| Michelle Roche moved from Caracas, Venezuela, to New York City
in January 2006, leaving behind tropical temperatures and a heated
political climate, but not her interest in developments there.
"I think interest in the country for Venezuelans will always
be there," the 27 year old said. "You will see us all
watching CNN en Español to see what is going on."
first being elected in 1998, Hugo Chavez, the charismatic former
paratrooper and self-styled revolutionary, has thrust Venezuela
into a major role in the hemisphere and his re-election in December
will likely keep Roche's birthplace in the news.
Roche and other young Latinos living in the United States sometimes
have found themselves the targets for questions, criticisms or
compliments concerning the recent shift to the left in Latin American
politics from Americans seeking to better understand a region
in the midst of change. Since December 2005, Bolivia, Brazil,
Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela have elected or
re-elected left-leaning presidents.
Roche, a Chavez critic, argues the media give a false impression
of life under his leadership.
"Chavez has become the new bumper sticker for the left,"
said Roche, a self-described subscriber to the principles of social
justice. "Especially here in the United States and New York,
the confrontations are seen as black and white, rich and poor."
Roche admits that as a light-skinned, college-educated child
of upper-middle-class parents, she does not fit the profile of
a Chavez supporter. Americans sympathetic to Chavez often cite
her appearance in discounting her criticisms, she said.
"The big argument they have with me is that I am white and
I don't look like the Latin stereotype," said Roche. "They
say I was socially removed."
The politics of race and status
Susan Cruz, director of Sin Fronteras, an organization dedicated
to rehabilitating teenage gang members in California and Central
America, sees race as the principal determinant in how young Latino-Americans
judge leaders such as Chavez.
"Of the factors contributing to political affiliations,
first and foremost is skin color," she said. "The politics
of color are very important throughout Latin America and people
with darker skin tend to sympathize more with Chavez."
The majority of Sin Fronteras' Latino patrons -- youths predominantly
descended from poor, indigenous communities -- identify with Latin
"The kids have leftist tendencies, not necessarily because
they understand the philosophies or know who Karl Marx is,"
Cruz said. "What they do grasp is that these are the only
people who stand up -- supposedly -- for those who have nothing,
for people who are underrepresented. It's a Romantic view."
She says many of the young Salvadorians she works with have a
clear bias in favor of leftist groups like the Farabundo Marti
National Liberation Front (FMLN is the Spanish acronym).
"The FMLN has done nothing for the youth of El Salvador,
but the loyalties that these kids maintain toward these leftist
parties is a conscious decision to choose the lesser of two evils,"
Cruz said. "One thing we try to educate them on is that they
don't have to settle."
Leaders as symbols
The lack of opportunities for youth in El Salvador prompted
Heverth Castellon's parents to move his family to California in
2000. Now living in South Carolina, Castellon, 21, has become
a proponent for change in El Salvador.
"In El Salvador ... we use the dollar while the Salvadorian
currency is not used," he said. "When you see this,
you feel that your country has converted into the puppet of another
country and that people in the government are permitting all of
Castellon wishes Salvadorian politicians would exert more autonomy
from American influence and admires regional leaders who do.
"One thing that I favor about Che Guevara, Chavez and other
people like that is they govern in their own ways," Castellon
Although many young Latinos revere Chavez, Cruz said, stop short
of hero worship.
"With Chavez, he's already getting to the point of being
in power for long enough that people are starting to get concerned,"
she said. "One of the things that we talk about with these
kids is how the oppressed can one day be the oppressors."
Gauging young Latino attitudes
Louis DeSipio, an associate professor of political science at
the University of California Irvine, suspects a disproportionate
number of young Latinos in the U.S. -- as compared to their generational
peers south of the Rio Grande -- would oppose the rise of the
left in Latin America. DeSipio has found most of those who emigrated
to the US come from the middle and upper classes, while the lower
classes formed the bases for the recent electoral victories of
Chavez, Ecuador's Rafael Correa and Bolivia's Evo Morales, among
"[Migration] tends to be more of a wealthy thing, so you're
more likely to get people in the opposition than people supportive
of the change," said DeSipio, who monitors civic and political
participation among immigrant communities.
But gauging the perceptions of Latinos in the United States --
particularly Latinos in their twenties or late teens -- on the
leftward shift in Latin America would require a survey with many
"careful measurements" taken within the past 10 to 12
months, according to Pew Hispanic Center director Roberto Suro.
"I can tell you flatly, nobody knows," he said.
All conversations on correlations between Latino-American youth
and politics in their countries of origin or heritage should begin
with the assumption that "the level of knowledge about Latin
America in general is not very detailed," Suro said.
A generation more removed
Ildemar Cerruto, 19, was born in La Paz, Bolivia, which elected
Morales as president in 2005. Having lived in Gaithersburg, Md.,
for nearly 18 years, Cerruto largely ignores current events in
"Other friends will bring up Bolivia. They will say, 'what's
up with your president?'" said Cerruto. "Normally, I
don't care, because I'm not really interested in politics."
Still, Cerruto resents what he perceives as negative attention
begot by Morales. Morales' appearance -- he is Bolivia's first
indigenous president -- is one reason for the distaste.
"You know how in the US you have rednecks? Well [Morales]
is like the Bolivian equivalent of a redneck," he said. "All
of our presidents, they don't look that way."
Mary Waters, a Harvard University sociology professor specializing
in the formation of racial and ethnic identity among the children
of immigrants, said children's political views typically correspond
to those of their parents.
"Most of the second generation tends not to be interested
in the politics of their parents' home countries," Waters
said. "As much as they do care about politics, it does tend
to pertain to what their parents think."
Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush, editor of El Diario La Prensa, the
largest Spanish-language daily in New York City, thinks times
"This generation has new ideas, they are more critical,"
said Vourvoulias-Bush, previously a research associate for the
Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan global affairs think
tank. "Generally this generation in the United States and
in Latin America, they question the thoughts and ideologies of
their older brothers and parents more."
-- By Josh Miller, Generation Next