in the past 10 years, the growth hasn't translated into increased political participation. While 57 percent of Volusia County registered voters turned out for the last election, among Hispanics the number was only 38 percent.

"We have a bad track record in showing up at the polls," said Jose "Joe" Perez, the former city commissioner who lost a bid for mayor in 2001. "There is a lot of investment that needs to take place."

There is really no place for Hispanics in the community to go to learn more about proposed amendments, candidates and the electoral process, Hernandez said. The Spanish-language papers all come from Orlando, and television and radio tend to be more entertainment-oriented.

"A lot of people tell me they didn't know who to vote for, or why they should vote one way or another," Hernandez said. "They're afraid to vote the wrong way and wind up hurting themselves."

He hopes his nonpartisan classes will help change that. The classes will start with the basics of municipal government in preparation for the October primary for the City Commission.

Hernandez said he also plans to cover state and national government structure, go over any proposed amendments that will be on the ballot in November and explain the electoral process.

"It's so different here," said Hernandez, who has lived in Deltona for 30 years.

Immigrants from the Caribbean and Latin America bring their own expectations and prejudices about politics. For example, Hernandez said, many Latin American immigrants come with the idea that their vote doesn't matter because they're accustomed to corrupt governments.

"That's the main problem," he said. "We have to educate them, tell them this is America; politicians aren't crooks."

In Puerto Rico, politics is "almost like a sport," said Zenaida Denizac, president of the Volusia County Hispanic Association.

"There is a lot of participation on the island. People will paint their houses to match their political party," she said. "Once they come here, it's a different picture. It's much more subdued, and it's hard to get them to get out and vote."

Confusing ballots and legal jargon also hinder the process, Denizac said.

"Even for an English speaker, it sometimes seems like you need a lawyer to understand the amendments on the ballot," she said. "It's much worse for someone who doesn't understand the language."

Still, Denizac hopes voter participation will increase.

"I think the classes should be expanded beyond Deltona," she said. "The numbers are there. I think we can make a difference and change politics if we put our minds to it."

Started in 1991, the league has concerned itself mostly with registering Hispanic voters. However, Hernandez said, registering people to vote doesn't mean they'll actually show up at the polls.

"I register people all the time," he said. "But you can't stop there; you've got to convince them to get out and vote."

Hernandez plans two classes a week, one in the afternoon and one in the evening, at the firehouse training room at Providence Road and Fort Smith Boulevard. Details: 386-860-2007.

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