Ensuring a Seat at the Table

LWVTC member Kyrian MacMichael conducted a series of interviews with four women leaders in Thurston County Hispanic/Latino communities. Each of these women serves on the Executive Board at the Centro Integral Educativo Latino de Olympia (CIELO).  These women shared their insights as they responded to a series of question of interest to our League’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice Committee.  The women interviewed:

                        Alejandra Esqueda Hunt, Board Chair of CIELO. 

   

                   Carolina Mejia, Thurston County Commissioner.  

 

                           María Sigüenza, Executive Director of the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs.

   

                  Deborah Sioux Cano-Lee, Co-Founder and Chair, Washington Indian Civil Rights Commission.

 

To honor the voices of the leaders interviewed, the language used by each speaker is recorded. A brief note about the use of terms is found at the bottom of this document. 

These four powerhouse women envision a major overhaul in the social, racial, and economic justice realms within our country’s operations. It is clear that the energy and expertise of these women are pivotal in ensuring a seat at the table for additional Hispanic/Latino women.

What can individuals and organizations do to support the Hispanic - Latin X community - in addition to donations?

In meeting with Thurston County Commissioner, Carolina Mejia, we were able to discuss the need for advocacy for people in the Latino and Hispanic communities. “There is an immigration crisis,” she reflected, “and it’s gotten worse over the years.”

When people hear “immigration crisis”, their minds may turn to undocumented workers trying to raise their families in America, but that is no where near the hidden horrors that await some people who try to make it to this country for a better life. Human trafficking is a major issue in our state and across the nation. “Farm workers… Latinos who have been stolen -  women, children, and all kinds of people – have been trafficked to our state for labor.” she conveyed. Mejia shared that she has learned about many people who immigrated because they were promised jobs, but then ended up caught in a slave ring. Many people have been held against their will without pay and threatened to ensure quiet servitude.

People are being brought here from other countries with Hispanic heritage too, like the Philippines.  Arriving with the promise of a job, some have had their passport and documents taken away and then were forced to work in unsuspecting places, like serving as housekeepers or hotel cleaners. Many are forced to live in awful conditions. Some people have been trafficked into far worse places, abused, raped, and forced into sex work.

“The best way to end these human rights violations is to have a strong call for advocacy at the federal level”, Mejia explained. “They have the power to change the immigration laws. At the local level, legislators can advocate for farm workers’ rights. For the everyday person, showing up and being an ally when people are asking for help, supporting local organizations of people working here in the area, and sharing what they have learned about the struggles in the Latino and Hispanic community are powerful ways to help.”

Sharing her opinion, Cielo Board Director Alejandra Esqueda Hunt, discussed the need for an inclusive community. “People have to make a conscious decision to understand cultural differences.” she said. Hunt sees that people are recognizing the need for inclusive practices in the way they do business or government work. “There is so much work to do. A conscious decision by organizations and, for example, school boards can look at policies and see how we are not meeting the needs of the Latino community or other minority groups and what can we do to make it better.” It is that conscious decision, she continued, that will allow Latinos to get to an equal footing with others in the community

“Being culturally competent”, Cano-Lee added, “would be a way of showing genuine support of our people. Get to know who we are, and learn about our culture, of course without appropriating it. And, to really support our community, understand that we don’t need to be saved, we need to be included.”

 

What does recognition and representation look like?

“In the context of politics,” Cano-Lee continued, “representation looks less like supremacy, and oppression and more like democracy. Having representation at the decision-making tables leads to more thoughtful and considerate policy making, because representation leads to inclusion of voices that are most impacted by policy, but have been left out of the conversation.”

Recognition could have many layers, Hunt shared. For example, agricultural workers who are part of the Hispanic or immigrant community have carried this industry and sustained the economy, a billion-dollar economy, but they don’t get recognized for the contribution that the workers make.  “We are fighting to get them basic human rights,” she added, “there are so many layers about this… The workers are part of the fabric, but not recognized as part of the fabric of what they create. They are the fabric of this country and have been for generations. This is what drives a lot  of my work with the community.”

