Professor Engages Local Latino Community

Professor Engages Local Latino Community

Isaac Fast
Goshen Commons
isaacf@goshen.edu

Nearly every third person in Goshen identifies as Hispanic or Latino, according to a 2012 census estimate. Among elected city positions, however, Goshen has never counted a single Latino representative.

The disparity between the city’s elected representatives and its Latino population, according to Gilberto Perez, associate professor of social work, is more than an issue of electing a Latino representative.

Last year, Perez was appointed to the Goshen Plan Commission, a committee that promotes orderly property development. He said it comes down to an issue of Hispanic involvement in the community.

Perez believes that candidates are elected based on how well they are engaged with the community. He said that organizations like the Parks Department, Community Relations Commission, neighborhood associations and separate organizations like La Casa are ways that candidates can become more involved.

“The more interaction you have in those groups, two or three things happen,” he said. “People learn to know you, they learn to know your leadership skills and they trust you.”

Perez and other community activists are interested in seeing increased civic participation among the city’s Latino population so that the sub-communities of Goshen can grow together.

The city of Goshen has been conscious about the way it represents its citizens. In 2007, the Community Relations Commission hired a consultancy group to put together a report on Goshen’s changing diversity with a special emphasis on the Latino population. According to the report, many of their interviewees “underscored the influence of elected officials in shaping civic discourse.”

The report also applauded Mayor Allan Kauffman for his work in appointing a diverse group of people to positions on city committees. Among Latinos, Richard Aguirre, GC director of communications and marketing; Sandra McMasters; Miguel Millán and Gilberto Perez were all appointed by the mayor or the Goshen City Council to various city departments.

“Just because we don’t have a Latino elected official doesn’t mean we don’t have Latino representatives,” said Felipe Merino, a Goshen attorney. “When I look at the mayor of Goshen and some of the City Council members, they’re very in tune with the concerns of the community. They’re trying to gauge the Latino community like they’re trying to gauge the rest of the community.”

Merino has also seen instances in which elected minority representatives don’t represent minority populations genuinely. He believes it’s more important to have effective representation than to have officials of a certain race or ethnicity.

That said, Merino would like to see increased civic participation among the Latino community. As an attorney, he has processed over 500 deferred action applications for young Latinos, granting temporary legal status to immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.

Merino sees the Latino representation issue as a matter of empowering young people. He said that the majority of students in Goshen elementary schools are Latino U.S. citizens, but he worries about their outlook on life.

“What role models do they have?” said Merino. “If they don’t have role models, we run into the situation where people feel that there is a glass ceiling.”

Merino was grateful to have grown up in a place where he saw people rising up to achieve prestigious positions, even though his family didn’t have much. Merino eventually worked in Washington, D.C. with Congressman Xavier Becerra, who had risen to that position from a working-class immigrant family.

A high-achieving role model inspired Merino, and Merino hopes that kids in Goshen will be able to experience the same.

Merino said that it’s a process to get there. “The only way we can get there as a community is if we are raising our young people to feel engaged, to make a difference,” he said. “That’s how we get leaders to rise up in a community. Then we engage those young people on a community level, so when that young Latino decides to run for office, he or she is running with an intimate understanding of the community.”

Although he didn’t know of any upcoming Latino candidates, Merino was confident there would be a Latino candidate within the next few years.

So was Mayor Kauffman.

“Attitudes are changing in Goshen,” he said. “There are people other than white Republicans that can get elected.”

Kauffman said it’s been a struggle to engage the Latino community, but believes it will change with time and generational shifts.

“It’s only a matter of time until we see Latinos elected into office,” he said.

Perez sees what he calls a swelling, or a rise in Latino involvement. He believes it will create a brighter future for Goshen.

“We’re seeing a shift, but we’ll see it even more so in the next three to four years,” said Perez. “Because of deferred action, many young Latinos have a higher status. Now they can work at that bank.”

Perez said young people are starting to become more confident as they become more involved in the community. Positions as business owners, clergy, professors and physicians are being filled by Latinos, and according to Perez, it’s only a matter of time until somebody is elected.

“The community is preparing itself for an elected Latino official,” said Perez. “The process of the community growing and living with the newcomer will bring an elected official in the next four years.”

Record
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