Francisco Espericueta is a busy man these days. Besides attending college full time at Willamette University and Chemeketa Community College under the dual enrollment program, he also works 55-60 hours a week at the Mano a Mano Family Center for Latino youth in Salem. Latinos Unidos Siempre (Latinos United Forever) is a program run by youth in an effort to “empower youth to take leadership roles in the community, to advocate for social and political change, and to combat racist stereotypes and discrimination through grassroots organizing.”

To realize this mission, LUS addresses community concerns such as drop-out rates, teen pregnancy, gang awareness, police harassment, accessibility of higher education and immigration reform. The organization has worked closely with local middle schools.

Espericueta lived in San Diego when he was a boy but his family moved to Oregon when his sister married and her husband’s stepfather offered his son a chance to run his own auto shop.
“I was dragged up here by my mother. They took the fun out of my life,”  Espericueta said with a laugh. “I was not taking the right course. Where you grow up molds you.”

That fun included hanging out with gangs in his neighborhood. When he came to Oregon, Espericueta was bored and started to concentrate on school. He became more politically involved when social science teacher and activist Julio Simon took him under his wing and inspired the teenager.

“He saw potential in me and taught me that it is important to defend people and your culture,” Espericueta said. “Nowadays we’re all losing our culture, mostly because of the media, and it’s one of the main reasons I do what I do.”

LUS is part of a network of grassroots and community organizations that are trying to bring about immigration reform. They are focusing their efforts on passage of the federal Dream Act, which would allow undocumented immigrants who have been living and working or going to school for five years or more to apply for permanent U.S. residency.

At the local level LUS is supporting a bill similar to the federal Tuition Equity Act which would allow local undocumented workers to go to school and pay in-state tuition rates rather than out-of-state rates. The goal is to encourage greater educational opportunities for these immigrants as well as the Latino community at large.

“We want to open their eyes to the real world, not the world perceived by the media,” Espericueta said. “The media is a major force and they don’t tell the whole story. They show the effect, not the cause.”

Francisco is studying to become an attorney so that he will be an even greater asset to his community. Asked what motivates him to give so much of himself, Espericueta said, “My family, my future, but most importantly — my culture.”

Weekly meetings are conducted at the Family Center every Wednesday from 6 to 8 p.m. These meetings include presentations that cover everything from advice about college to current events as they relate to the Latino community. They also have fun team activities meant to develop leadership skills, and provide training on how to organize grassroots political efforts, how to speak to the media, how to work with computers and other areas of interest.

Mano a Mano Family Center is located at 2921 Saddle Club St. SE, Ste #1009. For more information or to get involved call LUS at (503) 315-2292 or (503) 315-2290 or visit www.myspace.com/lusyouth.org.