Some of the leaders of the District’s Latino-oriented organizations met with D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton on Oct. 1 to articulate their concerns about housing, education and employment for D.C. residents.
Norton said hearing the anxieties of District Latinos will give her a better sense of what their needs are.
“We’re now in Hispanic Heritage Month, which makes it an especially appropriate time to hear from Latino leaders in D.C.,” she said. “I started the Latino Council in 2009 to draw a more coherent and extensive agenda to serve my Hispanic constituents, who come from many backgrounds and diverse needs. I’m very grateful to the distinguished members of our Latino Council to serve.”
Census data shows 11.3 percent of the District’s population consists of Latinos, people of Central and South American descent. Latinos live throughout the District but have a strong presence in neighborhoods such as Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, Petworth and Mid-16th Street. Housing has become a concern for Allison R. Kokkoros, the CEO of Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School.
“There are concerns about evictions once the mayor lifts the public emergency,” Kokkoros said. “Because some people have lost their jobs, they cannot pay rent and they are making it so far because of the eviction moratorium but we know things will get bad when the moratorium is lifted and the back rent is due. Parents are really struggling to make ends meet and living in the District is so expensive, but they are really trying to do what they can.”
Kokkoros said despite the economic challenges confronting her parents and students by the coronavirus pandemic, education remains a priority.
“We are a school for adults and they want an education,” she said. “We work largely with the immigrant community and we have 2,000 students. Our students are determined to learn and about 75 of them are looking at higher education.”
Abel Nunez, executive director of the Central American Resource Center, agreed with Kokkoros on housing, saying the situation with many families has become dire.
“Some landlords are already going to court,” Nunez said. “After the public emergency, we know the landlords are going to find ways to get tenants to pay up the rent that they owe quickly or they will work to get their tenants evicted. We are trying to get the word out in the community that as tenants, they do have rights and through our housing services program, which includes tenant education, assistance and advocacy, we can help them stay in their homes.”
Jackie Reyes-Yanes serves as the executive director of the Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs. Reyes-Yanes said the Bowser administration understands the struggles many Latinos are going through and has been proactive in solving problems.
“We operate seven days a week,” she said. “We work with a number of food banks in the city, have actively encouraged Latinos to participate in the census and we have a summer youth program. We want to make sure Latinos get what they need as far as housing, food and employment.”
Reyes-Yanes thanked Norton and her staff for the effort to ensure an accurate count in the Latino community. Norton responded by stressing the importance of census efforts, saying the District has become the second most undercounted jurisdiction in the country.
Rebecca Read Medrano, co-founder and executive director of the Gala Hispanic Theatre, told Norton her organization has suffered economic loss and that “half of our season is lost” due to the pandemic.
“We are a small, nimble organization and we have had to take risks,” Medrano said. “We have had to shift to virtual programming. We used to have a vibrant program serving 20,000 youths that were 65 percent Latino and 15 percent African American but because of COVID-19, our programming stopped with the schools closing.”
Medrano said the Gala Theatre’s Zoom program have had a lot of success but worries about Latinos in the creative fields.
“We employ Latino artists for our productions but with the pandemic, they don’t have anywhere to work,” she said. “These are youths who are giving the money they earn to their mothers. We need those jobs to come back.”
Medrano said despite the challenges, the Gala Hispanic Theater “is here to stay” and “we want people to know we are here.” Norton, after the hour-long session, said she was both pleased and concerned about what she heard.
“It is great to have this council,” the delegate said. “They keep me informed on what is going on.”