Despite the complimentary wine and mouth-watering buffet of Mexican delicacies, the members of the Madison City Council who showed up at the Centro Hispano on Friday evening were there on serious business.
After the socializing came presentations from over a dozen nonprofits, urging the political leaders to work with them to serve Dane County's largest minority community.
Such groups included the Latino Chamber of Commerce, the Latino Children and Families Council, the Latino Health Council and the Allianza Latina.
Ald. Shiva Bidar, the only Hispanic member of the 20-member Council, helped organize the event with the leaders of the many Latino organizations that were featured.
“I’m glad to see so many people show up,” she said, pointing out that nearly all of her council colleagues as well as Mayor Paul Soglin came to the event. “It’s important to show the growth of the Latino community, the strength of Latino organizations and the need to continue to financially support these services.”
Luis Montoto, program director of La Movida (1480 AM), Madison’s only Spanish-language radio station, said he believes that such events allow elected officials to better understand issues specific to the city’s Latinos.
Asked what issues are of paramount importance, he responded without hesitation: “Driver’s licenses,” a privilege that eludes many undocumented workers.
“Obviously it’s a state issue but we have to expose our voice to our leaders” on the issue, he said.
The absence of comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level can prevent city officials from fully engaging with the Latino community, said Gloria Reyes, a detective in the Madison Police Department and president of the Centro Hispano board.
Many high school students who have grown up in the city remain undocumented, which severely limits their ability to go to college, find a job or even obtain basic services, such as driver’s licenses.
“Looking to our future, where does that leave us?” she asked.
Jessie Nunez put a face to the problem, albeit with a happy ending.
Nunez, 24, came to the United States with her family when she was 7 and lived with the fear of deportation until last month, when she was notified that she had been approved for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program put in place by President Barack Obama that protects those who came to the U.S. illegally as children from deportation, without conferring full legal status on them.
Finally, she said, she no longer had to make up a fake Social Security number to pursue her desired career in law enforcement. She is currently attending Madison College and recently got a driver’s license.
“For some it’s just another piece of plastic in their wallet, but to me it means the whole world,” she said.
Just as important as reaching out to non-Latino leaders is bringing the broader Hispanic community together through such events, said Amelia Ramirez, a teacher who directs a bilingual 5th grade class at Lincoln Elementary.
Those who come to such events, said Ramirez, typically represent a recurring cast of the city’s Latino professionals. The largely blue-collar parents of her all-Latino class are absent, however.
“We want the parents to get involved in this sort of thing,” she said.
The 20 percent of Madison public school students who are Hispanic face a number of unique issues, due largely to cultural and language barriers between parents and the overwhelmingly white teachers.
While Ramirez was happy to report that the parents of her students have a “100 percent” attendance at parent-teacher conferences, she said many would be reluctant to show up if the teacher didn’t speak Spanish. Furthermore, she said, similar to African American students, Latino students are often subjected to low expectations.
“I think there’s a tendency for white teachers to feel kind of sorry for them,” she said. “To say, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t give him so much homework, he doesn’t have support at home.'"
That’s not the case for her son, who carries the non-Hispanic name of his father and has lighter skin than she does.
“He’s Hispanic but for all practical purposes, my kid is white,” she said.
What does that imply?
“White privilege,” she responded. “He has it all.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to say that Latinos are Dane County's largest minority community. That is the case according to 2012 U.S. Census figures. The most recent census figures for Madison show African-Americans as the city's largest minority community, but those statistics are two years older.