Though the East End’s Latino population has grown explosively over the past decade, you wouldn’t know it by looking at the boards of local governments, which do not count a single Latino member among them.
That’s just one of the issues Minerva Perez hopes to address as the new executive director of Organización Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island, a non-profit organization that promotes education, the arts and advocacy for the East End’s Latino communities.
“We’re here, and we need some equal representation,” Perez said in an interview yesterday.
She is the first full-time dedicated director of the organization, which was founded in 2002. It has so far focused most of its efforts on the South Fork and is especially known for holding an annual Latino film festival in Water Mill, but Perez hopes to expand OLA’s advocacy efforts as well as the organization’s presence on the North Fork.
Unifying the Latino communities across the East End, she says, will allow them to speak with a single, clear voice to express their needs – both in the community and in local government.
“If we can’t show that kind of solidarity, we are not going to get what we need, which is, very simply, some equal representation,” she said.
Immigrants on the East End hail from a diverse variety of Central and South American countries, and Perez hopes to use that diversity to strengthen the local Spanish-speaking communities rather than divide them.
“There is so much that is being offered, all the riches of these very specific cultures – whether it’s Columbian or Ecuadorian or Chilean – that unifying this Spanish-speaking population is key to helping raise the whole ship,” she said.
She expressed disappointment with the lack of Latino representatives in local government, both as elected officials and appointed positions. “We’ve got a whole array of experiences to bring to the table,” Perez said. “We have all these folks here doing great work. We’ve got very successful business owners, and we’ve got new immigrants to this area. They need to have a voice.”
One of her first priorities as director of OLA will be to map out the needs of the local communities the organization serves.
“There are so many different aspects to the Latino community,” she said. “It’s not all about immigration and overcrowded housing and 7-Elevens.”
Perez is reaching out to local officials and community leaders to get a better sense of what those needs are and what work is being done to meet them. She sat down with Sister Margaret Smyth, who runs the North Fork Spanish Apostolate in Riverhead, for almost two hours yesterday to discuss the Riverhead Latino community.
“We don’t have any desire to reinvent the wheel,” Perez said. “Rather, we’d like to work with these existing organizations and groups that are already doing such amazing work and see where we can add to that conversation.”
One of the ways OLA has brought the Latino community together on the South Fork is through its annual film festival, which will be held again this fall, along with numerous other performances and art events. Before Perez became director of OLA, she worked with the organization to direct a Spanish-language production of the Vagina Monologues on the South Fork, which was “crazily well received” with more than 150 people in attendance.
“Celebrating these things is what starts raising everything up,” she said. “If all you do is focus on the fight, then you kind of forget what you’re fighting for.”
OLA also holds seminars and panels aimed toward Hispanic residents on topics like immigration, computer literacy, legal education and entrepreneurship. Perez hopes to involve the North Fork in some of those educational events this year.
Perez can be reached at [email protected].