Q&A with Citizens in the Present co-editor Maria de los Angeles Torres

Maria de los Angeles Torres is professor of Latin American and Latino studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the co-editor of Citizens in the Present: Youth Civic Engagement in the Americas. We asked her some questions about the book.

Q: The book focuses on youth activism in three cities. What prompted your decision to focus on Chicago, Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro?

Maria de los Angeles Torres: Our first intention was to have an hemispheric perspective and a global cities perspective given that most young people in the world live in urban areas.

These cities have become arenas of intense political and social struggles around issues that directly affect the young people living, studying, and working in them. They are also stages on which national events unfold. In all three cities, young people have played important roles in key national political events. Chicago is home to Barack Obama, who was first elected to the state senate in 1996, rose to the U.S. Senate in 2006, and in 2008 became the first African American president of the United States. Young people played key a part in his campaign, leading to a generational change in electoral politics not seen in the past fifty years. In Rio, Luis Ignacio “Lula” da Silva, the head of the most significant progressive party in Brazil, Partido dos Trabalhadores, the Workers Party (PT), was elected president in 2002 after three previous unsuccessful attempts at that office, signaling a shift in national politics in favor of workers and the poor. And in 2000, Mexico’s electorate ended the rule of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), a political party that had been in power since the Mexican revolution of 1917. All three cities have been part of the political drama that has contributed to these changes and has marked a generation of young people.  We felt that as distinct as these cities were, their political histories and contemporary struggles made it reasonable to investigate the activism of their youth.  We were keenly aware that the differences in each city framed the ways in which young people were defined and engage.

Q: What are some similarities and differences that you discovered in comparing youth civic engagement in the three cities?

Torres: Initially we thought we would find more contrasts than similarities. But in fact we found more similarities. For instance, their paths to civic engagement were many. Some were invited to a meeting by peers, others by relatives, many by community organizers, and still others by teachers. Nevertheless, most had at least a parent, or a significant adult, who listened to them and gave them permission to think independently. As a result, they felt valued early on in life.

In all three cities schools were not always supportive indeed many of the young people felt they “lost” their rights when they entered school grounds. In contrast, community organizations in all three cities were safe zones that gave young people an opportunity to meet other committed peers. The organizations also gave them opportunities to learn political skills and to build social capital. Through community-based activities, they began to feel empowered as informed citizens.

Politics is often played out as a group process, and groups often are defined by social characteristics. Historically, many of those characteristics have been used to exclude certain groups from political communities. For the young people we interviewed, age was this kind of characteristic. Some felt they were being discriminated against, for other reasons, although those reasons differed from city to city. Class and race played an important part for some of the Brazilians. In Mexico City, young people had a strong sense of being “Mexicano,” even as they were keenly aware of the social identities that were lodged in distinct geographic communities. But it was in the United States that the sense of a political self was strongly connected with social identities. 

Q: Young people are predominantly viewed as apathetic and uninterested in politics despite the historical record that would suggest otherwise. Do you think the role young people play as social activists is not recognized enough?

Torres: Good news is the last to sell, no? Also, to recognize that young people can be responsible political actors means we have to open up our political spaces. This usually does not happen without social struggle.

Q: What did you learn from the actions of youth activists about the viability of traditional democratic practices in the Americas today?

Torres: Democracy has many meanings, but essential to all of them is a deliberative process that is inclusive of its members. These young activists are reclaiming a place in these processes. They are also demanding equality for themselves and their communities—although they are not just doing it in the electoral arena.

A study similar to ours, done in Quebec, revealed that the young people in that Canadian city were pragmatic in their politics (Quéniart 2008); the issues were more important than the organizations in which they participated. 

The young people we interviewed also shared core values compatible with democratic principles. Their activism was fueled by their awareness of structural inequalities and discrimination. This awareness helped them develop social identities and communities, and became a bridge to political action. Their social identities were embedded in the history and culture of each country, but in all three cities the concept of youth as a political and social category had a powerful meaning for the young people, even as they recognized that the term did not encompass a homogeneous group. For them, youth transcended national borders, and they found similarities with peers around the world. Democratic practices also flourish in familiar terrains although it may have its sight set on global issues.  

Q: How does the perception of youth as citizens of the future shape the ways in which they become politically involved?

Torres: The young people we interviewed reject this notion. One of the most striking similarities in our participants’ views about politics was their sense of entitlement in the present. They were clearly aware that their societies situated them in the future, and that politicians talked about them as the future of their country, without giving them a voice in the present. Therefore, they extracted agency in the present. They wanted to be heard now, wanted to exercise their rights now, and wanted to be considered citizens, with rights, now.

For the young people in our study, age awareness helped transcend particular geographic, ethnic and racial groups to create a community. That awareness of their “youth” has the potential to claim a political space in the present for young people who until now have been thought of as little adults-in-the-making.

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