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‘Most of these issues are not new:’ Latino leaders discuss how to tackle language barriers and disparities

  • Gabriela Martínez/WITF
WITF brought its mobile listening lab to the Pennsylvania Latino Convention and recorded conversations with 9 conference attendees.

 Scott Blanchard / WITF

WITF brought its mobile listening lab to the Pennsylvania Latino Convention and recorded conversations with 9 conference attendees.

Each year, the Pennsylvania Latino Convention brings together prominent Latino leaders to create an empowering hub of ideas.

The goal is to help people take ideas and solutions back to their communities.

We took our mobile listening lab to the recent convention and met with nine experts in such fields as medicine, education and demographic data analysis. 

They talked about how to address the most pressing issues facing the fastest-growing demographic in the state.

The conversations included:

  • Gloria Merrick, executive director of the Latino Hispanic American Community Center in 
  • Harrisburg
  • Diana Escalante, senior bilingual community engagement specialist for Highmark Health Central Pennsylvania; 
  • Julio Nuñez, Principal of a high school in a Norristown School District
  • Damary Bonilla-Rodriguez, a school board director at the East Stroudsburg Area School District in Monroe and Pike counties
  • Adan Stevens-Diaz from  Federation of Latinos for Education about the Cultures of Hispanic America (FLECHA) in Monroe County
  • Edwin Segarra, business leader and member of the Pennsylvania Latino Convention planning committee;
  • Monica Ruiz, executive director Casa San José in Pittsburgh
  • Oralia Garcia Dominic,  NIH fellow, cancer researcher and behavioral scientist;
  •  Marcela Myers, senior health accreditation consultant for Capital Bluecross and co-chair of the Penn State Cancer Institute’s Hispanic/Latino Cancer Community Advisory Board.

Here are some of the main topics discussed in these mobile listening lab sessions.

Language barriers in the Latino community

Diana Escalante: “I believe that we need more resources for the community, in the language that our community members speak is very difficult to provide, you know, or actually to educate the community that people if they don’t have those resources in other languages. So if we’re able to provide that our community will be more educated, they’ll be able to kind of make informed decisions and they’ll have a voice present in the community.” 

Gloria Merrick: “In the service area, like at our center, where we refer people to different places for help, they get the paperwork, they come back to us, because no one there, they couldn’t find the clerk, or they couldn’t find the secretary, or they couldn’t find that one person that could speak their language. And so they send that back to us for that kind of help […] We have kids that go to doctors’ appointments with their parents. I do have some interns that say, ‘Miss Merrick, I can’t come in because my mom has a doctor’s appointment, I gotta go translate for her.’ We’ve got a long way to go.”

Listen to the conversation here:

Diana Escalante: “I think we have to remember, and kind of go back to our roots. And remember where we came from, kind of put our shoes back and say, Well, you know, I was once in their shoes, I was once the one who didn’t, who didn’t speak the language who didn’t understand, I was once the one who translated for my parents. Now, what can I do to give back to the community. I think we need more voices, we need more people who want to provide assistance to their community. We need more nurses, we need more doctors, we need more people in healthcare, more people who want to perform those jobs, you know, those duties because the community is in need of it.”

Latino representation on school boards and in classrooms – and in all levels of government

Julio Nuñez:“A lot of the issues that we as a community are faced with, or can all be helped or improved with education, educational opportunities, and quality, educational opportunities. I’ve seen and witnessed that, oftentimes, our young people do not have them, and that ends up affecting outcomes when they move up through the system, and as I say it, that does not recognize our full humanity. “

Damary Bonilla-Rodriguez: “So in the state of Pennsylvania, Latinos have the lowest representation on school boards, which is 3%, which is 135 school board directors out of 4,500, according to a report by the Pennsylvania School Board Association from last year[…] Where’s the voice? Where are the education opportunities? Where are the resources coming, if there is no representation at the table that is creating policies, that is funding programs, that is making decisions for our students and our young people.” 

Julio Nuñez: “Across the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, there are only 1,200 teachers […] to teach about 120,000 students right now, who identify as Latino. So when you think about it I don’t see myself becoming a doctor because I don’t ever see a doctor who is Latino-Hispanic ..  And I can speak from first hand experience, that by the time that a Latino child gets to a classroom, more likely, they’re going to find a classroom that’s under-resourced, that has the youngest teachers, that has no air conditioning. Sometimes they have issues with asbestos with all of you know, all of the quality determinants of health […]  there is no wonder that in Philadelphia, where I’ve worked, Latinos are the highest dropout rate. People keep thinking that there is a lack of interest or a lack of ambition. And we keep saying no, it’s not that – it’s a lack of opportunity when they reach the education system. ”

Marcela Myers: “With a 1.2 million population of Latinos, I think that we need to do much better involving our community in the political arena… When you have a board of directors, or you have a cabinet for a governor that doesn’t have that representation, we miss a lot. “

Better data on Pennsylvania’s Latino population

[Stevens-Diaz is working on a proposal to create the state’s first Latino Research Center.]

Adan-Stevens Diaz: “I was given a platform to speak about the need for this office for the research of Latinos in Pennsylvania. Because, as they were talking about 1 million plus strong as a population, there is nothing set up to really study specifically the needs of Latinos in Pennsylvania. “

Monica Ruiz:  “I want to call myself an advocate to make sure that the data that I have, and the information that I have, is really what is representing the needs of the communities that we serve. So then again, it’s our responsibility to make sure some people, funders, policymakers, they only speak in data language, I must give them that. And it must be my story to tell them that because when we allow larger entities to do this research on us, and to us, they’re going to tell their own story. And it’s going to benefit them in a way that doesn’t necessarily benefit us.”

