AUSTIN -- In a South by Southwest ballroom with rows and rows of chairs set up for Tuesday’s Interactive talk about young Latino voters featuring actress America Ferrera, most of the chairs remained empty.
The talk, which also included Voto Latino CEO and President Maria Teresa Kumar, focused on the ever-growing young Latino population and their lack of participation in the voting process.
During the 2012 presidential election, only 48 percent of eligible Latino voters turned out to the polls, according to the Pew Research Center.
When Ferrera walked onto the stage, she immediately pointed out the “elephant in the room."
“It’s not a packed house, it’s important to acknowledge that,” Ferrera said. “This is the level of interest in this conversation among the many conversations happening right now.”
It’s a conversation that involves 27 million Latinos eligible to vote.
“There’s this sleeping giant of a community, and we’re not showing up,” Ferrera said. “Does it really matter who gets elected this year if we’re not showing up and holding those people accountable for making the decisions that impact our lives?”
This wasn't Ferrera's first visit to Austin to speak up for Latinos.
Back in 2013, she got on a plane and headed to the capital of Texas after she discovered on Twitter that a group at the University of Texas was planning to host a “Catch an Illegal Immigrant” game on campus for a reward of a Jamba Juice certificate.
UT suddenly had “a lot of people on campus feeling attacked and unsafe,” Ferrera said.
She arrived on campus and, along with Voto Latino, organized a large rally to speak against the game. The game never happened, but the controversy left her with a bad taste in her mouth.
“We’re not having a conversation on a national level – not only about how does this affect young brown students and how does it make them feel, but what is this engendering in Americans? Why are we going backwards?” Ferrera said.
Earlier in the talk, Kumar of Voto Latino said that in the last 10 years, the nation has seen a spike in hate crimes directed toward the Latino population.
Kumar flipped to a photo of a rally. One of the protesters in the photo held up a poster picturing Andy Lopez, a 13-year-old boy who was shot dead in 2013 by police officers after he was seen walking around in broad daylight with a BB gun.
Going forward, Ferrera and Voto Latino hope to improve the national sentiment about Latinos and get Latino voters to the polls to help put representative officials in positions of decision-making.
Because officials are not representative of the Latino population and do not share their perspective on issues such as immigration, Kumar said a record rate of deportation has occurred in the last 10 years.
“Under the Obama Administration alone, we’ve had two million deported – separated from their families and loved ones,” Ferrara said.
Often, the 27 million eligible voters Voto Latino and Ferrera are reaching out to are first-generation Americans.
These young Latinos are navigating the United States for their parents because they frequently are the only members of the family who know how to speak English.
“They are negotiating on behalf of their parents at doctor’s offices, translating leases and, every once in a while, negotiating on their behalf in parent-teacher conferences,” Kumar said.
Kumar then recalled an experience within the emergency room recently. She had taken her son to have his toe fixed when she heard a young Latino family trying to get medical care.
"I could hear a little girl about two rooms down,” Kumar said. “She was translating for her mother that her baby brother – who couldn’t have been more than six- or seven-months-old because I could hear him crying – needed an MRI. She was nine.”
Kumar said her organization attempts to reach out and inform potential Latino voters because many young Latinos are unsure of how to navigate the political process.
Voto Latino used the SXSW talk to launch its new app, VoterPal. Intended to cut the time spent to fill out a paper voting application, the app allows people to scan their ID to register to vote.
Ferrera said the Latino vote shouldn't just matter to Latinos.
"It's not a Latino issue that Latinos vote. It's an American issue," Ferrara said.