Reflecting on Latino representation in politics, Hunt believes that the future is brighter for Hispanic and Latino leaders in positions of power in our government. “Now there are people who have run and won. Now the younger generation can have someone to look up to and realize they can do it.”

When thinking about how to truly recognize leaders in the Latino and Hispanic communities, and support representation of the community, Mejia says that the best way is to, “Make space for the people who stand up to run for office.” Many women who are courageous enough to take on leadership roles have been silenced even before they were able to run.

María Sigüenza, Executive Director of the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs, shared that true representation is more than just a picture with diverse faces. It is truly embracing the person’s ideas and bringing their experience into the organization. As BIPOC and Latinos are being fully integrated into organizations, she said, they are bringing their understanding of cultural nuances with them. Recognizing the unique perspectives of Latino and Hispanic leaders is essential to truly recognizing the representation needed to support positive action for this community.

 

What is the biggest myth or misinformation that non-Hispanic people have about your culture?

While speaking with these leaders in the Latino and Hispanic communities, one thing is certain – the biggest misconception about the community members that non-Hispanic or non-Latino people hold is that they are all the same. Hispanic and Latino people come from all over the world and they bring a wealth of culture, a wide variety of languages and dialects, and vastly different belief systems and norms with them. People often get bundled into the overgeneralization that they are all from Mexico. The biggest myth, Cano Lee explained, is “That Hispanic’s are a racial group, we are not a racial category. Being Hispanic, or Latinx typically refers to a cultural distinction or to a country of origin in Latin America.”

Mejia, who immigrated to America from Progreso, Honduras when she was young, shared that her father sacrificed his career as a doctor in Honduras to bring his family to America, all the while instilling in his children the commitment to community service and civic duty. Many people don’t consider the wealth that people who immigrate to America bring with them and many hold unconscious biases, assumptions about Hispanic and Latino people that are harmful. “Too many people ask, ‘Did you come here legally?’ without realizing the offense of the question,” she said. The misinformation spread can be devastating.

Sigüenza agreed that one of the biggest misconceptions in the national conversation about Latinos and Hispanics is that people tend to think all brown people come from Mexico. It can be a big privilege for people who actually come from Mexico, she shared, but if you come from Central America, South America, or the Caribbean Islands, people are largely ignorant of the culture. “Can you make me a burrito?” or “Do you celebrate the Day of the Dead?” are some of the assumptive questions commonly asked.  “There are multi-racial, multi-lingual, and multiple facets of religion and ideologies that natives to the Americas have. Some people are as diverse as diverse gets, and their culture is more than just what is in the media.”

Having been born in Mexico, Sigüenza said there is nothing wrong with Mexican culture, but if people would not assume that all Latinos come from there, it would be a lot nicer. There is an inherent privilege in actually being Mexican; 89 percent of Latinos in Washington are of Mexican descent. While it is good for them to have people be aware of their culture, Sigüenza said that at times it feels like an erasure of all other Latin American cultures.

Hunt expounded about the biggest myth, it “is that we are one culture (but) we are a very complex mix of many different cultures – different outcomes, accents, foods, ways of dressing.” While Hispanic and Latino people may not be one big culture, “what unites us is the language – most speak Spanish.” She continued. “We are on the same continent, but we are a diverse and complex group, cultures that are very different yet similar.  That is one of the biggest misconceptions.”

Hunt reflected on the regional differences that encompass people from the Caribbean and other countries. “Music has a big part of diversity. The Caribbean has a big Afro-Latino influence. I love the music.” Growing up in Guadalajara, Mexico, Hunt shared about the very different music of the region. “Cumbia,” she said, “I love the feel!”

 

How has the pandemic affected your programs?

