Robert Elizondo grew up in a gritty San Antonio barrio, where he worried about getting caught in the web of rough kids that hung out at the corner. The grandparents who raised him did their best to guide him and, hoping it would help, enrolled him in the area's first desegregated elementary school.
But it was when he discovered the Boy Scouts, at age 11, that he says he "found another way of life, another path." Elizondo, now 57 and a city water inspector, recalls, "I was a city boy and it was a unique experience for me." Scouting took him into to the wilderness, exposing him to the rigors of camping and to a sky he didn't know existed. "I saw the stars the way I had never seen them in the city."
As Boy Scouts of America celebrates its 100th anniversary this year with events nationwide, former and current scouts share stories like Elizondo's, hoping to recruit more Latinos and secure the organization's survival in a multicultural world. The Boy Scouts hopes to double its Hispanic participation in 2010 by bringing in 100,000 new Latino scouts.
Elizondo has served as a scoutmaster for a quarter century, mentoring neighborhoods of boys, including his two sons, Mark Landez, 30, and Thomas Elizondo, 23, both now in the military. They all camped and hiked. They overcame adversity and worked as a team.
Yet while many in Elizondo's troops were Latinos, he knows that scenario is a national anomaly. Census data show that while 20 percent of children under 18 are Hispanic, only 3 percent of Scouts are.
"[Hispanics] don't know what we're about," says Chief Scout Executive Bob Mazzuca. They are unfamiliar with Scouting, he says, because many "didn't have grandfathers, fathers, or uncles grow up in Scouting."
Marcos Nava, director of the Scouts' Hispanic Initiative, says immigrant parents often erroneously believe that joining the Scouts is expensive or that the organization is an extension of U.S. law and immigration enforcement. Instead, Scouting seeks to raise successful children who have strong family and community ties.
"Latino family values are exactly what we offer," explains Tico Perez, 47, a Boy Scouts' national commissioner who at 15 became an Eagle Scout—Scouting's highest rank—in a mostly white non-Hispanic troop in Florida.
Those values are what Concha Roque sought for her son within the Boy Scouts just after her husband was deported to Mexico. Ten years later, Nicholas Roque, now 17, is preparing for his Eagle Scout project and hopes to attend the University of Southern California next year, where he wants to study medicine and perhaps become a pediatrician.
"My mother wanted me to be surrounded by good role models," the teen says. "The Scouts...allowed me to become the person I am today." Despite his own success, he says many Latinos "are still discouraged by the stereotyped image of the Boy Scouts."
To tackle the problem, the Boy Scouts goes beyond sharing stories of success and enlists help from Latino community and business leaders. The Hispanic Initiatives National Committee led by Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO of AT&T Mobility and Consumer Markets, includes top Hispanic business leaders such as former U.S. Senator Mel Martinez and James A. Tamayo, archbishop of the Diocese of Laredo, Texas.
"Whether you are in business or the Boy Scouts, Hispanics are an important segment of the population. Without succeeding in this market, you may not succeed overall," de la Vega says. Underscoring the point are numbers: Hispanics now comprise 20 percent of U.S. children, a number that is projected to reach 35 percent by 2050, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Hopes are high that the Scouts will succeed in reaching its goal of 100,000 new Hispanic recruits—boys and girls—in 2010. The Soccer and Scouting program, designed to attract Hispanics, has already enrolled more than 15,000 scouts. The organization tested its new slogan, "Valores para toda la vida," and translated its manual into Spanish. Boy Scouts are forging into new territory, such as the recent Los Angeles Latino Book & Family Festival produced by actor Edward James Olmos, 63, who was himself a Scout.
"When people ask me what helped me the most, I first say my mother, father, and grandparents who raised me; and then it was the Boy Scouts of America," Olmos says. "The values promoted by the Boy Scouts helped me get where I am today."
The tradition of value-shaping experiences continues. At the Halloween Cub-Boo-Ree at a Long Beach, California, campground, new Cub Scout Nocolas Sanchez, 6, received his first merit badge.
"I really didn't know anything about the Scouts," says his mother, Bonnie Sanchez, who accompanied him to the event. "I knew they taught good values and that there was a lot of camping and hiking. We don't know much about that, but we can always learn."
Suddenly, Nocolas and his new friends tone down, quiet enough to hear only the crackle of the campfire. The boys peer beyond the canopy of willow trees and look for the moon, for the U.S. flag placed there decades ago. In unison, they begin, "I pledge allegiance..."
It is a scene that Robert Elizondo has led many times in Texas, often with goose bumps on his arms that signal the pride he holds in leading boys into manhood. These days, he's comforted by the thought that he soon will be part of all this again: grandson Tommy, 5, becomes a Cub Scout next year.
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