This Women's History Month brings much to celebrate for Latinas in the United States.
Not only do we have a strong legacy of Latinas involved in movements for positive change, we also have a new generation of Latinas who are speaking up today for racial equity and serving as role models for young people.
In the last few decades, the U.S. Latino population has become extremely diverse. Latinos can be fifth-generation Texans or new immigrants with African, indigenous, Asian and European ancestry. We are young, middle-aged and old, but we all have one unifying thread -- an appreciation of our roots and a desire to build better lives for ourselves and our community.
Latinas are also making their mark in the most powerful halls of this nation. Seven Latinas have been elected to Congress, and even though they make up only 1.6 percent of all congressional representatives, they have opened an important door for others to follow.
Hispanic women total almost 7 percent of the U.S. population, according to the census. In 2004, 8.2 million Latinas held U.S. citizenships, of which 60 percent (5 million) registered to vote. And of the eligible Latina voting-age population, 50 percent voted in the 2004 presidential elections, according to Hispanic Business Magazine.
With this clout, Latina leaders are paving the way for young girls.
Just like Dolores Huerta did. Huerta, a co-founder of the United Farm Workers union, continues to travel the country and the world in defense of rural workers' rights.
And like Linda Chavez-Thompson continues to do. She's the executive vice president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and the highest-ranking woman in the labor movement.
Salma Hayek, an actor and movie producer, supports the ONE Campaign, which helps combat global AIDS and extreme poverty, and she donates time and money for domestic abuse victims in Mexico. She has also been influential in advocating for Latinos to gain entrance through the doors of Hollywood.
Sadly, many young Latina women struggle to stay in school. Too many fall into the pattern of joining the workforce at below-minimum wage jobs or entering marriages while still in their teens. They also struggle against pressures to quit school to stay at home to care for younger siblings while their parents work.
Fortunately, they now have enough role models to set their sights higher.
We have the numbers, we are voting and we are starting to have more and more public leaders who reflect our realities.
We now have to focus on an approach that increases our high school and college graduation rates and encourages more young girls and women to run for office at all levels of government.
This is the legacy that we can continue celebrating every Women's History Month.
Ana Perez is director of the Latin American Program at Global Exchange, an international human rights group based in San Francisco (www.globalexchange.org). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.