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Latinas serve as key government liaisons

By Kevin Milliken for La Prensa

March 29, 2013: Access to local government services can be tough enough, but when a Latino family speaks or understands little to no English, it can be next to impossible. So Toledo and Cleveland city governments in Ohio, for example, are trying to be more inclusive with bilingual Latina/o liaisons on the mayor’s staff in each respective community. This is in addition to the many other Latinos serving our governments.

“I actually see it as giving everyone access to the mayor,” said Linda Alvarado of her role as executive director of Toledo’s Board of Community Relations. “Yes, I am Latina and I do want to give back to my community. But I actually want to give everybody access to the mayor.”

Linda Alvarado

Ms. Alvarado described her boss—Toledo Mayor Mike Bell—as “very personable,” which makes it “not hard” to allow the general public access. “He’s already out in the community all the time,” she said.

But her more important role as a city government employee may be to help regular folks gain access to city services and navigate the system. The Bell administration has tried to centralize a call center to assist city residents through its 419.936.2020 hotline—and the goal is to establish a 311 helpline in the coming months. But Ms. Alvarado admitted even that kind of customer-friendly service has its limits.

“If they get frustrated, they can get hold of me directly,” she said. “I think it’s important to just give them access to the whole city at large, especially if they’re having problems. I get Latinos calling who only speak Spanish, so I’m glad I know Spanish and can work with them, especially if it’s neighborhood issues where they’re arguing with each other. Many people [city staff] can’t deal with that issue because they don’t know Spanish.”

Mayor Bell has also appointed other Latinos in key positions in his administration including: Luis A. Santiago (Fire Chief), Lourdes Santiago (Dept. of Neighborhoods director), and Rosalinda Contreraz-Harris (Youth Commission director).

Lucy Torres

In Cleveland, Lucy Torres serves as the Hispanic Liaison for Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson. The 56-year old native of Puerto Rico was hired in 2006 and works within the Community Relations Board and answers to the director.

Ms. Torres first moved to Cleveland in 1978 to be with her mother, yet met and married a local man a year later. The mother of one and grandmother of four lost her husband Ivan to a long illness three years ago, a man she still calls “the love of my life.”

“As they say in Puerto Rico, you came to visit and get a master’s and you got a mister,” she said with a laugh.

Ms. Torres was not bilingual when she arrived in Cleveland, so she knows well the struggles of Spanish-speaking families to assimilate in the community.

“It’s not easy. It’s not easy trying to switch from one language to one other,” she said. “In my country, we can read and write English. But it’s the communication that is hard for us to do. That’s one of the main problems that we have in our community, that people are very afraid to speak English because they are going to make fun of them.”

Lucy Torres

The roles the two women play in their respective northern Ohio cities are becoming increasingly important. Toledo’s Latino population has grown by more than 4,000 residents since the 2000 US Census, or 24 percent, to more than 21,000. Cleveland’s Latino population growth has been a little less stark, gaining 4,806 residents or 13.8 percent growth. But one of every ten Clevelanders, or just under 40,000, is now Latino.

“There are a lot of people, especially immigrants, coming to our community,” said Ms. Torres, pointing out that “the majority of them” only speak Spanish.

“I receive a lot of phone calls about people trying to get help—a tree that fell down on their property, act as a translator for them at an appointment with legal aid or an appointment at juvenile court,” she said. “I cannot translate for them officially, but I can be there when I can to give them support.”

Ms. Alvarado stated she’s even gone to a resident’s home to help them communicate in bilingual ways.

“So many things—it could be trash cans, it could be potholes in front of their house or people dumping salt in front of their driveway,” she said. “Sometimes they just don’t know where to go and I’m fortunate to speak Spanish and do all the services for everybody.”

Ms. Alvarado described her role with the city as serving as “a bridge-builder.”

“I really like being able to connect people, to bridge them and get everyone collaborating and working together,” she said. “I do see myself as that.”

The Board of Community Relations executive director is quick to point out while it’s important to promote diversity in city government she is more than qualified to do her job and “just happens to be a Latina.” She is nearly finished with her PhD—as she described it with a smile, “it’s ABD—all but the dissertation.”