The pandemic has affected communities of color in more ways than one. Mejia reflected on the improved access to information, leadership opportunities, opportunities for growth and development, and chances to collaborate more effectively because people were able to virtually participate via zoom. Before the pandemic forced the world to embrace digital platforms for collaboration, transportation issues prevented people from having equal access. “It’s a double-edged sword though,” Mejia continued, “when we’re in person, people are able to build relationships with the people who give access to people.”  The pandemic removed those in-person opportunities.

The pandemic did not discriminate. While zoom brought meetings to the homes of people who might have been able to access them due to transportation issues previously, the lack of consistent internet bandwidth and other connectivity issues also isolated and excluded people. Having access to food became a concern as well.

“When it first started we thought we would be closed for only a couple months, then we realized it would be a long-term issue.” Hunt stated. She added that, “Credit goes to staff and volunteers who worked really hard to connect the people to the educational program.” The volunteers ensured the people they served had access to the internet, that they knew how to use zoom, and they developed a curriculum that would work through zoom, Hunt shared.

CIELO was able to support the community by distributing food to people affected by COVID. It supplemented school lunches and helped families make it through the tough times. Despite the challenges of the times, Hunt shared how CIELO innovated and ensured that the supports they offered were inclusive and considerate as well as sustaining. When they opened a food bank, they had to reimagine the safety aspects. Developing a drive through food bank that individualized services provided ensured that the human connection was intact throughout the toughest times. “If people needed something specific, they could let us know. Not everyone gets the same thing when they drive through for food.” Hunt shared. The volunteers of CIELO listened to what the community needed and focused on problem solving. They didn’t give out food that people couldn’t use; they instead focused on what the community members needed.

Throughout the region, advocates for victims of violence found ways to support people, utilizing libraries and any place they could use to continue the work, Hunt shared. Volunteers teleworked, offered teleservices, and remote services for mental health with providers that were bilingual and bicultural. Then CIELO put their sewing program, one of their most popular classes, online and nurtured a sense of community. “By the end for 2020, we actually doubled the amount of people we were serving.” Hunt reflected. The sewing classes brought generations of women together to create pieces that stitched the community together during the toughest of times.

“We are a human and civil rights organization that educate and advocates for our people who feel their rights have been violated.” Cano-Lee added,  “Since COVID, we have shifted from an organization that mainly provides Know Your Rights Workshops, and assists individuals with filing discrimination complaints, to an organization that provides rental, utility and grocery assistance. We have temporarily become an organization that offers monetary assistance to our community members in need.”

While CIELO mostly serves people who are Latino, services are open to everyone in the community. “We have served people from other cultures. We serve anybody that comes. Because we speak Spanish, mostly people that are Latinos come, but it is not exclusive.” Hunt conveyed.

Sigüenza also discussed the effects of the pandemic. While the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs offers no programs and is run by a staff of three who are supported by 11 volunteers, it still saw the impact of having offices closed and services brought to online platforms or provided only on a virtual basis. The different accessibility issues spanned from lack of content translated into different languages, to communities left struggling with no access to broadband, and call-in lines that were not staffed appropriately.

Sigüenza reminisced about the accessibility issues that spurred on the creation of the Brown Berets and Chicano movement in earlier years, and reflected on how the community has not coalesced into a civil rights movement as much in recent years.  “The commission has been around since 1971, it was created as a result of the Chicano movement, in conjunction with the civil rights and farm workers movement, when the  Brown Berets and activists at UW and across state asked the governor to form a commission.  Latinos/Hispanics were the fastest growing minority at the time and needed a seat at the table, an institutionalized seat at the table.” she said. The Asian and Pacific American Commission followed a few years later and then the African American Commission was created in the 1980's, Sigüenza shared about the movement, “and people can only influence policy while working in tandem to ensure that we add chairs to that table. Without voices there, it makes it harder for advocates to be in the decision making halls.”

