Latina Actress Rosario Dawson Promotes Census Participation

She's known for her work on stage and on screen, but the actress Rosario Dawson is now using her celebrity to work with Voto Latino, a group that is encouraging Latinos to participate in this year's census. Host Allison Keyes speaks with Dawson about her work with the group she co-founded more than five years ago.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

I'm Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Just ahead, what does it mean to be a strong black woman in America? And is being one a good or a bad thing? That's coming up.

But, first, after being discovered while sitting on a stoop in New York City, Rosario Dawson made her big screen debut in 1995's controversial indie film "Kids." Since then she's starred in big budget movies opposite stars like Will Smith and Clive Owen, and she's worked with amazing filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez and Quinton Tarantino. Here's a clip from Spike Lee's 1998 film, "He Got Game," starring Denzel Washington.

(Soundbite of film, "He Got Game")

Mr. DENZEL WASHINGTON (Actor): (As Jake Shuttlesworth) Just listen to me for a second. Could you listen to me? We can help each other. If we work together we can both get what we want, you know what I'm saying?

Ms. ROSARIO DAWSON (Actor): (As Lala Bonilla) Look, I don't know who you been talking to, Mr. Shuttlesworth, or who you think I am, but I'm the only one here who really, really cares about Jesus, all right?

Mr. WASHINGTON: I know, listen, I know - is that right?

Ms. DAWSON: Yes.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Well, why don't you help me then, since you really care about him?

Ms. DAWSON: No. What you need to do is let go of my arm.

Mr. WASHINGTON: No. What I need...

Ms. DAWSON: Let go of my arm.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Oh, no disrespect. No disrespect.

Ms. DAWSON: Thank you.

KEYES: Today, Rosario is gaining respect for her work off the screen. In 2004, she co-founded a nonpartisan organization called Voto Latino, which campaigned for Latinos to vote in 2008's presidential election. Today, Voto Latino is encouraging Latinos to participate in the 2010 census. Joining us now from our studio in Washington is actress and co-founder of Voto Latino, Rosario Dawson. Girl, welcome.

Ms. DAWSON: Thank you very much. Oh my goodness, I haven't heard footage from that movie in a long time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: I know, right? You were smiling all the way through it.

Ms. DAWSON: That's me at 18, you know, I'm going to be 31 this year, so it's a big deal. It's a big change. It's a lot of change in the last, you know, 15 years that I've been acting.

KEYES: Before I start harassing you about your acting, let's talk about why you're in D.C. today.

Ms. DAWSON: Actually, we are celebrating five and a half years of Voto Latino's existence. We were created we created ourselves just before the 2004 election. And, you know, we had remarkable success and, you know, we were responding to the changing statistics of the country. As of March 2003, Latinos became the largest minority in the country. And we just felt motivated.

KEYES: What motivated you to create Voto Latino?

Ms. DAWSON: Voto Latino, I mean, we just felt excited about this entire new demographic. One in four babies that are born, one of them is Latino. In schools, one in five children are Latino. And, like, the numbers, there's 50,000 Latinos that turn 18 every month.

KEYES: Wow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DAWSON: So, those kids, like, 98 percent of them can vote. And so when you're looking at the changing demographic and recognizing, oh, my goodness, the people who are about to inherit and run this country in the next couple of years will all be Latinos. But they're disproportionately affected by poverty and health care and education. So they're not really prepared to take the mantel and push this country into the 21st century the way that it should be. So, if we don't start addressing that problem now, we're going to have a huge problem in 20 years.

KEYES: I know you guys are involved in helping out with the 2010 census, but I see that some Latino community leaders had urged a boycott as a protest for the immigration reform issue.

Ms. DAWSON: Yeah.

KEYES: Obviously you don't agree with that.

Ms. DAWSON: Absolutely not. And that's actually part of a lot of the dialogue that we put into our PSAs. Latinos only started getting counted as a separate demographic in the census as of 1980. So I think it's really particular that we're now being counted, our numbers are being so strong. And if we don't sign up and we continue to let people to say, well, if you have someone who's illegal in your family, you know, there's a question on there that, you know, you don't want to compromise the status of your family, it's, like, no, no, no, if you don't participate, you don't get another shot for that money for 10 years.