Her experience spans more than a decade of public service— including social service work at health centers in both East Toledo and at the Aurora González Community Center, Adelante, as well as educational programs at Head Start, Toledo Public Schools, and the University of Toledo. Ms. Alvarado even has spent time working with retirees at the Mayores Senior Center.

“I’ve pretty much served everybody,” she said with a smile. “When I first got the job, I never really understood some of the things that I’ve gone through in life, personally and professionally. Now when I’m helping someone, especially in the city, now I realize—‘that’s why I know so-and-so’ and ‘that’s why I know this department or program.’ I think I’m very blessed to be in the position I’m in and bring all that knowledge together.”

While Ms. Torres came to Cleveland with two years of college, she also has earned “a few credits here and there” from Cuyahoga Community College and Cleveland State University, but has not yet completed her bachelor’s degree. She has put earning a degree at the front of her “bucket list.”

“It has not been easy for me and I know it has not been easy for a lot of people in my community,” she said. “Mayor Frank Jackson has been very supportive of our community and especially my service to my community. I try to service my community and take our programs and services out to the community. Sometimes it’s very hard for them to come to downtown. So I take it to the organizations in the community—talk to people, go to the stores, to the barber shops and go to the beauty shops and tell people we have programs that are good for them, for seniors, for students, for regular citizens.”

“I feel very lucky to give this community a little bit of what I got, especially when I came here the first time,” she said. “The first place I stopped was the Spanish-American Committee. It’s the oldest agency we have in our community and I received services from them and I later became a board member of their organization. If I can help, I do.”

Ms. Torres later became more deeply involved in Cleveland’s Latino community, as president of the Puerto Rico parade “for many, many years” and other organizations.

“I try to do for my people. My people have a lot of needs,” she said. “I know if we could help a little bit, and if we can take the programs, the services, the referrals, it’s better for everyone. I do put them in contact with the right people to get their situations resolved.”

Ms. Torres frequently receives calls from seniors who need home repairs and don’t know where to turn.

“Sometimes I’m asked to go and mediate between two neighbors,” she said.

Both women feel deeply connected to their local Latino communities—and both admit they’re fortunate to get paid to help people.

“Our people identify themselves with people they can trust,” she explained. “When I do my different events and activities in the community—Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 to October 15) and Cinco de Mayo (May 5th), for example—people will attend those activities because they know they are going to be in their place, their element. There are people there that they know and can trust.”

There is a sense of satisfaction for each Latina liaison, even though the work can be both challenging and frustrating at times.

“Even though at the end of the day I am exhausted, I feel happy,” she said. “One person that I can help during the day, I’m happy. If I can send a student back to college and put them in contact with Esperanza, with the Hispanic Alliance, he or she could go back to school. I’m happy,” remarked Señora Torres.

Ms. Torres recently encountered the 21-year old daughter of two Latino immigrants. She asked why the young woman was at home. The young lady answered that she had no money for college.

“I said, ‘wait a minute. Uh-uh. Let me put you in contact Victoria de Esperanza and you’re going back to school,’” she recalled. “She just started at Cuyahoga Community College and hopefully she’ll be able to finish in about four years.”

Ms. Alvarado calls hers a job “involving relationships,” especially ones forged over the years in all her past social service and academic roles. She still interfaces with all of those former professional colleagues in her role with the city.

“Making sure we all live peacefully and harmoniously together” is how she described her mission with the Board of Community Relations.

“I’m now getting paid to do what I’ve always done—being with people,” she said. “I’m doing social work. I’m trouble-shooting. I get to be out with everyone—talking, doing things with every day people—who are arguing, feeling the same stress. I love it.”

“That’s the purpose of me being here—trying to make a difference in some people’s lives in my community—and that’s what I do,” added Ms. Torres. “That’s what God asks us to do—to help people. I’m very thankful to God for the life I had with my husband. I thank God for this job. I thank God for the people I meet every day,” she said. “I thank God for everything I do.”

People in need of services in Cleveland can contact Ms. Torres directly at 216.664.6842 and, in Toledo, can contact Ms. Alvarado at the Board of Community Relations at 419.245.1565.

On the Internet: www.tri-c.edu


Copyright © 1989 to 2013 by [LaPrensa Publications Inc.]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 04/02/13 18:26:32 -0800.




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