During the past year and a half of the pandemic, Latino/Hispanic leaders across the state have collaborated and provided feedback on what was working and what was not in various communities, harkening the days of old where activists fought to bring diverse voices to the table. They continue to meet to share ideas and concerns and collaborate with state agency leaders.

During the pandemic's most harrowing days, activists focused on communicating how to approach resolving issues affecting the people. Community organizations collaborated to provide in-person outreach and ensure much needed information about handwashing, masking, and safety measures with COVID were provided to support families. Sigüenza said the efforts were unprecedented.  She was truly amazed by the selfless dedication, and “proud of folks providing support to community members”; these efforts “have literally been lifesaving.”

 

How can Thurston League of Women Voters support your efforts?

Hunt related that the LWVTC has been supporting CIELO for a while and recognizing that the organization provides services for a community that is not always seen or heard. She said that, “Bringing our organization forward so more people can hear about it, recognizing and bringing light to this organization, and recognizing issues that are part of the community we serve” has a major impact in supporting their efforts.

Mejia hopes the LWVTC continues to put information out to the public about supporting established civics and in finding ways to push the envelope further. Helping everyday people understand the political resources here in the county can be instrumental in helping to get out the vote, she reflected. 

“Every election we work to get out the Native and Latinx vote by registering and educating our people on their right to vote. We can always use help in our efforts not only to get our people registered but teach them how to properly fill out the ballot.” Cano-Lee added. 

Mejia says she gets calls from Latino family friends asking about who and what is on the ballot. This shows that the current format of voting can be inaccessible to many people. People come from different levels of equity, and issues like language barriers can make many of the issues get lost in translation.

The LWVTC can use its voice to ensure voting becomes more accessible to people in the Hispanic/Latinx community. Mejia says that mail-in ballots have been a game changer for many voters, but due to language barriers, some people are still struggling to vote by mail. In places where voting by mail is not an option, making election day a paid holiday would go even further in supporting access to voting. People won’t make voting a priority if it is too cumbersome, Mejia continued.

Mejia would like to see the LWV build a program that teaches civics to the masses. “Civics is not prevalent in a lot of communities,” she said, “a lot of people don’t know about local, city, community and county government.” Teaching civics would make it more equitable for members of the Hispanic/Latino communities to run against people from other groups.

 

What legislation are you wanting to see passed and enacted in 2022-2024 (in the next 2 years) to help people’s lives get better?

Hunt has been focusing her efforts on the Reconciliation Bill and ensuring a path to citizenship for the people she serves. The “Keep Washington Working Act” and other bills helped members of the community as well.  She is working with Strengthening Sanctuary Alliance, a local organization that works with groups to help with legislative actions. Strengthening Sanctuary Alliance is currently writing a letter to Patty Murry and Maria Cantwell to encourage them to work with groups to protect the immigrants in our state.

Mejia has been collaborating with Representative Laurie Dolan and Representative Vandana Slatter on a possible education bill or budget provision to improve language accessibility. “There are a lot of Guatemalan Indigenous people in the community who live in Lewis, Thurston, and Mason counties.” She shared, unfortunately “there is a sizable dropout rate. At 16-years-old, kids will start dropping out to support families.”

Children of people who are immigrants often carry an extra burden on top of school and the typical growing pains. Due to the uniqueness of many indigenous dialects spoken in Latin America, there are often no professional interpreters available to support families in need. Having to interpret for families in medical situations, or even to just go pay a ticket, these children often must leave other opportunities to support their family.  Interpreters need to be fluent in more than just Spanish, they need to speak dialects that are not currently represented in our country.

The bill they are collaborating to form would ensure access to health care and access to justice for families whose first language is not English. Tech tools and professional interpreters that provide support for other languages don’t translate indigenous languages correctly; often the language gets translated into Spanish then the child of an ingenious language speaker has to translate from Spanish to the indigenous language for the family members to understand.

