A Tale Of Two Counties: Part Two

news1-1Reponses to the Latino-White statistical divide detailed in the 2012 CAP Report

In the Nov. 29 issue, GT reported on several glaring differences between Latinos and Whites in “quality of life” indicators as revealed in the 2012 Santa Cruz County Community Assessment Project (CAP) Report. This annual survey of everything from local economic data to social and health indicators showed that the county has seen modest economic recovery over the last year, but that Latinos are behind when it comes to several indicators of serious social distress. For instance, Latinos experience twice the unemployment rate of White residents, higher high school drop out and juvenile arrest rates, a higher incidence of “lacking basic needs,” and widespread lack of health insurance.

This week, we hear responses from a handful of local Latino community leaders and educators about the data.  

The media often blunders when covering the “Latino community,” according to the Pew Hispanic Center, by assuming Latinos are a more or less homogeneous minority group with shared problems and general consensus on proposed solutions. The reality is that the Latino community is diverse, in both opinion and socio-economic status, says the Pew Hispanic Center.

Locally, there are upper middle class Latino households with longer family histories in Santa Cruz than many White families, just as there are recently arrived, nearly indigent immigrants, as well as first, second and third generation Latino families all facing different issues, according to former Watsonville High School principal Murry Shekman, who currently serves as assistant superintendent of Secondary Education at the Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD). 

Another wrench in covering the issue, according to Mireya Gomez-Contreras, is that “poverty is not something we really know how to talk about. Something always seems to get lost between the data and the day-to-day reality of poverty, and the day-to-day solutions to it.” Gomez-Contreras is program director for the soon-to-be opened Day Worker Center, a project sponsored by the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County that aims to improve the hiring conditions and reduce the risks of casual work for both day laborers and their employers.

“The local economy and the Latino community are inextricably linked,” says Jorge Mendez, vice president of Front Street, Inc., a local nonprofit specializing in the care and housing of adults with mental health disabilities. He also serves on the Santa Cruz County Latino Affairs Commission, which advises the Board of Supervisors on issues pertinent to the Latino population. “Poverty is not exclusively a Latino problem,” he adds, “and we should be thinking about the best strategies to change the trajectory of poverty in the next generation in terms of the entire community, not just the Latino community.”

With Latino children currently making up more than 54 percent of K-12 students in public schools across the county, Mendez points to the trajectory of current poverty predictors in the Latino community and asks, “What will the local economy look like for the next generation? What will the overall county tax base look like if we miss opportunities to improve these outcomes—I mean, as a community as a whole?”

Mendez references evidence that good pre-natal care, good nutrition and quality early childhood education lead to better educational achievement for children. “Targeting these services to the Latino population, and making our best efforts to reduce waiting lists for subsidized day care for everybody, makes the most sense to develop the smart local economy of the future,” Mendez says.  

Michael Watkins, superintendent of Santa Cruz County Office of Education, is quick to point out that $80 million has been cut from county schools since the onset of the Great Recession four years ago. However, in part due to the passage of Proposition 30 in November, Watson says he is optimistic about sustaining current programs designed to reduce drop-out rates throughout South County.

“We’ve managed to keep something of a culturally sensitive safety net in place, trying to catch kids before they drop out, but we can always do better,” Watkins says. He points to data from the Students in Transition Program, which provides services to homeless students and youth throughout the county. About 96 percent of the 763 homeless youth served by the program in South County last school year were Latino, according to a report made available by Watkins.

“O.T.” Quintero, assistant director of local nonprofit Barrios Unidos, takes a long-term, systemic look at the disparities in social welfare indicators between Whites and Latinos, and is generally frustrated with what he sees.

“If nothing really changes in our social welfare delivery systems, and by that I mean the schools, the family support agencies, police and probation departments,” says Quintero, “then nothing really changes, and it’s the same old song.”

 Via outreach and after-school programs, Quintero says Barrios Unidos “provides alternative pathways to productive futures for Latino youth.”  

To bridge the gap in Latino families where there is neither experience nor role models for attending college, two sisters, Nereida and Fe Silva Robles, originally from Oaxaca, Mexico, have initiated a grassroots Latino role models effort.

At their third annual Latino Role Models conference on Nov. 17 at Harbor High School, more than 20 Latino professionals from a wide range of fields spoke to high school students, in Spanish, about their own personal backgrounds and, in some cases, their own struggles for an education and professional career. More than 100 high school students attended, and participated in break-out sessions where Latino/Latina doctors, attorneys, police officers and social workers explained their careers.

“We want our youth to be affected by the success of these Latino professionals,” says Nereida Robles. “We know from previous events these professionals really touch the lives of some of these kids. We don’t just read about the need for a more positive role models and college-oriented culture in the Latino community, we are actually making it happen.”

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