Soledad O'Brien brings "I am Latino in America" tour to Occidental


“Will Northwestern Mutual create a scholarship for first generation students?” a student asked in Thorne Hall Thursday evening during the Q&A session following journalist Soledad O’Brien’s “I Am Latino in America” event.

Her question was addressed to Luis Cachua, event sponsor Northwestern Mutual’s director of multicultural marketing strategy, and cut to the core of several of the issues that were raised during the panel discussion: financial concerns in the Latino community, the role of businesses in serving the Latino community and the college graduation rate.

O’Brien’s appearance at Occidental is her first announced stop in California on her nationwide “I Am Latino in America” tour.

The community leaders featured in the event shared their own roles in shaping the growing influence of Latinos in the U.S. and their hopes for continued empowerment of the community.

Grammy-nominated Trio Ellas opened the evening with the national anthem and a song in Spanish. Cachua and Occidental Trustee Hector de la Torre ’89 opened with speeches before O’Brien took control of the stage, beginning with statistics about Latinos in the U.S., then interviewing panelists.

Her first remarks energized the audience, who she engaged with the question: What do you say when you start a sentence with “Yo soy…?” She framed herself as a guiding voice in a community-wide conversation.

“This is the place where we get to drive the conversation … not Donald Trump,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien highlighted existing strengths belonging to Latinos. Their consumer buying power, which amounts to $1.5 trillion each year, allows them to steer the U.S. economy. Their voting power — they comprise 11 percent of all eligible voters, according to the Pew Research Center — means politicians fight for the Latino vote. Finally, their success in education is growing exponentially, having increased college enrollment by 201 percent between 1993 and 2013, which puts pressure on the U.S. education system to adapt to serve Latino students better.

She then began her interviews with fourteen different panelists on topics ranging from immigration and the American dream to political leadership, education and the entertainment industry.

Executive Director and CEO of Hispanas Organized for Political Equality Helen Torres spoke about voting trends. She pointed out that Latinos can sway the political framework of the U.S., but their voter turnout is low. She added her own twist to the saying, “as California goes, the nation goes.”

“As Latinos go, California goes, the nation will go,” Torres said.

Vice President of Academic Affairs Jorge Gonzalez spoke about education in Latino communities. Gonzalez highlighted the opportunity gap when students on one side of a city have textbooks and science labs provided by the school, while those on the other side are sharing textbooks and using outdated and poorly supplied labs.

Gonzalez also responded to the high dropout rate of Latino college students due to factors such as financial need and cultural gaps, calling for more support and preparation for minorities on college campuses.

Occidental seniors Karen Romero, Jorge Torres and Mari Peña then came to the stage and reiterated the situation of Latino students. Those who are immigrants themselves and/or first generation college students struggle to navigate college, according to Torres, but receive some guidance on finance and succeeding academically and socially from administrative groups and student organizations.

“I was lucky to have [the Multicultural Summer Institute],” Torres said. “That’s why I’m a senior now.”

Immigration and education advocate Julissa Arce defended immigrants who come to the United States for work.

“Nobody risks their life to cross a desert, to cross an ocean, to go on welfare,” Arce said.

On the subject of the entertainment industry, panelists commented on the persistent stereotyping they face from Hollywood executives. Actors, writers and activists Esai Morales, Cristela Alonzo and Rick Najera voiced their experiences in Hollywood. Each has been type-cast and struggled to convince the networks that there is an audience for more complicated Latino roles, both within and outside of the Latino and Spanish-speaking communities.

“We feel like the ugly stepchild,” Morales said.

Morales also talked about the disparity between what television advertisers want and the actual programming. Advertisements on major networks often feature Latinos, but the shows the advertisements fund do not. According to Morales, there is pressure from some advertisers for networks to better represent the demographics of their audiences.

An appearance by Black Eyed Peas musician and rapper Taboo, who also gave a half-hour performance after the discussion, further energized the audience. He talked about music as a cultural force, specifically referencing Black Eyed Peas’ intention behind the song “Where’s the Love,” which was a response to the global disunity following the 9/11 attacks.

“We asked the question: How can we strike a chord around the world and send a message that transcends language?” Taboo said.

Cachua’s response to the question about scholarships: He will personally create a scholarship with his own money, and Northwestern Mutual has internships it is eager to offer Latino students.