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Hispanics not a big force in local politics
Latinos, other ethnicities fight apathy and education in getting politically charged
St. Michael Catholic Church Pastor Jaime Barona leads the congregation from the church sanctuary following Sunday’s Mass in Gainesville. Local Hispanics have not been very politically active.

When it comes to voting in local elections, Jesus Montes de Oca is the typical young adult.

At 19, Montes de Oca does not pay much attention to what's going on in local politics.

"It's like ‘whatever,' you know?" he said, taking a break from a service at St. Michael Catholic Church in Gainesville Sunday to smoke a cigarette.

Politics, in general, isn't a subject he and his friends discuss, he said.

Voter apathy occurs across all ethnicities.

"In my opinion, we're most interested in jobs and having a job, a full-time job, than being involved in elections and stuff like that," said Gerardo Damiam, a 20-year-old who is legally qualified to vote in Gainesville, before attending Mass Sunday.

Damiam conceded, however, that Latinos' involvement in politics might change policy geared toward immigrants and the Latino community.

"If we are more interested in the elections, we will have better chances. We'll have better treatment," he said.

If the number of Latinos over the age of 18 recorded by the 2010 census in Gainesville matched the number of registered Latino voters, there is no doubt that the Latino community could have a serious impact on local elections.

But even though Latinos make up the majority of the accounted-for population in two Gainesville wards, there are no Latino elected officials in Gainesville.

Estimates of Latino registered voters are also remarkably low in the city.

Currently, Latinos make up 58.4 percent of the voting-age population in Gainesville's Ward 3; in Ward 4, Latinos make up 57.07 percent of the voting-age population.

The current districts were drawn before the influx of immigrants over the last decade. As they stand, the city's wards are overpopulated and district lines are destined to change in the next year.

A proposed ward map for the city, realigning the city's district lines with the new population estimates, has one district dominated by Latinos.

Under the plan, which has already been adopted by the City Council and awaits approval from the U.S. Department of Justice, 55.17 percent of the voting age population in Ward 5 would be Latino.

If it passes Justice Department muster, it would be Gainesville's first majority Latino district drawn as such.

But even with Latinos in the majority or plurality, the voting population in most Gainesville districts is likely to continue to be dominated by whites (except in Ward 3, where black voters would make up about 42 percent of the voting population under the new maps).

While Ward 5 will be a majority Latino district under the new ward maps, the Latino population would likely make up less than 18 percent of the registered voters there.

One hindrance to Latino voting power is that a number of Latino residents who are old enough to vote in Gainesville can't because of immigration status. One must be a citizen to vote.

It's the problem Arturo Corso, a Gainesville attorney who once ran for state Senate, ran into in 2006 when he became the first Latino political candidate in Hall County.

"I remember thousands of people getting excited, calling the office, contacting me by email, telephone letters - enthusiastic support for my campaign," Corso said. "I started to get excited. I said ‘look, you know, if there's this much interest and this much support, maybe I really have a chance,' even though I was running as a Democrat."

But Corso learned that, despite the huge numbers of Latinos in Hall County who supported him, few were eligible to vote. Even fewer were registered to do so.

Even the Latino citizens who are old enough to vote have not yet made a mark on local elections.

Some of that is due to apathy. But like other segments of the population, it's nearly impossible to tell all the reasons why a certain group is not involved.

"Hispanics are not one bloc," said the Rev. Jaime Barona of St. Michael Catholic Church. "Hispanics are many different little blocs... They live their lives. They don't have the willingness or the understanding to get involved in politics."

Barona, as a pastor, does not preach political activism or involvement, though he says Latinos' involvement in politics would give them more influence over decisions in government.

Even though Jose Franco is a citizen of the United States, he does not vote. Nor does he pay much attention to politics.

Franco, who said he came to Gainesville from Mexico 14 years ago, has a lingering distrust of government from his experiences in Mexico.

"Even if I know that this here is different, I don't think that I'm going to be able to make a difference,' Franco said.

But also, Franco said he's just not politically literate yet.

"I am just beginning right now to understand my surroundings, and I am just right now better understanding everything and how everything works through education," Franco said.

The key to Latinos political involvement will be education, said Franco, who just received his GED.

As proof of his theory, Franco notes that his school-aged daughters seem to know more than him about national politics.

He specifically cites how, in 2008 when Barack Obama was a presidential candidate, his teenaged daughter kept up with the campaign and relayed the details to him.

As Latinos continue to put down roots in Gainesville and reach higher levels of education, Franco believes they will one day be a major part of the local voting populace.

"They need to be educated," Franco said. "If they are not educated, they are not going to be able to express themselves in the right way and they are not going to be able to do more with the people that do not really understand (our problems)."

Brenda Arias, a 16-year-old Dawsonville resident who attends church in Gainesville, has a similar opinion.

Arias said she sees a difference between her parents and her friends' parents — some of whom are in the country illegally — and her peers who go to school and who are more involved in politics and issues of social justice.

"We grew up here ... our first language would be, in some of us, English, so we consider ourselves more American sometimes," said Arias.

Perhaps when they are old enough to vote, the numbers of Latino voters will change the political scene on a local, state and national level, she said.

"Now, more Hispanics are attending college, so maybe one day, you'll see a Hispanic governor, a Hispanic Senate," said Arias.