Flint, MI–During a period of 40 years where Flint has seen a consistent decline in its population, the Latinx community has maintained a steady presence. Despite its roots running deep within the city, community members find themselves struggling every day to access the same services and opportunities as the rest of their fellow Flintstones.
The Latinx Technology and Community Center has witnessed this first-hand. On regular basis, center staff is met with members of the community in search of access to translation services, healthcare, and in the last year, financial support due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Set in what used to be an old Citizens Bank building on the east side of town, the tech center has gone through several permutations in the last two decades.
Originally a chapter of the American G.I. Forum, a Hispanic veterans advocacy group, the center spent much of the last two decades known as the Hispanic Technology and Community Center. Despite its change in name and leadership (at one time being overseen by both a G.I. Forum steering committee and Mott Community College), the center has remained a staple in the community.
Asa Zuccaro, the tech center’s director since 2018, said he is proud of the work that’s gone into making the center what it is today.
Despite having to keep the center closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, tech center staff still teach remote English as a Second Language classes to children of all ages. Zuccaro and the staff continue to apply for grants, seeking anything from general funding to community gardens and other city beautification projects.
Even socially distanced events like last year’s Day of Action, a collaborative effort between local organizations like the Sylvester Broome Empowerment Village and national organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union have been hosted by the center.
Though Zuccaro said programming like this helps toward establishing the center as a community hub, therefore granting legitimacy to the Latinx community, Zuccaro believes it’s not nearly enough.
His vision for the center isn’t anything grandiose. He isn’t looking for a flashy downtown location or access to a billion-dollar endowment. What he does want is a center that can serve as a place to educate citizens on the history and beauty of Latinx culture. He wants what the Latinx community of Flint deserves.
“We want the community to feel proud, right? Whether you’re Hispanic, Latino, Latina, Latinx, whatever it is you identify as, you deserve the right to say ‘I have a community center in Flint, in Genesee county and it’s fantastic,’” Zuccaro said.
As Zuccaro has found out, that vision, reasonable as it may be, is unattainable without the proper support.
“The issue I found after taking this position is, it’s all administrative work. You get bogged down so much that you have little capacity to implement some of these things that you want to do and that’s what I struggle with,” Zuccaro said.
He said the administrative tasks are a full-time job. Any work aimed toward improving and furthering the center’s programs is almost always off the clock. “If I want to get some of my vision in there,” said Zuccaro. “ it’s 60 or 70 hours (per week) … that’s how we’ve gotten to where we are today.”
The extreme hours have paid off, he said, but progress has been too slow. The lack of necessary resources has meant the center can only focus on a handful of projects at a time.
One example of this, Zuccaro said, is the state of the center itself. While the inside of the building feels clean and modern, sporting a common area with conference tables, a projector and white-erase board, a computer lab, and even a classroom for children, the building’s exterior gives no indication of the work done inside.
Brightly colored murals make the building stand out, but many of its windows are boarded over. “Inside we’re working hard, outside you might think we’re an abandoned building,” Zuccaro said.
This lack of visibility exemplifies the way the Latinx community is seen throughout the city–or, rather, not seen.
Zuccaro knows he and the community as a whole are still stuck at “Go.” Their turn for a seat at the proverbial table is yet to come. But he has a clear vision for what he thinks the community ultimately needs to be served and to be allowed to grow.
“I have this hope that our local community will be culturally relevant linguistically … and won’t let immigration status be a barrier to services,” Zuccaro said.
To him, lack of access to services due to language barriers is the single greatest issue the Latinx community faces.
The most visible way in which these barriers manifest themselves, Zuccaro says, is in the field of public health.
Most Spanish-speaking individuals will have a hard time seeking out health services simply because of the lack of properly trained bilingual staff in the area.
Those who make it past the language barrier are then questioned about their residency status. Legal or not, this question alone is enough to dissuade some from seeking further assistance. Simply put: “Lack of access creates health disparities,” Zuccaro said.
Lisa Lapeyrouse, an Associate Professor of public health at The University of Michigan-Flint has spent her career studying racial and ethnic inequities in healthcare access among Latinx communities.
