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Reaching and Engaging Latino Communities

California’s communities are among the most diverse in the nation. In response, local officials are increasingly seeking strategies that engage and integrate immigrants into the civic and political life of their cities. Sal Tinajero, council member for the City of Santa Ana, and Oscar Rios, council member for the City of Watsonville, discuss how cities can better communicate with and involve their Latino populations. Terry Amsler, program director of the Institute for Local Government’s Collaborative Governance Initiative, conducted the interview.

What can cities do to support the integration of Latino newcomers into the civic and political life of their communities?

Sal Tinajero: One of the most basic steps is to make your council meetings language accessible -- meeting notices and materials as well as the meeting itself. In Santa Ana we are using a simple headset system in meetings, and it’s working very well. While most newcomers want to learn English, this isn’t something that happens overnight.

Integrating newcomers can take a certain amount of political will on the part of elected officials. But if we want our non-English-speaking residents to help us build stronger neighborhoods by addressing issues like graffiti, using and supporting our public safety resources and becoming engaged in public life, we have to involve them and give them information in a form they can understand and use. This should be a part of how we welcome all newcomers.

Oscar Rios: Cities have to take active steps to include more Latino residents, and it’s especially important to focus on younger Latinos: high-school and college students and young adults. These age groups often have more political interest, and many are becoming involved in politics and political campaigns. You can also develop new leadership by giving people opportunities to serve on city committees and commissions.

Of course, making residents feel welcome and respected is important. We have included full translation capacity for council meetings in our new city hall, and people coming to our city departments find staff who speak their language. This means a great deal to residents and helps them feel more connected to their local government.

Can you suggest any specific strategies that local governments should consider when seeking to engage Latino populations?

Oscar Rios: Reach out to people where they live and work. Speak to them in their language and about issues they care about. In Watsonville, we have a community outreach team, through our Parks and Recreation Department, that goes into communities to provide information, develop relationships and help residents organize to be more involved. We can also help them develop skills such as how to run meetings effectively. Residents become more prepared to help their own communities, whether the issue is neighborhood cleanup or public safety.

Sal Tinajero: First, partner with your local school district leadership. Latino parents are connected to their children’s schools, and this is a vehicle for two-way communications with Latino residents. School district-city relationships are not always the best, but our experience in Santa Ana suggests that good working relationships support access and dialogue with newcomer communities. Providing such "safe" and comfortable public spaces where issues and needs for services can be discussed is a priority for good public engagement.

What cultural or related factors should local officials be aware of when attempting to engage Latino immigrant populations?

Sal Tinajero: It’s important not to generalize too broadly about the Latino -- or any -- community, but local officials should understand that each community will have its own ways of communicating, playing, worshiping, celebrating and so on. The more these are understood, the more likely you’ll be able to successfully develop strategies for integration and engagement. For example, to some people, low-rider car shows might suggest images of gangs and violence, when in fact such car clubs and shows are often family activities and serve as opportunities for social networking. If local officials are familiar with such community practices, they will be more successful in getting information to and from residents.

Oscar Rios: Take advantage of cultural celebrations and events, such as Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Independence Day, to spread the word about city services and ways to become involved. Recognize and celebrate the contributions that Latinos have made in your community. In Watsonville, we have created a museum honoring Latino farmers and farmworkers. We also recognize the long history of the Latino press in California. Understanding this cultural history will help cities better connect opportunities for current involvement to the history of Latinos in these communities.

Are there "intermediary" organizations that local governments should communicate or partner with to more effectively reach out and engage Latino communities?

Oscar Rios: Churches can be a very important ally in Latino outreach and education, as can community service organizations, labor unions, schools and after-school programs, sports leagues and day care centers. Again, go where the Latino community lives and works. Make such outreach a regular part of how your city disseminates information. Encourage city staff to develop the language skills they need, and support their efforts to create working relationships with intermediary "gatekeepers."

Sal Tinajero: The Spanish-language press can be a very important ally in reaching and engaging Latino immigrants. Newspapers are typically free and available where residents shop, and Spanish-language radio has a huge following. Health organizations, after-school programs, sports clubs/leagues and churches can all be avenues for reaching out to Latino communities. These groups respond to the different needs of families and communities and offer cities a more comprehensive approach to education and engagement. These are not simply sources for disseminating information; they can be active partners who help you develop and shape your public engagement efforts.

When working to more fully involve Latino communities in local government decision-making, what obstacles are cities likely to encounter?

Sal Tinajero: Funding can be one obstacle, of course. Often there’s more that could be done to engage the public than we have resources to implement. However, in Santa Ana we’ve found that engaging the public in tree planting, laying sod, park maintenance and similar activities can free up some funds.

Also, it’s important to not develop a one-size-fits-all engagement strategy. Within the Latino community, differences relating to country of origin, income level or being a first- or second-generation immigrant can suggest different approaches to involving residents.

Oscar Rios: We have to break the habit of thinking that English is the only language of government. People do want and need to learn English, but having a greater variety of ways to get information creates a stronger and more inclusive democracy. And those elected to local office have to think about how to continue to improve outreach to our Latino communities, to treat them respectfully and invite their participation.

Do you have any final thoughts?

Oscar Rios: Local officials can provide inspiration -- and practical opportunities -- to Latinos to become more involved in their community. Leadership in any local community is typically limited to a relative few. Local officials have to actively help "open the doors" to create the new leadership a community needs to grow and prosper. Give people information, confidence and opportunities to serve. Invite them to become a part of your city government.

Sal Tinajero: Local officials who are serious about engaging members of the community who haven’t been involved before may find that some of these residents will have strong views and may be used to fighting to have a voice. They will not always be happy with what you are doing and may express their opinions strongly and not always reasonably. But helping to provide this voice is an important part of a local official’s responsibilities, and by doing so you’ll have a stronger and more successful community over time.