A Latino Agenda

By Willians Silva, President and Lois Athey, Founding Executive Director, BU-GATA

Latinos who represent Arlington’s largest minority are a diverse and dynamic community. Until recently this group of mostly young people was growing by leaps and bounds.  According to the 2000 Census Latinos comprised 18.6% of the county’s population. Just six years later, this population had dropped to 15.8% of the total. What has happened? Why have Latino families left Arlington? How has Arlington responded to this immigrant presence that includes individuals from all corners of South and Central America and the Caribbean islands? Over the years the BU-GATA Tenants Association has focused much of its work in the Latino community.  In 2003, together with other Latino activists, we produced  a “Latino Agenda” aimed at addressing the list of issues and concerns facing this community. We were motivated by a report of the Arlington Human Rights Commission, the result of a public hearing  “to maximize participation and understand barriers and issues faced by the Hispanic community”. The report, issued in 2000, concluded:

“There are three major areas that require immediate attention by all agencies involved. The first is the ineffective communication existing between the Hispanic community and the agencies alluded to in this forum. The second area is the lack of existing processes that allows the Hispanic community to bring directly to the attention of the agencies in question, their issues, concerns, and perceptions. The third is the absence of significant statistics kept by agencies that serve to both dispel wrong perceptions and to warn agencies of problem areas that must be addressed before they escalate into major problems”.

BU-GATA compiled statistics about Latinos in Arlington: where they lived, what were their housing needs, what was their access to health care programs, and how were they treated by the police? Our conclusions and first-hand experience indicated that many Latinos did not believe they had a right to services, felt left out of the system or had problems gaining access. Our report focused on an analysis of areas where we believed there was ineffective communication and lack of trust. We cited examples where there was a lack of translation services and information in Spanish. We looked at Arlington’s police department and found there was no official Spanish-speaking liaison who could address the concerns of Latinos who sought service or had problems.

In response to our concerns, the Police Chief, Doug Scott, agreed to hold a community meeting for Arlington’s Latino population. This 2004 forum, a first for Arlington, was held at the Arlington Mill Community Center and was well attended by 150 Latinos.  In response to a request that the Department hire more Spanish-speaking officers who were also culturally sensitive, Chief Scott responded that he needed an incentive program and premium pay to attract more Latinos. After much discussion within the County, this new program received the green light.  Was this an effective strategy? Has the incentive program and premium pay for Spanish-speaking officers worked?  If we look at the statistics, the policy and recruitment changes have had little impact. The Police Department’s own reports confirm this assessment:  In 2003, only 6.6% (23) of active duty police officers (346) were Hispanic, while six years later this number was only slightly higher at 8.2% (29) of 352 Arlington police officers.

Another issue that the Latino Agenda raised in 2003 was access to information when persons had limited English proficiency.  In 2003 there was no translation available for citizens testifying before County Board meetings unless a staff person knew in advance that a Spanish-speaking person was coming to testify.  Many County publications were not available in Spanish, nor were there Spanish-language information signs in many public offices or counters. The County’s website did not have a meaningful Spanish-language section.  Clearly, one aspect of ensuring equality of access was the elimination of language barriers for the utilization of public services.

In response to our petitions, in 2004 the County Manager issued a policy statement that was approved by the County Board in July of that year. It required County departments “to implement strategies to improve accessibility of County programs, information and activities to persons with limited English proficiency”. In order to comply with this resolution, each department was required to submit an implementation plan for review by the Assistant County Manager for Human Rights and EEO within 90 days. It is our understanding that a County employee now monitors and reviews each department’s plan.  For example, in the case of housing services, the department must identify if there is immediate or direct contact between service recipients with limited English proficiency and County staff. If barriers exist, the department must make plans to remove them. As a result of this policy change, over the past five years many Arlington programs and services now have brochures and information pamphlets in both English and Spanish – a major improvement. In addition, premium pay was allowed for staff in key departments that had constant public interaction and contact with Spanish-speaking constituents. As determined by individual department heads, staff could apply for and be certified as “Spanish-speaking” individuals. That entitled those staff persons to premium pay. Supposedly, these individuals would be called to translate if a resident sought services and could only speak Spanish. However, Arlington did not allocate additional resources for these services or translation of documents. Each department was asked to fund the costs of these services out of existing budgets.

Finally, the Latino Agenda called for the establishment of a centralized Office of Latino Affairs. This office would provide consistent translation services to all departments, advocate for Latino needs and programs that responded to this community, and centralize a coordinated response to Latino constituents who had trouble accessing county services or programs. The County Manager did not support this request. To this day the County maintains that it is more cost effective to hire consultants who will translate during meetings instead of employing full-time County staff to provide that service, as well as supervise the translation of internal documents, brochures, materials, and letters.  Back in 2003 the County did designate Raul Torres, Assistant County Manager for Human Rights, as a point person, but this was an informal assignment. Ever since Walter Tejada was elected to the County Board, he has served as a de facto outreach worker for the Latino community. He holds regular public Roundtable (Mesa Redonda) sessions where Latinos are invited to come and learn about County programs and talk about their issues. The County has also expanded its outreach to the Latino community by issuing press releases in Spanish, many of which receive coverage in the appropriate local Hispanic press, including some radio and TV stations. In fact, now it is quite common for Latinos to say “I’ll call Walter to see about my problem” or “Maybe Walter can help me from being evicted”. While we commend Mr. Tejada for his efforts to provide services, we still believe that the County needs a liaison with the authority and outreach skills to provide access to the large Latino population. The County recently hired a Latina staff person who led the County’s well-received Diversity Dialogue. This individual is located in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources (PRCR). While this effort is to be commended, it does not address our concerns about the Latino community’s access to public services.  

In conclusion, that brings us back to one of our first questions: why has the Latino population in Arlington declined over the past few years? We believe that it is the steady displacement from affordable rental housing and gentrification that have caused Latinos to locate to other jurisdictions.  Many apartment complexes with majority Latino populations have been redeveloped or demolished: Arna Valley, Colonies of Arlington, and of course, Buckingham Village East of Glebe Rd. and Gates of Ballston. Now the economic crisis and the steep decline in new housing starts has had a significant impact on Latinos who work in construction.  This population which could be classified as “working poor” has definitely been hit by the current economic crisis. The numbers of Latinos who do not have stable housing has increased dramatically, as has the need for donated food at the Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC).  AFAC estimates that Latinos regularly comprise 40% of families that seek food.  While AFAC does not know whether the Latino population has increased in recent months, the Executive Director does estimate that the number of households seeking food has increased by 20% in the past four months at the time of this writing in 2009.  

We continue to believe that the County needs to be pro-active in seeking to ensure that the needs of Latinos are considered equally for the distribution of funds, programs, and services.  While Arlington has made significant strides since the Human Rights Commission issued its report nine years ago (Yr 2000), many of their conclusions remain valid. Most importantly, there is still a “lack of existing processes that allows the Hispanic community to bring directly to the attention of the agencies in question, their issues, concerns, and perceptions.

If you need further assistance or guidance, call BU-GATA or visit our Outreach Office.  Information on our Contact page.