Out of the many speakers and sessions at El Pueblo’s 8th Annual Foro Latino, held last weekend on the North Carolina Central University campus, one message came through loud and clear: The sooner Hispanics are integrated fully into American institutions, the better not just for Hispanics, but for American society as a whole. From basic health care to worker protections to education (be it English as a Second Language or university level), drawing Latinos in to the social fabric is going to be paramount for North Carolina’s healthy economic development, and for fostering Latino leadership and coalition building between communities.

Froyd Nolasco delivered an unexpected message at a session on community organizing about the City of Raleigh’s programs for the Hispanic community: “Muchos caminos, pocos andantes”–many roads, few travelers. While many Latino immigrants do make use of the city’s English classes, soccer games and translation services, Nolasco says many of Wake County’s 40,000 Hispanics stay away–due, perhaps, to an intense work ethic, singularity of focus, or a mistrust of authorities. At the same time, he fervently countered the image of Mexican immigrants in the United States as “arboles sin raices”–trees without roots, who contribute to American society only their physical labor, while hearts and minds (and dinero) are continually wired back to Mexico.

As if to illustrate the point, Nolasco opened his talk with two national anthems played from a boom box: “The Star Spangled Banner,” followed by the “Himno Nacional Mexicano,” as he held up small flags representing the governments of North Carolina, the United States and Mexico. I don’t attend many baseball games, so it was strange to feel my patriotism called upon at a Latino Issues Forum, and that made me think. An air of perplexity resonated silently in the room, though most people, Hispanics and non-Hispanics, stood silently as I did for both. His point? “Pertenecemos aqui–we [Latinos] belong here,” Nolasco said, passionately encouraging both sides, Hispanic immigrants and the Anglo mainstream, to recognize and live up to this fundamental investment we already have in each other’s success.

The Foro’s keynote speaker, California congresswoman Hilda Solis, gave us more reasons to believe that this mutual investment can inspire to great heights. Solis became the first Latina elected to her state Senate in 1994, and she pioneered in-state tuition laws for California’s legal permanent residents. Texas, New York and Utah already have similar state laws, and Solis currently leads the fight in Congress to get a federal “DREAM Act” (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) into law nationwide. Her life story lends powerful credence to the idea that education can transform lives as well as create future leaders. Solis recalls that Hispanics were routinely channeled into vocational training at her high school, where the guidance counselor once told the future congresswoman’s mother: “I’m sorry Mrs. Solis, Hilda is not college material.” She showed him otherwise, returning 10 years later, not only with a college degree, but as a college recruiter, there to route more Hispanic kids like herself into higher education.

N.C. Senate Bill 987, introduced last week, may soon make affordable higher education accessible to the children of immigrants growing up in our state, as well. Esteban Echeverr’a, a lobbyist for Student Action with Farmworkers, offered a local example of the difference higher education can make in individual lives. Growing up in a family of migrant workers, Echeverr’a worked the fields down east for eight years before completing high school. When his Mexican-born father was naturalized in the last amnesty, it opened the door for Echeverr’a to attend Appalachian State University as a North Carolina resident. Accepted to NCCU Law School for the fall, he says his life would have turned out much differently had he not made it through the financial and legal hurdles into the American educational system.

“I probably would have dropped out of school. I wouldn’t have graduated ASU with honors. I wouldn’t be going to NCCU Law School in the fall,” Echeverr’a says. “People want to put numbers and figures on it, but you can’t measure the effects on one person’s life.”

Without affordable access to higher education, Echeverr’a says, the state’s minor Latino residents are less likely to complete high school, less likely to help expand North Carolina’s tax base through legitimate employment, less likely to help fill the state’s dire labor shortages for teachers, nurses, bilingual police officers and medical personnel. Those who want to help support “DREAM Act” legislation at the state and national levels are invited attend a Volunteer Day at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies on April 12, in preparation for a Legislative Day of Action on May 27 (more information at www.el.pueblo.org or www.saf-unite.org).