She said the issues the Latinx community in Flint faces in terms of visibility exist on a national scale. Despite being the largest minority group in the country, making up about 18.5 percent of the U.S population, Lapeyrouse said academic studies and therefore understanding of the inequities the population faces are largely misunderstood and unrecognized.
“Those conversations are very much couched in black and white,” Lapeyrouse said. “Even though Latinx people are the largest ethnic minority group. … You could just Google Scholar the number of articles on African American health inequities and then those among Latinx people and there is a wide gap between the two.”
This fundamental misunderstanding of the U.S’s Latinx population is perhaps most broadly underscored by the fact the U.S Census Bureau, with the exception of the 1930 census that included a Mexican race category, did not include a Hispanic option until 1980.
Lapeyrouse said this systemic lack of information has lead to the existence of very little infrastructure designed to address the needs of Latinx communities. In Flint, she said, it’s no different.
For this reason, Lapeyrouse said the effects of public health emergencies like the Flint water crisis can be compounded for members of the Latinx community.
“Because we lack that infrastructure, there is a delay in getting the information and services to the community … most places don’t have a Spanish speaker or translator on staff. That means once the information gets to the agency or the health department, they need to take that information and they need somebody to advocate and say, ‘hey, don’t forget about this community,’ and then they need to find somebody to translate it.”
Lapeyrouse explained how during the water crisis, entities involved with disseminating critical information about the water resorted to using Google Translate, “which was a nightmare,” Lapeyrouse said.
Even when accurate and helpful translations were obtained, Lapeyrouse said organizations still faced the task of distributing the information, a task made doubly difficult by the fact little to no Spanish speaking media existed in Flint.
“While the larger population has this infrastructure where they can turn on the six o’clock news or they can listen to the radio…we are again at a disadvantage. We become reliant on knowing who those key people are, who those community partners are that are going to disseminate that information. That’s going to be a much slower process,” Lapeyrouse said.
She said those who are not connected to the people in the community capable of dispersing the information necessary to stay safe and healthy “may go without information or services for a very long time. That can contribute to not only health risks but the severity with which they experience illness and disease.”
Zuccaro recognizes the city’s lack of infrastructure makes the center and therefore him as the director, one of the key figures in advocating for these large-scale structural changes.
Despite this, he fears the politics that make up Flint’s extensive web of nonprofits, healthcare organizations, advocacy groups and municipal entities put Zuccaro at a disadvantage when it comes to representing his community.
“I came into this position when I was 25. I’m brown, my ears are pierced, I have a tattoo on my hand, I wear two chains … that’s why I do anything to be perceived as less intimidating, frightening, whatever you want to call it. That’s why I dress up, to try to appeal to the dominant culture,” Zuccaro said.
He knows these aspects of his personality are likely to be looked down upon in certain circles. On top of this, his lack of experience in the field of nonprofits and placemaking he feels takes away from his authority and ability to speak out for the needs of his community.
“I recognize my youngness,” Zuccaro said. “Who am I to be calling out these organizations and their directors with their master’s degrees or Ph.Ds? I’d be instantly shut down and disregarded.”
Zuccaro has learned that while there are a plethora of problems plaguing his community, bringing these issues up to organization leaders is not as simple as, well, bringing them up.
To achieve his goals for the center Zuccaro knows he needs help. Getting that help, he quickly learned, requires more than good intentions and an impeccable track record.
“Unfortunately, the way it all works is very political. There is politics in absolutely every part of it … the relationships of how you’re perceived, how your organization is perceived, the desire to work with one another,” Zuccaro said.
Perception is everything in politics, and the Latinx community’s seemingly low placement on the totem pole has forced Zucarro to play “the game.”
“If I call organizations out about how they do not have the ability to serve somebody because they have … nobody with the linguistic skills and they just don’t understand the perspective of somebody outside the culture, then this organization is completely inequitable and has no capability of serving our community. If we call them out for that, that’s not good. That’s going to create an enemy.” Zuccaro said.