Edwin Segarra:  “Added to that point, it’s the impact of that data, okay, because the data is there, the policies are in place, but that data is important to go ahead and reflect […] let it be medical, the impact of certain policies and certain things. And the fact that these resources aren’t really available in certain areas has a detrimental effect on the family structure as a whole. And if you destroy the family structure, and destroy the village.”

Adan-Stevens Diaz:  “I think a lot of data is already out there. It’s just siloed into different institutions, so it’s, you know, hospitals , banks, or it’s with this agency, or that. And so part of what a center can do is to aggregate and collect the data that’s already there, and break it out of that silos. And then from there you get a snapshot in a particular time, but then you can kind of do a longitudinal study, so that you get over different years, you can take that snapshot and make a motion picture to see what is the dynamic changes, what static and so on, that I think is really important. So having the data is important to take it to the policymakers. But then of course, you need the policymakers who are receptive to the data, because you can just get stonewalled. Unfortunately, you have all the data on your side, but if you don’t have somebody who cares or feels that they need you, or your community, they’re not going to pay much attention to that data, it is important to have that representation.”

Creating connections and finding mentors

Edwin Segarra: “I feel that the springboard here with the Latino convention is serving as an example to be able to get all these people to the table at the same location, and be able to deliver all the resources much from someone with a PhD or doctorate in any kind of agency where everybody can basically have the opportunity to mentor and give everybody the opportunity and utilize all these resources that are readily available out there.”

Gabriela Martinez / WITF

The 2023 Pennsylvania Latino Convention was held at the Hilton Hotel in Harrisburg.

Monica Ruiz: “I’ve been coming since the first convention, and so in Pittsburgh […] our population has been growing rapidly in that area, and there are very little to no services available for people that are non-English speaking, so what that meant, for me, the first time that I came here was that I was able to connect with people across the state, and make long-lasting relationships that help support the work that I do, whether it’s by funding, whether it’s by mentoring, whether it’s by sharing of resources.”

Oralia Dominic: “This platform is very attractive, because the convention allows you to intersect with individuals that you most likely will never cross paths with […] I think we all share a common ground. One is we want to be connected. We want to help inform our own strategies and outreach. But we also want to share with data sharing either observations, factual data, evidence based data, and also with the experiences of what works, what doesn’t work, what is still a persistent health disparity.”

Following through after community conversations

Bonilla-Rodriquez: “Most of these issues are not new to the communities that we’re serving. And we get passionate about it, we talk about it, we have good ideas, but then we go back after a conference or a convention and go back to life…the accountability to each other and to ourselves as individuals is key. So checking back in when we come next year, to not have the same conversation again, but to have the conversation from the point of what have we done over the past year.”

Gloria Merrick: “I would say that the fact that this moves from one area to the other. It goes from reading to Allentown to Harrisburg, I think there is progress made in those different areas. For me, the connections that I make in each of these from the different areas, I’ve met a lot of people here at the convention, I’ll be doing some new things and introducing some things at the center and bringing some people to talk to our seniors and to our youth.”

Diana Escalante: “Although some of the topics remain the same, maybe year after year, I what I see, what I’ve seen the growth is what you know, just the number of people that attend. So that means that there is more interest, people want to know more about what is happening, what what is really going on within the community…We’ve seen younger generations getting involved, and if they’re if they get involved, that means that the voice is getting across, and they’ll be able to do something about it at a younger age. And we need younger people to get involved because that’s where the change will really happen.”

Latinos are not one thing; Finding strength in our diversity

 Marcela Myers: “I think the beauty of the Latino community is the diversity that is within. And, what it brings to the table is like a tossed salad. You have all kinds of ingredients, and when you put different things and different flavors, so it? has a much better taste. So we’ll bring a lot of different cultural differences, which is a plus and a minus as well, because we have heard today, the difficulty that some systems have, in understanding the cultural aspect of the Latino community. I think that we all have seen that, and the need for more culturally competent services, and cultural understanding, at every level, in the healthcare system.”

Oralia Garcia Dominic: “How do you address all the issues that we talked about today, but the Latino and Hispanic community and its subgroups – there’s uniqueness in each subgroup. But what is unique is also the richness that is found. And in terms of how do we get the richness and allow it to coexist? And how do we get all of the various subgroups together? It’s no different than any other ethnic group ever since America was founded […]  How do the Germans and all the subgroups, how do they get their uniqueness and the richness to coexist when they came to America?”

Monica Ruiz: “I am half Puerto Rican, half Guatemalan, born in Cleveland, Ohio, to parents that refused to speak Spanish to me, because they wanted me to assimilate. It wasn’t until I, my husband about 30 years ago who was undocumented, that I really started to fully understand what this meant... It is also my responsibility, as a non-immigrant, as somebody who’s never been undocumented, to make sure that I am getting a seat at the table for the people’s voices that need to be heard, and consistently asked my opinion on things that have to do with immigration, and being undocumented. And I feel terrible being that voice. And so what I must do then is make sure that I have built the leadership within the people that need to be at the table, get them a seat at the table and let them know the power that they have when they do so.“


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