Commission meets in Holland to celebrate and ponder issues of interest to Hispanic/Latino community

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By Cynthia Price
Legal News

As Provost Rich Ray of Hope College noted when he welcomed the Hispanic/Latino Commission to the college’s Martha Miller Center, the growing Latino population in the area and at the school “has enriched us quite a bit.”

Commissioners and staff held a productive two-hour session there March 13, not only considering business, but also taking time to celebrate the community’s accomplishments.

Muskegon County was well-represented by Sonja Hernández, who lives in North Muskegon but works in Grand Rapids.

Kent County has three active commissioners: Martha Gonzalez-Cortes, formerly Executive Director of the Hispanic Center of West Michigan (and before that State Director of the Office of Migrant Affairs), now head of her own consulting firm, Gonzalez-Cortes and Associates; Julio Morales, Executive Director of Product Development and Sales for Consumers Energy; and Carlos Sanchez,  Director of the Latino Business and Economic Development Center at Ferris State University, who was unable to attend last Friday’s meeting.

“Kent County is very well-represented on the commission,” says Gonzalez-Cortes. “I’m new, so I’m trying to get a feel for how things are done with this commission, but I’m really looking forward to serving.” Gov. Snyder appointed Gonzalez-Cortes just last month.

The Hispanic-Latino Commission, which falls under the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, was established by Public Act 164?of 1975.  The act reads: “Members... shall be broadly representative of all fields of interest to Hispanic/Latino people and...from urban, suburban, and rural geographical areas representative of the Hispanic/Latino people throughout this state.”

The Commission’s mission is “to enhance the abilities of Michigan Hispanics by improving their quality of life” and by promoting appointment of more Latinos in the public and private sectors, increasing economic as well as educational opportunities, and studying as well as reporting on matters affecting Latinos. (See www.michigan.gov/mdcr/0,4613,7-138-58275_3064---,00.html for several reports and publications.)

The Commission is charged with developing a unified policy and plan of action, and the issue of Latino unity came up repeatedly at the meeting, with several expressing desire for generational mentoring and increased Latino identity.

“We need that unity, that sense of ethnic pride as a Latino race across the board,” said Diego Morales, Outreach Coordinator for the Children’s Advocacy Center of Ottawa County.

The Commission also advises the governor on state programs, from coordination to implementation to changes needed, and increases support of Hispanic-Latino issues at the governmental
level.

A newly-elected state representative from the Holland area, Danielle Garcia, addressed the commission. She told members about the newly-established Hispanic Caucus in the state legislature. She commented, “People think we feel it’s easy to vote on what comes before us, but believe me, it’s a very thoughtful process. It weighs on all of us and it weighs on me every time, representing the Latino community.”

The Hispanic Caucus will be holding listening sessions around the state, and Gonzalez-Cortes urged them to hold one in Grand Rapids. One of the caucus’s members, Rep. Bruce Rendon,
will host the next Hispanic/Latino Commission meeting in Mt. Pleasant area on May 8.

There were a lot of participants in the public comment period, including Lena DelReal, interim Executive Director of Holland’s Latin Americans United for Progress or LAUP, which according to both public and commissioner comments is well-respected statewide.

Kevin Bowling, Ottawa County Circuit Court Administrator, told the commission that he came to the meeting to find out more about what the commission does. “We’re trying to reach out in every way possible in order to bring a better level of service to all of the people in Ottawa County. I’d like to learn more about the kind of programs you have that might touch the court system,” he said.

Lupe Ramos-Montigny, long-time member of the State Board of Education and co-founder of the Committee to Honor Cesar E. Chavez said, “We’re all really passionate about what this commission does, but we have to start with our children, we also have to be passionate about education and policies that affect our children.”

Another charge of the commission is to review grants made to the Office of Hispanic/Latino Affairs, and at Friday’s meeting members struggled to understand a grant that greatly affects the office’s bottom line.

For the second year, the state gave the office a grant to oversee promotion and provision of mental health services to the Hispanic-Latino community in the state. Part of this task will be contracted to local mental health agencies.

Previously, members had not approved this part of the budget because they wanted to understand what the commitments are under the grant and what the contracted agencies must do, along with the agencies’ exact compensation.

The item was again tabled for more information, but there will be a special meeting of the commission April 17 in Lansing to review that budget section.

Finally, the commission exists to “secure appropriate recognition of Hispanic accomplishments and contributions to the state.” In honor of Women’s History Month, Commissioner Sylvia Hernández gave commendations to several Latinas around the state.

She paid recipient Connie Navarro, of Muskegon, a high compliment as she recognized her for her years of activism. “She’s blazed many trails for people like me.”

Navarro, who had been lured to the meeting by her daughter Angelita, was very surprised. She talked briefly about her book, A New Home in Michigan: The Mexican-American Experience in
Muskegon, which was co-authored by Daniel Yakes.

Also recognized was Lena DelReal of LAUP, Stacy Stout of the Kellogg Foundation (formerly with the Hispanic Center of West Michigan in Grand Rapids), and Sanjuanita Estrada of Oceana County.

Attorney Raquel Salas of Avanti Law Group in Grand Rapids merited a special Certificate of Resolution for her “outstanding efforts to break through the glass ceiling.” Salas, who recently was invited to the White House for the third time to share her ideas on Latino affairs, told the commission, “It’s a constant struggle, but I think it’s my job to make a difference.”

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