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CEPEDA: Latinos have challenge to take up bigger roles in US

When the U.S. Census Bureau released its population estimates from the nation's 2010 headcount, Hispanics across the country rejoiced in the power of their numbers.

The 50.5 million Latinos accounted for 56 percent of the nation's growth -- mostly from births, not immigration -- between 2000 to 2010. Adult Hispanics are now one in every six Americans, and almost one in every four children is Hispanic. Now the largest minority group, Latinos are well on their way to comprising one-third of the U.S. population in 2050.

But as every "Spider-Man" fan knows, with great power comes great responsibility. And this is no less true for a community on the cusp of carving out its part in American history than it is for a crime-fighter with spider powers.

Latinos stand at a crucial juncture: They could continue to endure multigenerational poverty, a general lack of political power, dismal graduation rates and too-few professional opportunities while being erroneously thought of as a population of unassimilated carpetbaggers.

Or they could put their eye-popping statistics to the task of taking their rightful place in mainstream America as the most recent wave of culturally similar people, actively contributing their strengths, values and work ethic to continue making this country great.

In other words, instead of interpreting the population figures as an automatic guarantee of future political clout or demographic respect, the Latino community should consider them a call to action.

It won't be easy -- there is contempt and discrimination on many fronts, not to mention limited federal and state resources for implementing policies to help boost this booming population's achievements.

The challenges are many, but the Latino community is young, energetic and fundamentally aware that changing the way others see it today will have a long-term, far-reaching impact on the entire nation. Already, some Latinos are working toward throwing off the common archetypes -- immigrant victims, gang members, non-English-speaking blue-collar workers -- in favor of more pedestrian roles as soccer moms, executives, voters, legislators and mentors.

However, reaching a critical mass will require leadership and personal responsibility from all of the burgeoning Latino middle class. Government agencies and nonprofit organizations already are straining to meet the needs of Latinos in learning English, obtaining legal and medical services, and navigating the U.S. educational system from kindergarten through college. They need help.

It will be a hard burden to shoulder. According to a report by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University, in 2008 less than one in five Latino families -- 18 percent -- had the combination of assets, education, income and health insurance to ensure middle-class financial security, and as many as 41 percent of them were in danger of slipping out of the middle class. Those percentages have surely taken a hit since the Great Recession, but those who are still holding on must answer the call to serve their struggling communities.

Yet who better to help those trying to climb social-class ladders than middle-class Latinos who have already attained a little piece of the American Dream?

Regardless of whether they speak Spanish or not, Hispanics are qualified to help others perfect their English language skills, talk to high school students about the pleasures of a traditional college experience, or join the boards of their local school, library or arts organization. They can go further by getting engaged in the political process or even just explain its value to a community that's rarely used this type of power.

I'm not going to pretend that "giving back" is not time-consuming, heart-wrenching, sometimes expensive and always demanding. But once you start, it quickly becomes clear just how dearly every community with a Latino population needs student mentors, senior-citizen advocates, and just plain-old strong bodies and strong minds. Those hands and brains are essential to helping school and community organizations do everything from encouraging healthy lifestyles to advocating for safe and affordable housing.

Quick, glamorous and easy? Absolutely not, but it's a great opportunity. Latinos' success in this country, and much of America's prosperity, rests squarely in their own hands.

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at ejc@estherjcepeda.com.