That's hundreds of billions of dollars are going to be left on the table, that's not going to go to your grandchildren, that's not going to go to your grandparents. And you're going to continue to have messed up roads, bad education, overcrowded schools, overcrowded clinics. And the only thing that that's really going to do is hurt you because the district lines are redrawn according to how many, how much the population is.

And that means the representatives that can be represented in Congress for them would be people that might be wanting to do immigration reform. So, it actually could be very beneficial to participate in the census, because the U.S. House of Representatives could be representing you. And that's our whole point is, like, let them represent you. If you don't stand up right now and declare your numbers, they won't even know you exist.

KEYES: I know you guys are doing a slew of different things to help encourage participation in the census. And you're in a video that's kind of like a friends hanging out together. Tell us a bit about that.

Ms. DAWSON: Yeah, that's our PSA campaign. We did the same thing with voter registration when we were doing, like, these little telenovelas and these spoof kind of videos. And we've been trying to make them viral and something interesting and recognizing that young people get excited about something and they think it's funny so they send it to each other. So, how can...

KEYES: Are they viral?

Ms. DAWSON: They are, very much so. So, we've just released all the videos. We've already got about 90,000 views. We're moving forward, very excited about it. But this is just chock full of information. We got Demi Lovato, Luis Guzman, Ana Ortiz, all these amazing people. And normally when you get someone to do a PSA, they show up, they look into the camera, they read from the teleprompter, they go home in five minutes. These people were here all day long. We shot in Wilmer Valderrama's house.

KEYES: Wow.

Ms. DAWSON: We're dancing. We're doing scene work. We have memorized lines. We're really working. We're creating dynamics and characters and putting out information in a really kind of communicable way. And what we're hoping through these PSAs is that the conversation that we're having as a group will be a conversation you'll bring to your table.

(Soundbite of PSA)

Ms. ANA ORTIZ (Actress): And the census, they don't only fund hospitals, they fund bridges, they fund retirement homes, they fund the environment.

Mr. LUIS GUZMAN (Actor): In my neighborhood they missed out on 70,000 people, okay, last time. 70,000 people. You think they're going to make a difference now? Come on.

Ms. DEMI LOVATO (Actor, Singer): Well, it can't hurt.

Ms. DAWSON: Demi Lovato had to be in it because - if you're 15 or older, you can fill out the census form for your family.

KEYES: Right.

Ms. DAWSON: Which a lot of people don't know. So it's empowering to teenagers to understand, you don't have to be, this is not an 18-or-over issue. This is if you're 15 years old and you feel like you want to participate 'cause you understand how vitally important this is and you heard about it in school, you can fill this out. So it's about empowering every single demographic, so there's a lot of different ages represented and different viewpoints represented. And, you know, we get through to understanding why we all, for all our different reasons, and despite all the other reasons, why we should participate in the census.

KEYES: Is it still a lot of the younger people in Latino families that are doing the communication with the official government and that kind of thing? Are moms and dads, and grandmas and grandpas are kind of, like, yeah, we're not doing that. So, that 15 year old is probably the person that might be filling it out?

Ms. DAWSON: Yeah, tremendously so, especially if it's a dual language household. A lot of the times, the young people in the house are the ones who are translating everything and putting up the information going, you know, abuela, you really need to fill this out, and why. And that's our whole thing is that you have more and more, as each generation continues to overlap, so, second, third and fourth generations, the more they feel American, that's what they identify with.

The first generation, second generation still consider themselves, they go, Latino and Latino-American. But when you start getting, you know, further down the line generationally, they're American first. And that's what we're trying to tap into. It's your country, represent. You are American, whether you're Latin American or not, you are an American. This is your country, what are you going to do with it?

And a lot of young people take that very seriously. They take that very strongly. And they're usually the ones who are going to bring that paperwork home and go, no, no, we're going to talk about this now.

KEYES: Rosario Dawson is an actress and the co-founder of Voto Latino and a wearer of many hats. She joined us from our studios in Washington, D.C.

Ms. DAWSON: Thank you.

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