Chicago debate team experience builds community leaders

“Walk the street into history with us, get off the sidewalk,” Dolores Huerta, farm worker rights activist once said. Huerta’s words of wisdom were put into action when 122 young leaders participated in the National Hispanic Institute Midwest Great Debate.

The event took place at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. Seven regions from Chicago and surrounding areas competed July 9 to July 12. Morton high schools of both Cicero and Berwyn took first place.

Students who participated in the competition were sophomores who were given the challenge to discuss topics concerning the U.S. Latino identity. Each youth was given the chance to demonstrate leadership and show how to make a difference in ones own community.

The National Hispanic Institute (NHI) is a non-profit organization aimed at building youth leadership with a positive vision for the U.S. Latino community. NHI was founded in 1979 in Austin Texas by Ernesto Nieto, who is the group’s current President.

“NHI helps young leaders move away from any negative titles their society has created and embrace positive experiences that help recognize the assets for their community” said Lydia Ruelas Duran, West Coast Regional Director. Duran admits she was very unfamiliar with NHI until one summer when she volunteered while a student from Augustana College. Duran then joined NHI in 2004. She said that NHI has given her direction and helped her appreciate cultural values because NHI teaches that every individual can truly make a difference in his or her community.

Many participants from previous debates have remained with their teams and have become coaches to the new young leaders, including Tony Manjarrez, a three-year head coach of the Summit regional team. It was the Regional Director at Argo Community High School in Summit, IL who introduced Manjarrez to NHI. As a leader Manjarrez has spent hundreds of hours coaching students in preparation for the Great Debate. He motivates students to try their best in each round, to support each other no matter what obstacles they face. “Size doesn’t matter,” said Manjarrez. “What matters is that these young people take a great learning experience from this and have fun.”

Debates are extremely challenging and each round can be very emotional for many of the participants. Students compete in categories including, “Oratory, Extemporaneous Speaking, Cross Examination and Mock Trial.” After the first day many hope to make it to the “sweet-sixteen,” which is the top sixteen individuals or teams from each category.

Irene Morales, age 16, from the team Idea Latina made it to the finals. Morales participated in the “mock trial” category. Morales is a high school student at Benito Juarez in Chicago and was introduced to NHI by her coach there. Like many participants Morales said she was scared. But she stayed positive and remained confident through each round. At the end she said she realized, “It does not matter whether you won or lost as long as you took this great opportunity NHI offered. They should keep doing this.”

Students who join NHI not only get the chance to compete but they also take home a great learning experience, especially from their opponents. For many, the debates really motivate young people to become leaders in their community. And many strongly urge others to join.

Daniel Santoyo, 16, from Lake County, Ill., said the debate experience has inspired him to become active in his local Latino community. He competed in the “Extemporaneous Speaking” category. Santoyo said he is very proud of his Latino heritage. “No importa quien seas si te lo propones lo lograras,” he said, which translated means, “It doesn‘t matter who you are, as long as you work hard, you will achieve your goals.”

Overall the Great Debate has been an amazing learning experience for each individual. In the end everyone is a winner because they all leave with great potential to help change their communities.

I, too, participated in the Great Debate, Priscilla Nava and I were team partners with the Fuerza (Force) team from Cristo Rey high school in Chicago. We participated in the “mock trial” category. And we took first place!

None of this would have been possible if it were not for our coach Mike Rodriguez. We thanked him for introducing us to this great opportunity. For me, it has changed my life. I have gained more self-confidence and I am proud to be a Latina. This experience has made me realize I can be a leader for the entire Latino community.

Adriana Robles, age 15, is a Chicago high school student.