The group of senators, members of the Supreme Court and bevy of attorneys who gathered in the Lory Student Center to listen and cheer on the speaker of the house weren’t even old enough to vote.
Speaker Andres Carrera had these words for the enthusiastic group of high school students: “You are tough, and you are smart. But I want you to remember just one thing – one thing from the House of Representatives. It’s that you are Latino.”
The gathering was the 100th session of the Lorenzo De Zavala Youth Legislative Session, known as LDZ, during which high school sophomores and juniors from Mexico, Panama, Italy and all over the U.S. assembled at CSU from June 22 through Sunday to participate in a “rigorous process that is structured into a legislative session,” said Hector H. Lopez, education director of this session.
Students create caucuses, elect officials, and form governments. Once governments are formed, they put forth ideas in resolution format.
Brainchild of the National Hispanic Institute, the LDZ aims to gather the “best and brightest students” and immerse them in “the issues that are affecting Latinos daily,” said Lopez.
“When students leave their Latino communities for college they often leave behind their culture and Latino issues as well,” said Gloria de Leon, founder of the institute.
De Leon and husband, Ernesto Nieto, founded the institute in 1979 to immerse college-bound Hispanic students in the Latino community so they will stay connected, bringing leadership abilities back to their communities and benefiting the world.
Lorenzo de Zavala was a Mexican hero of the Texas revolution and the first vice president of the Republic of Texas.
“At a young age he had a big impact,” de Leon said. “You don’t have to wait until you are older to have an impact. You can have a voice now.”
Secretary of State Roman Gonzalez launched the LDZ with a two-day general session designed to empower students to think for themselves and take leadership roles. Gonzalez studies philosophy at Brown University.
Following the general session, students worked with peer counselors, “who create a guided process, but the students do it all,” said Sarah Martinez, an LDZ senior counselor and junior communication studies major at CSU.
“There is no program like it in the world,” said Martinez, an LDZ graduate. “I learned a lot about myself. It is worth it to see how much they’ve matured in a week and to see how powerful they’ve become. It prepares them for life.”
This group of 138 students produced over 200 resolutions and ultimately passed three that best represented the week’s session, the first being “to stay together and create a network for moving these ideas forward and out into the world,” including promoting awareness of the widespread incidence of diabetes.
“I think what we all learned is that there is power in ideas and it doesn’t matter whether you are Latino from the United States or from as far away as Panama, which is considered a third world country,” Lopez said to the gathered session, referring to the delegation of 26 students from Colegio San Agustin high school in Panama.
“The Panamanians had no preconceived notion of being Latino so the U.S.-born Latinos saw their leadership and began no longer thinking of themselves as just Latino, but as citizens of the U.S,” Lopez said.
Claudia Juarez, from Panama, made history as the first international student to receive the event’s highest honor. She was honored as governor of the session.
The Panamanians sang their school anthem amid tears and hugs, before departing the awards ceremony for a midnight flight home.
As de Leon announced the names of nominees and winners, each student walked on stage to accept awards such as best debater in the senate or most distinguished representative and the theater rung with the roar of student cheers.
Awards are based on the number of points you accrue through the week and reflect “the respect of your peers and your community and the hard work,” de Leon said.
Parents Lita and Steve Aragon from Austin, Texas, witnessed their son Steven’s acceptance of the Ricky Miranda Award, established in honor of a late alumni who “was a go-getter student that would never give up,” Lopez said.
“I’m very impressed with the university,” Steve Aragon said.
The Aragons said the program was a lot of hard work for their son but “it’s opened up options for him that he didn’t realize before.”
De Leon said LDZ graduates have become judges, mayors and city council members. The program goal, however, is not to get kids into politics, but “community equity building.”
“It’s pretty intense. It makes you learn about who you are,” Martinez said. “Tears have been shed this week, but mostly mountains have been overcome.”
Staff writer Shari Blackman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.