Instead, Zuccaro has chosen to play it safe by appealing to the leaders of these organizations and using existing efforts to highlight the need for greater Latinx representation and awareness in the city. His go-to example recently has been the Mass Transit Authority’s implementation of Spanish language signage online and in its stations.
By underscoring Latinx-oriented changes like these, Zuccaro said he is able to point service organizations in the right direction. “If I say, ‘hey, let’s look at the MTA. One thing they do really well to service our community is that they have notices and signs that are bilingual.’” he said.
Though few and far between, these examples allow him to ask service organizations to “look at where else we have the opportunity for growth.”
Tactics like these are as much about bringing awareness as they are about inciting action.
Zuccaro says working with service organizations and others of the like isn’t just about receiving grant money or other forms of financial support. It’s about making internal changes to the organizations themselves, changes that allow them to better cater to the needs of the communities they serve.
He and his staff are not equipped to handle medical issues, legal issues or domestic disputes for example. Yet, it is often the case that individuals facing these types of circumstances are turned down by the entities designed to help them and sent back to the center for assistance.
“We get different organizations or service providers that reach out to us and they’ll say ‘hey we received … a phone call from this individual, can you translate the phone call? Can you take the phone call?’” Zuccaro said. “It’s always puzzling, organizations reach out to us and my immediate response is ‘well I would send them to you.”
With no tools at their disposal to help in cases like these except to act as interpreters, tech center staff is forced to send individuals away. They can either go back to face the circumstances they were looking to escape or to the organizations that originally sent them to the center to begin with.
Victoria Arteaga, a retired immigration lawyer and volunteer staff attorney at the International Affairs Center in downtown Flint, said has had similar experiences.
“We do immigration and translation services,” said said. “That encompasses a lot of things. I’ve done everything from doctor’s appointments to going to Detroit for interviews that people have (with immigration officials).”
Arteaga has also dedicated a lot of her time to bill assistance in the last year. As she notes, the economic instability the COVID-19 pandemic has created has been immeasurably worse for individuals whose residency status has made it impossible for them to receive any sort of government assistance.
“They don’t have the same reach. If I am a citizen and I got laid of from my job I would get unemployed, I would get the stimulus. If you’re undocumented, you just get laid off.”
Arteaga notes that in her experience working mostly with family immigration, mixed-status families or households made up of both legal and illegal residents often miss out on these government benefits out of fear they might expose themselves.
This mistrust of government agencies at the local, state and federal level further worsens the situation for many, Arteaga said.
Other members of the community like Father Paul Donnelly of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Flint said he has fielded similar requests for translation services and help with navigating the U.S immigration system.
“The requests we most often get are related to immigration status. People ask me for a letter expressing that they are members of the church and that they contribute to our shared life,” Donnelly said.
He receives similar requests to those of Zuccaro and Arteaga for translation services.
“Sometimes people have come with translation barriers. They don’t understand for instance something that came to them in the mail,” he said.
While these shared experiences shed a positive light on the closeness and caring nature of the Latinx community in Flint, they also underscore Lapeyrouse’s observation that in Flint, not knowing the right person to go to for help can lead to devastating consequences. More to her point, the lack of bilingual services within already established service organizations is putting an undue burden on organizations like the tech center.
Despite experiences like these, Zuccaro said he believes the lack of awareness or of Latinx-oriented solutions in the city isn’t a product of intentional racism or malice at a wide-spread level. Rather there is a severe lack of understanding of the needs of the Latinx community and the effort it takes to make the necessary changes.
“I think the majority of people want to serve, but really don’t put in the effort or resources or even have the know-how. That’s what I hope to be able to produce going forward.” Zuccaro said. “How can we create this equitable plan for Genesee county, from our perspectives?”
Therein lies Zuccaro’s deep-held belief that while yes, the Latinx community needs support to thrive, its ultimate goal should not be to put further strain on existing service organizations, but rather to build toward a community able to care for itself.
“I think our community has everything it needs to support, build and service itself to higher intellect, prosperity and community … it exists right now,” Zuccaro said. “I hope that we can be reliant on other institutions but we will also hold on to this recollection that we need to build something for ourselves.”