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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The first Hispanic member of the Missouri Legislature hopes to increase Latino voter turnout ahead of the general election in November.

“We must be aware of what’s happening in our government and vote,” said Paul Rojas, a former Missouri state representative.

The Latinx Education Collaborative reports that Latinos are the fastest growing group of the Missouri voting-age population, but they’re the least frequent voters.

It’s something Rojas has been fighting his whole life to change.

Rojas’ home on Kansas City’s westside tells the story of a veteran turned trailblazing politician. As a junior in high school, he lied about his age to join the Navy and serve in Korea.

“We didn’t tell anyone,” the now 88-year-old said. “Nobody knew that we altered some document to be admitted into the service.”

Once back home, Rojas turned his eyes to politics to make a difference with his community.  He saw civil rights and gentrification issues to tackle.

He lost a close race in the city council and then mostly supported other candidates before being elected to the Missouri Legislature in 1972.

“I believe it’s an honor to serve in any capacity in government, whether it’s the school board or whatever,” Rojas said. ”I believe it to be an honor to be a part of what can be a better tomorrow for all of us.”

With the general election in November, Rojas wants people to be engaged.

Groups RevED and the Latinx Education Collaborative have been working locally to register people to vote.

They said despite the voting-age Latino population growing 60% from 2010-2020 — from 3% to just more than 4% — only 50% of voting age Missouri Latinos are registered. That’s more than 43% less than the statewide average.

“Often times, you hear us to refer to Latinos the sleeping giant when it comes to voting,” said RevED founder Edgar Palacios. “The reality is that hasn’t materialized in some areas, particularly in Kansas City or in the state of Missouri. So how do we actively awaken that giant so to speak and ensure that our voices are being heard in the democratic process?”

Like Palacios, Rojas believes outreach and education are key.

Still serving his community, Rojas works with the Guadalupe Center and sits on the city’s planning commission.

Ahead of November, Rojas has a message for voters:

“Being that it’s National Hispanic [Heritage] Month, be aware of who you are, don’t forget who you are, and you are as good of a citizen of this country as anybody else,” Rojas said.  “You have a right to be a part of the political process, the same as anybody else.”

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