After 20-year hiatus, youth legislative session returns to Santa Fe

Latino students say playing the role of lawmaker gave them a new outlook on their communities

By: - June 23, 2023 4:45 am

State Sen. Michael Padilla (D-Albuquerque) addresses students in the National Hispanic Institute Youth Legislature program on June 16. Padilla secured one-time funding in the 2023 Legislature to give 130 students a chance to participate for free. The program intends to show young Latinos how their government works. (Photo by Megan Taros for Source NM)

If it were up to the 130 students gathered at the Roundhouse on June 16, their weeklong legislative session would’ve expanded mental health services, encouraged more widespread community gardens and challenged education inequities.

This year’s youth legislative session was born from a partnership between the National Hispanic Institute, the University of New Mexico and Sen. Michael Padilla (D-Albuquerque) to introduce Hispanic students to the procedures of all branches of government. Students said it changed how they viewed their own communities as they focused on equity instead of deficiencies.

“I’d really be able to tell somebody more about community equity building, and not how we can go out of our way and go out of our community to fix something,” said Neftali Gonzalez of Santa Fe. “I think I’m going to be able to go into my community and work on what we already have and expand on that.”

The National Hispanic Institute hosts a number of programs that introduce Hispanic students to specific avenues of civic engagement, whether through debate or mock trials and legislatures. The youth legislature program was absent from New Mexico for 20 years before returning as part of an effort to address the Yazzie-Martinez ruling.

The landmark ruling found that New Mexico was failing the majority of its students by not providing a quality education.

“So many times the narrative we hear is that Latinos aren’t in positions of power, they’re not elected officials, they don’t graduate at high rates,” said spokeswoman Denae Avila-Dickson “What we’re seeing instead is that their success, their leadership, their ability to benefit their communities…isn’t just a chance. It’s going to be all of us.”


The program in New Mexico is unique from others in the National Hispanic Institute umbrella because it specifically recruits only in New Mexico and provides the program for free, Avila-Dickson said.

Padilla, who was a part of the program in 1988, secured one-time funding during New Mexico’s 2023 Legislative session to help students attend for free and test out the possibility of permanently including the funding in future state budgets.

He also influenced the name of this year’s program – Dionisio “Dennis” Chavez New Mexico Lorenzo de Zavala Youth Legislative Session – as a celebration of Chavez, the first Hispanic person elected to a full term in the U.S. Senate and the first senator to be born in New Mexico.

“It was important for me to identify Hispanic leaders that students can see themselves in,” Padilla said. “I wanted to show them that you can come from anything and get things done, no matter who you are.”

A celebration of shared culture

The National Hispanic Institute launched its first programs in Texas and has worked to instill in its members a strategy of community equity building, which encourages them to view their communities from a position of abundance and to celebrate their culture and unique perspectives.

Meanwhile, students are given no suggestions or prompts when conducting their legislative sessions. It is up to them to create the vision they want, said co-founder Gloria DeLeon.

The program’s volunteers and board members are all returning students who have participated in it before. That’s a testament to what founders DeLeon and Ernesto Nieto are trying to build, they said.

DeLeon, who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, said she wanted to replicate her experiences growing up in an area where the vast majority of her community was Latino and nurtured young Latinos through a celebration of shared culture.

“For many of them, they say that this is one of the first times they’ve been in only this type of circle,” DeLeon said.


Many students, depending on the population that attend their schools, may be the only ones in honors classes, DeLeon said.

“So for them to come and see 150 kids and everybody there is great, everybody is sharp, it’s really one of the first times that they have to confront themselves with believing maybe there are a lot of smart Latinos,” she said.

Several students who spoke with Source New Mexico said this was the first time they’d ever spoken in front of people at length. Meanwhile others said they gained a new perspective on their own community and wanted to bring back what they learned.

“I’m very shy and this challenged me so I know I’ve seen growth in myself and in my peers,” said Madison Burdwell of Santa Fe. “I think the lessons we were taught go beyond just this NHI program, because I think it makes you implement it in your real life and see you don’t need to be so negative about your life and instead focus on the assets that you have. It opens your eyes to see the world.”

The 130 students from the Dionoso “Dennis” Chavez New Mexico Lorenzo de Zavala Youth Legislative Session pose in the Senate chambers after a weeklong mock legislative session. The students passed bills such as mental health service expansion and education reforms. (Photo by Megan Taros for Source NM)

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Megan Taros
Megan Taros

Megan Taros is a freelance reporter for Source NM. She is born and raised in the harbor area of Los Angeles where she began her career covering higher education and local government. She previously launched the South Phoenix beat at the Arizona Republic where she covered race and equity in one of the largest communities of color in the state. She also launched the Latino affairs beat at the Times-News in Twin Falls, Idaho. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she covered racial and economic inequality in Queens, New York.