LAKEWOOD — Juan Gonzalez is an honors student at Lakewood Middle School, a violinist who plans to study theology or architecture at Harvard University.
An impressive public speaker at age 13, Gonzalez addressed several hundred people at a Board of Education meeting about school concerns with gangs.
“I want to become a citizen and have the same rights as anyone to achieve my dream,” he said during an interview on the last day of the school year.
Gonzalez, who was born in Puebla, Mexico, is a member of group here reflecting a national trend: an emerging Hispanic populace which could wield considerable political and cultural influence in the relatively near future.
The 2010 Census revealed the Hispanic population here surged over the past decade, from 9,000 to 16,000 — a 78 percent increase. Lakewood’s population according to the 2010 Census was 92,843, edging Toms River as Ocean County’s largest municipality.
Nationally, Hispanics account for more than half of nation’s growth in past decade, according to the census results released in March. The Census Bureau predicts that the nation will be one quarter Hispanic by 2050.
Lakewood’s Hispanic residents are mostly Mexican, also a reflection of the nation’s demographic makeup, according to the Pew Research Center.
The majority of the children in Lakewood are educated in private Orthodox Jewish schools, but in the public school district the 5,500-student enrollment is predominantly Hispanic, said Puerto Rican-born Annette Maldonado, Lakewood Middle School principal.
The bulk of the membership of the Parent Teacher Organization is of Mexican descent and speaks only Spanish. The school board provided at one meeting a Spanish translator through whom parents spoke.
Many Hispanic students are children of immigrant parents who entered the country legally; entered legally but remained after their visas expired; or entered illegally. No matter the status of the parents, their children born in this country are U.S. citizens, noted Monica Guerrero, director of the Latino Community Connection, a for-profit business.
Roots of a voting bloc
“Most Hispanics I know do hard labor,’’ said Gonzalez, the honors student. “I want to have a good life.”
When he becomes a citizen — like his classmates who were born here — Gonzalez will gain the right to vote. He doesn’t have political aspirations but he wants to be like the “righteous leader” cited in the Bible’s Book of Proverbs, he said.
These children of Hispanic parents will be voting by the next census, said Mayor Menashe Miller, and become a formidable voting bloc along with the Orthodox Jewish and senior communities.“This is the land of the free and the home of the brave. I think it is fantastic that these children will grow up and become voters,” Miller said.
“And the mosaic of the Township Committee should be a representation of who is in the town,” Miller said.
A majority Hispanic students in the middle school and especially the elementary school were born here, Maldonado said. In civics class students learn about citizen duties and are preparing to become voting residents, Maldonado said.
“They are being educated to take a more active stance,” Maldonado said.
In a broader view, the recent trip by President Barack Obama to Puerto Rico shows that the Hispanic vote is sought-after, said Kathryn Quinn-Sanchez, 41, chairwoman of world languages and cultures at Georgian Court University.
“But it will take another generation to be a voting bloc,” Quinn Sanchez said.
And the Hispanic vote is not monolithic, Quinn-Sanchez said. There are a dozen nationalities grouped under the umbrella term of Hispanic, she said. Though categorized as the same, members of the different nationalities do not feel the same “homogeneity as, say, a group of senior citizens would,” Quinn-Sanchez said.
Role of education
Hispanic parents “have a dream for their children to be educated,” said Jose, a 30-year-old day laborer man who declined to give a last name.
And educators in the school district are intent on getting the students out of the mindset of staying within the four corners of their community and to see the possibilities and power in their future, Maldonado said.
When children are exposed to the world of higher education they can see beyond their parent’s walls, Maldonado said.
This past year middle school children visited colleges and universities, she said.
“They heard things like ‘yes, you can.’ They don’t hear that at home because the knowledge is not there” on how to work toward greater achievements, Maldonado said.
What the parents do know, though, is hard work, she said.
Maldonado said she hopes that the children will be politicians helping their community to represent the people of Lakewood.
Already, said Guerrero of the Latino Community Connection, Hispanic residents feel more confident about their place in the community and are working hard to show their best side.