Statewide, Latinos are still a small segment of Nebraska’s population. But in Columbus and Schuyler, their percentages are on par or higher than state and national averages.
In 2010, Nebraska was 9.2 percent Latino. Columbus and the U.S. were at 16.3 percent, and Schuyler was 65.4 percent.
With their population growing, Latinos also are becoming more prevalent in businesses and community organizations. But that hasn’t transferred to civic or government engagement.
Statewide, only one Latino name arises, Linda Guzman-Gonzalez, who is running for the Board of Governors for Western Community College.
In Platte County, no Latinos are running for elected office in any of the county, city, public power district or school board positions.
In Schuyler, there are two — Antonio Rodriguez is running for Schuyler City Council and Mynor Hernandez is running for a seat on the Schuyler Community Schools Board of Education.
Centro Hispano executive director Karen Gomez said one reason why few Latinos seek elected office in Nebraska is because the population is relatively new here.
“I think we’re not ready yet,” said Gomez. “We need to have access to training because the system, the political system, the government system, is very complicated to understand.”
Comite Latino founder Victor Lopez said that complexity, coupled with a language barrier, prevents many Latino immigrants from getting involved.
“When I was in my hometown, when you vote you just think about the president or the county president,” said Lopez. “You don’t see the rest, like the city council, the school board.”
Centro Hispano is holding a day of information April 3 when it's partnering with other agencies to provide information to the Latino community on immigration, education and civic engagement. But Gomez said for someone to run for an elected office, they need much more.
“They need training and mentoring,” said Gomez. “It’s not that people don’t want to participate, it’s that they need ways and opportunities to do that.”
Comite Latino in Schuyler started as a group of Latino business leaders informally meeting to discuss how to get more involved. One of Comite’s goals is to provide training and support for Latinos interested in running for local office, like members Rodriguez and Hernandez.
“I have a child that goes to school here in town,” said Hernandez, who is running for the school board. “It’s a way for my voice to be heard and to share some of the changes that I’d like to see in our school.”
Juan Sandoval, Hispanic business center director of the Rural Enterprise Assistance Project, works with Latino business owners in Columbus and Schuyler. He said many Latinos bring a distrust of politicians and politics with them from their home countries.
“It is something that is in our culture. Most of our politicians, they do not listen to what we need in Mexico,” Sandoval said. “It’s part of our background.”
He also said many business owners are too busy trying to get their businesses off the ground to get involved. And for those who are more established, they need more encouragement from the wider community.
“They don’t feel they are accepted yet,” said Sandoval. “Sometimes it’s good if they are approached by the organization or city and asked why they aren’t running for the board.”
Comite Latino is also working to get more of the broader Latino community involved in civics and education. In 2012, they handed out fliers at Cargill and area churches on how to register to vote, and this year they’re going door-to-door helping people register.
They’ve also worked with Schuyler Community Schools to educate parents on the importance of parent-teacher conferences and being more involved with their children’s education.
Comite treasurer Javier Arizmendi said for many parents, that level of involvement was not expected in their home country.
“A lot of parents here coming from our country, we think, ‘OK, so teachers, they can do their job and I will do my job,'" he said. "'My kids, they can go to school and the teachers can take care of them.' And (here) it doesn’t work that way.”
One of the changes he’s seeing that explains the growing interest in local government is that more Latinos are staying in Schuyler longer.
“Before, people would just come to work and work and go back to their countries,” he said. “Now more people want to live in the community and know more about the community. And that’s why I think now people want to know how they can participate.”
And Latinos who have grown up in the United States are starting to show an interest in getting more involved.
“Now we’re seeing the second generation, who are able to vote, speak, read and be in American culture,” said Lopez. “That’s changing a lot from when Latinos were starting to come to this area.”
At the heart of the issue in Columbus and Schuyler is the need for better communication between communities, which Lopez said is Comite Latino’s central goal.
“Our purpose, more than anything else, is to have a bridge with everyone in town and have a more harmonic life,” he said.