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Helping Latinos integrate Indianapolis

Helping Latinos integrate Indianapolis

One hot day this past August, Bonnie Dotts and dozens of her neighbors spent four hours picking up trash along Washington Street on the near Westside. It’s something Dotts has done before, but this time the experience was unique.
Ricardo Gambetta, the Indianapolis Director of Latino Affairs

“It wasn’t only a clean-up, it was a Latino outreach,” explained Dotts, who is president of the We Care Neighborhood Association, which services much of the near Westside and holds neighborhood clean-ups on a quarterly basis. “The Department of Public Works went door to door, handing out literature in Spanish and English, encouraging people to come out and join the clean-up effort.”

The response, according to Dotts and DPW spokesperson Margie Smith-Simmons, was fantastic. “We had whites, blacks, people from all the Central and South American countries, Cambodians, Chinese, Japanese,” Dotts said. “Everyone was working together. There were some areas that hadn’t been cleaned in years and years. They took tons of trash out of those areas.” In fact, the volunteers removed more than 40 tons of trash, according to Smith-Simmons.

“Lots of people joined in, even if they didn’t know about it before hand,” Smith-Simmons said. “One group of five or six young Latinos saw us working and they came up and asked, ‘Hey, can we help?’”

In addition to picking up garbage, the volunteers and DPW workers handed out brochures in Spanish explaining what the DPW does and outlining the services it provides.

That aspect of the day’s activities is at least as important as the actual cleaning if not more so, according to Indianapolis Director for Latino Affairs and Co-Chair of the Mayor’s Commission on Latino Affairs Ricardo Gambetta. “We have 20 Latino families moving to Indianapolis each week, many of whom don’t speak much English,” Gambetta explained. “Things we take for granted, they don’t know. When does the trash truck come? How many bags can they put out? What kind of items can go into the trash and which ones need to be disposed of separately? They don’t know these things and we have to teach them.”

No segregated communities

Gambetta, an affable, energetic man who originally hails from Peru but now calls Indianapolis home, is responsible for guiding the city’s Latino outreach program. Founded in 2000, the commission seeks to “help the Latino community integrate with the mainstream community,” Gambetta said. “We want people to have their culture — their customs, their music, their cuisine — but also to feel that they are a part of this city, that they belong here, and they need to contribute to the city.”

In order to facilitate that, the commission has for the past four years implemented a variety of programs — from educational seminars aimed at the Latino community, to culture and language training programs for local police and firefighters, to fun activities designed to bring Latino and other communities together. In the past year alone, they facilitated a Spanish language line (327-MOTA) for Latinos to report crimes and drug activity. They held Latino health forums, with emphasis on tobacco prevention and driving and drinking awareness. They launched CrossRoads Café, the first televised, local government ESL program in the nation, and provided Spanish language training to government personnel. They also have translated a variety of public service documents into Spanish, so that newly arrived Latinos can better access government services.

“We can’t, and don’t want, to translate everything,” Gambetta said. “But we have to reach out to this community, to make sure they can access the services they need. And that helps draw them into the community. It tells them we are a friendly city, we believe in diversity, and it encourages them to become participatory, to learn English, to come out and get to know the people in their communities, in their schools.”

Gambetta says the Mayor’s Commission doesn’t want to see isolated Latino neighborhoods develop into segregated communities. “We want the Latino population to be part of mainstream community. As people get to know one another, they find out we have similar values — everyone wants to get a good job, raise their family. Eighty percent of Latinos are involved in their faith community. They’re very hard working; they pay their taxes.”

“It hasn’t always been easy,” Dotts confides. “We’ve seen a lot of changes in the neighborhood. Some of the longtime residents are really struggling. The Latinos are sometimes not very trusting, and they tend to stick together. We really need more of this kind of outreach, where we all work together, to help build bridges.”

The challenge of integrating the Latino community with the mainstream community is complicated not only by language barriers, but by the speed of growth and also by some cultural expectations, according to Gambetta.

Latino influx

The Latino population is the fastest growing minority in Indianapolis, Gambetta says. Census data from 1980 put the population at 10,000. By 2000 it had grown nearly 400 percent to 40,000. Estimates are it has more than doubled in the past five years to over 100,000. And government officials expect growth to continue at the same rate, if not even faster. Gambetta said, “At the monthly oath of citizenship ceremonies, half the new citizens are Latinos. This phenomenal growth rate means the effort to educate and integrate communities is never ending, with people who don’t know anything about Indianapolis arriving each day.”

Coupled with the ever-increasing influx of Latinos to the city are cultural expectations that act to isolate newcomers. “Many Latinos come from countries where the government does everything. You don’t have to clean up your neighborhood — the government does that. So volunteerism is something new to them. We have to teach them that in America you take responsibility for your community. We have to encourage them to get involved,” Gambetta explained, adding that at the same time, “Many of the new immigrants don’t trust the government or the police. We have to show them that the government, the police are trustworthy and safe. You only do that with grass-roots initiatives.”

The DPW and the commission plan to expand the clean-up days and other programs to include more neighborhoods with heavy Latino concentrations. “We hope in the future people will become aware of clean-up days and they will become a known activity. So people will see the logo and say, ‘Oh, we’re having another clean-up day,’” Smith-Simmons said.

The commission’s list of accomplishments has generated national attention. A 2002 study of public policy and Latinos done by the University of Nebraska cited Indianapolis as one of the best cities in the nation regarding public safety and other public policy programs for Latinos.

Perhaps most impressive of all is everything the commission has accomplished through grants and donations. “With the exception of my salary,” Gambetta says, “everything has been financed by the private sector.” That includes several trips to Mexico for local business leaders and elected officials to meet with Mexican business leaders, and a training program in Honduras for police officers to receive training in techniques to combat gang violence and crime.

What does Gambetta hope for the future? “I hope the city will become more international, more cosmopolitan, that more people will get involved, and really become part of the community,” he said. “We are encouraging and training local Latino leadership, providing programs for youth leadership, so one day there will be many, many, strong Latino organizations in the community.”

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