Since these children are already working as interpreters, getting the legislature to support programs to turn this volunteer duty into a paid position would not only help many first-generation Americans gain fruitful employment, but their particular skill set would help people have access to public services. Mejia is proud of her collaborative efforts for social and economic justice with Dolan. “Dolan has been such an avid supporter and really hands on about this”, Mejia praised. They hope to start this program in the Guatemalan community and then expand it from there.

Sigüenza has her eye on a number of bills. SB5010 would ban the use of credit scores for certain types of insurance. In prohibiting credit scores for establishing the costs of personal insurance for car, home, and boat would prevent rates that are disproportionately high for people of color. There were a lot of changes to the bill, and she is unsure if the commission could support it in its current state because the intent has changed too much. However, they would support it as originally written.

HB1153 would have supported language access in public school, but it didn’t pass because then they would have to tighten legislation. HB1191 was “a radical bill” that would have ensured equity in health coverage. Health care and wellness would have been expanded to provide state funded Medicaid to undocumented people under this bill, but it didn’t make it out of committee. If voters would contact the chairs of that committee minority and majority and encourage members to at least read it, the bill might get out of committee.

Cano-Lee “would like to see legislation get passed for stronger environmental and animal protections, Health Care for All, affordable housing, student debt forgiveness, free college, and free pre-school for children ages birth-to-five, and more childcare subsidies funding for working families.”

 

How would Thurston County be impacted if you had to close your doors?

“Our organization has received funding to provide grocery, rental and utility assistance to our community. We have helped over 900 families during COVID, and continue to assist families. Our families would be negatively impacted if we had to close our doors.” Cano-Lee shared.

“If CIELO were to close the doors, a whole community would lose services for education, mental health, domestic violence, and drug counseling in home languages, and homework help for the children.” Mejia added. “The community would lose a valuable resource.”

“I think that the impact on the community would be very heartfelt.” Hunt reflected, “It would be a hard impact on the Latino and immigrant community.” She talked of the advocates for victims of violence and services for mental health; the community would not only lose the provided services and supports, but also lose an invaluable guide that shares where to find help and community services. They are “the only organization in south sound to provide those services,” Hunt continued, “It would be sad for the community to lose this type of support. Where would people be able to go?” She pondered about the community’s needs and how people would find directives to learn how and where to get services, like applying for a driver’s license or other mundane tasks. “Our community needs help finding the processes to do basic things.”

On October 16th, 2021, CIELO celebrated their 25th anniversary with a virtual gala. The presentation shared what 25 years of serving the community has done to make our region a better place for so many. All of this was started by a group of Latinas who recognized the need for services while honoring the culture and the people in need. Hunt closed by honoring her staff. “The credit goes to the staff and the director who are doing amazing jobs. They are the heroes of this story and they are doing a great job.”

 

Author’s note on the use of terms:  I would like to note the insights shared with me about the use of the terms Hispanic, Latino, and LatinX. I was told that many people in the community prefer to use Latino to signify people who hail from Latin America, and Hispanic to refer to people who have a background connected to a Spanish-speaking country. Some felt that LatinX was a term that White Culture created while trying to be inclusive, but “Latino” already includes everyone as it signifies “all people from Latin America” in Spanish. Well-meaning people have coined the term “LatinX” to honor a new era of civil rights for people of Latin American and Hispanic descent, but many people in the older Latino and Hispanic community aren’t as comfortable with the modern term. While LatinX is usually used in print, Latino and Hispanic are preferred by many while speaking. Also, LatinX hasn’t been adopted by other cultures in Latin American countries, I was told. The terms are used interchangeably as suits the speaker. While LatinX is mostly used by the younger generations because it is a gender identity that encompasses both of the pronouns, people shared, the older generation prefers Latinos or Latinas.

 

      Kyrian MacMichael is a virtual public school teacher, a Lacey City Planning Commissioner, and a member of the LWVTC Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Justice Committee.

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