03/21/2011 02:14 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Latino Education Imperative

I thrust my fist into the sky reading Max Benavides's article, "The #Hashtag Generation: Young Latinos and America's Future," screaming yes to his bold call for a much-needed Latino imperative in this country to deal with the shameful education crisis among Hispanic kids. Finally, this catastrophe is being framed as an American crisis and not just marginalized as a "brown" issue! Bravo! Now maybe we can begin doing something to turn this catastrophe around, instead of dismissing it as "that lesser community's blight" and not the whole of America's.

That's the wake up call to all of us -- to realize that this exploding Latino demographic which is the fastest growing young population in the country holds the critical key to our economic future.

We as a nation have ignored and marginalized this community's challenges for so long as if they are just part of an unfixable, inherent reality of who we are. We have looked upon the crisis in education in the Latin community as if it's someone else's cultural baggage. It is not. We are your community. We are America -- we are her legitimate sons and daughters on whom the future rests -- and we are in trouble. We have specific dynamics that need serious attention. We are not a parasite on the body of this nation. We are part of the very heart and soul of tomorrow.

We must address our multicultural dynamics in a whole new way in this country. It is not "us against them!" We are part of the "we." Comprende? If we can't rise to a more aware consciousness of an all-inclusive humanity, then think of it this way, which is the only way so much of the power base in the country responds: This is business, global business. If we don't do something right now to ensure more of our kids graduate with degrees over the next ten years, we will not have the highly skilled, educated workforce we need to compete in a global economy! Period.

The stats say it all and cast the same frightening projection: By 2020, Latinos are expected to represent close to 25 percent of the country's 18-to-29-year-old population.

In ten years, nearly ten million Latinos will be 15 to 24 years of age, accounting for nearly a quarter of the total US college-age population.

In key states like California, Texas and Florida, the Hispanic population is even bigger, as much as 40 percent of the population and growing.

But only 19% of Latino kids are graduating with an Associate of Arts degree, and only 12% with a Bachelor of Arts degree. This compared to 39% of whites, 29% of Blacks and 59% of Asians.

If we are not graduating our fastest-growing young population, who will fill the demand for highly skilled, educated labor? And if they are all unemployed, young and restless in a bankrupt state collapsing further into spiral with no jobs to be had, how does that bode for a robust economic America in the future?

This is not a new revelation. We've known this for a long time, but now the sirens are sounding. All experts warn we have ten years to right this ship or else. Here's the question: Will we heed the warnings or be like New Orleans and ignore the cries of engineers who warned a city would be lost if we didn't invest in strengthening the levies? We didn't listen. The cost outweighed the threat, they said. They were wrong. We lost a city and worst of all, we lost lives and livelihoods.

We must realize that educating our Latino youth is not just a "brown issue," any more than New Orleans was only a "black issue" or merely the crisis of one isolated state.

This is a very mainstream American crisis, and a big economic one. The very future of California and many states in the union depends on how fast we wake up and take this on.

As a Mexican-American woman in business, a journalist, a mother of a pre-school Latina daughter, and a long-time activist in the Hispanic community, I am intent on raising my voice on this issue, and hope others will too.

I have long loathed the marginalization of the youth in our community as unjust, racist and robbing the nation of promoting some of its greatest potential, not to mention the lack of policy initiatives that might have helped if not dismissed as "why bother?" proposals. There is so much stigmatization and distorted facts attached to our kids that are simply bigoted and wrong. This is an issue often lumped in with immigration reform debate, as if the majority of our kids are illegal. Less than two percent of kids in higher education are undocumented. Worse, we are summed up as simply "not bright like the Asians" who "understand the value of education."

Anyone who truly knows the Hispanic community, our families, the kids and the core of our dreams knows that education, a strong work ethic, and a desire to contribute to society and our families are our greatest virtues.

I come from a family of teachers who have mostly taught Latino kids from high school to university. We see the challenges these kids face for a variety of reasons ranging from poverty, to being the first in their families to go to college, to not knowing how to navigate the system.

But not valuing education or not being capable could not be further from the truth, and only promotes a distorted stereotype that hurts our kids, as well as our future.

There are so many amazing success stories we never hear of. We need to hear more of them so we can replicate them, implement the systems that are working that allow us to paint a more accurate portrait of whom we are in America, and can be.

I am the spokesperson for an organization called "Excellencia in Education" that identifies institutions of higher learning across this country that are helping our kids wave diplomas in the air in growing numbers. Excellencia's core mission is to help replicate these winning programs nationwide.

I felt that I had to be a part of this initiative of targeting solutions rather than wallowing in the problems, as states spiral into catastrophe. Excellencia gets it that we as a nation must put Latino education at the top of the national agenda and start finding real solutions, and not just continue to talk about it as an ethnic issue.

Time is of the essence. Especially with this economy. It's our kids who are hardest hit. Budget cuts, rising tuition costs and slashes in student aid can all have severe ramifications for our kids and their ability to stay in school. The failure of the Dream Act and policies like it that might help our kids overcome dynamics specific to our community hurts us further.

A new study about California's future workforce asked if there will be enough graduates to meet the demands of a more sophisticated workforce over the next years. The study says it plain and clear: The future of California's economy depends on Latinos graduating from college. We are the silver lining. The Latino population in the workforce will grow from 29% this next decade to 40%, and only 12% are projected to have college degrees.

If we don't do something starting right now, California will retain its dismal 49th-place national ranking of high school graduates who go on to college, and worse, the 8th largest economy in the world will fall further into failure as the crisis worsens.

That's one state. Remember the levies. Remember New Orleans. Our economic future depends on it.

Latino kids hold our economic fate in their hands. It is America's responsibility to make sure those hands hold diplomas!