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Latinos find little room in majority-African American county

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/4/2022 Rachel Chason
Dendry Aguilar, a small-business owner, approaches Bedford Station Apartments in Langley Park, one of the complexes where she and her husband delivered boxes of food during the early days of the pandemic when people needed help. © Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post Dendry Aguilar, a small-business owner, approaches Bedford Station Apartments in Langley Park, one of the complexes where she and her husband delivered boxes of food during the early days of the pandemic when people needed help.

As they watched their communities devastated by hunger and sickness, a group of Latino leaders in Prince George’s County said their struggle for resources during the pandemic was exacerbated by the near-total lack of Latino officials in the government.

Despite emphasizing the importance of representation, County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) has no Latinos, who now represent 1 in 5 residents in Prince George’s, in her 39-person cabinet. Latino leaders in the county said that absence left them scrambling to fill gaps — and that at key points in the rollout of testing sites and food and vaccine distributions, the county failed to reach some of its hardest-hit residents.

A cohort of Latino leaders who issued a statement six months ago highlighting the lack of representation say their requests for an audit have been dismissed and that their calls for the administration to change its recruitment practices have gone unanswered.

“All we want to do is be in the room,” said state Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s). “If you are not in the room, you are an afterthought.”

It’s an old friction in Prince George’s that was felt anew as the pandemic underscored inequities faced by Black and Latino communities nationwide, with both historically marginalized groups struggling for resources. Alsobrooks detailed the systemic reasons Prince George’s, where she was raised, was vulnerable to covid-19 as she pressed Gov. Larry Hogan (R) for more help. But in interviews with more than a dozen Latino leaders and community members, people said their communities sometimes seemed a blind spot for Alsobrooks’s administration.

In Langley Park, where 70 percent of adults are not U.S. citizens and many are undocumented, business owner Dendry Aguilar saw so little assistance coming from the government in the early days of the pandemic that she started personally delivering groceries to apartment complexes.

“I don’t think they do it on purpose,” Aguilar said of the government’s disconnect with the community, “it’s just the fact that they don’t understand the culture.”

An immigrant community faces a ‘catastrophic’ pandemic without help

Alsobrooks declined an interview for this story but issued a statement acknowledging more could be done to ensure Latino representation in government, saying the issue extends beyond her administration and county lines.

“We value inclusion and diversity, and the County government has made efforts to ensure that Latino community has a seat at the table as decisions are made,” she said through a spokeswoman.

a person standing in front of a computer: Prince George's County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D). © Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post Prince George's County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D).

A fraught history

Prince George’s is known as a haven for the Black middle class, a jurisdiction where average wealth increased as White working-class residents moved out in the 1980s and African American residents moved in.

An initial wave of Latino immigrants fleeing civil war in El Salvador also arrived in the 1980s, and would grow in the decades that followed, with a surge since 2010 fueled by emigration from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

As neighborhoods changed, tensions sometimes flared — at points echoing the strain felt in the county’s previous demographic transition. When Alsobrooks’s predecessor, Rushern L. Baker III, pushed to open two international schools for immigrants, it sparked outrage, with the county’s NAACP branch arguing it would take resources from Black students whose schools have been historically underfunded.

Baker, who is African American, personally attended the heated parent-teacher association meetings to explain his position.

“People would say, ‘This is a Black county,’” Baker said, “and I would say, ‘No. This is a diverse county.’”

Rushern L. Baker III, center right, is seen in 2015 with Angela Alsobrooks, then the state's attorney for the county; Kevin Maxwell, the chief executive of Prince George's County Public Schools; and Segun Eubanks, the chairman of the county's board of education. © Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post Rushern L. Baker III, center right, is seen in 2015 with Angela Alsobrooks, then the state's attorney for the county; Kevin Maxwell, the chief executive of Prince George's County Public Schools; and Segun Eubanks, the chairman of the county's board of education.

Baker, too, faced criticism over a lack of Latino representation in government during his first term. It prompted him to take action — including supporting Latino candidates, elevating several Latinos within the government and creating a Latino liaison position that he insisted report directly to his chief of staff and be stationed near his office.

The key, said Baker, who by his second term won an award from a national group for elevating Latinos in government, was having people around to push him and ask: “Have you thought about this?”

Adam Ortiz, the director of the Department of Environment under Baker, left a month into Alsobrooks’s administration. Hector Velez, the highest-ranking Latino in the police department, retired last year after Alsobrooks passed him over for chief. There have been three Latino liaisons under Alsobrooks in three years, and the position has moved twice, most recently under the new Office of Multicultural Affairs. Alsobrooks tapped an African immigrant to lead that office.

Covid-19 is ravaging one of the country’s wealthiest black counties

Even though Maryland was the most diverse state on the East Coast, according to the 2020 Census, there are no Latinos in its congressional delegation and the state Senate has not had a Latino member since Victor Ramirez left in 2018. In the 141-member House of Delegates, Peña-Melnyk is one of four Latinos. In Prince George’s and across the nation, Latinos are underrepresented in voter registration, with the more than 60,0000 estimated undocumented Latino immigrants in the county not eligible to cast ballots.

Ramirez, who used to talk about these issues with Baker on their regular jogs, is currently running to replace Deni Taveras (D-District 2), the only Latina on the county council. Ramirez said there needs to be a countywide conversation about the underrepresentation that’s evident in Alsobrooks’s administration — and extends far beyond it.


Video: Latino Representation on Corporate Boards (Bloomberg)

Still, Ramirez said his attitude is similar to what he tell the kids he coaches on the soccer team at his alma mater Northwestern High School, many of whom are first-generation immigrants.

“You can’t dwell on what we don’t have,” he says. “You have to push through with what you do have.”

Former Maryland state senator Victor Ramirez, left, campaigns for the Prince George's County Council at the house of Ada Interiano and her son, Marcos. © Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post Former Maryland state senator Victor Ramirez, left, campaigns for the Prince George's County Council at the house of Ada Interiano and her son, Marcos.

‘The crisis within the crisis’

As pandemic job losses left people hungry across Prince George’s, Alsobrooks’s administration rushed to meet the demand — which already had been the highest in the region.

But the needs of residents shifted as covid-19 and its consequences hit communities differently. While the overwhelming majority of county residents without enough to eat before the pandemic were Black, Black residents accounted for 21 percent of the newly hungry in 2020. Hispanic residents accounted for 28 percent, a food security task force found.

Most food distribution the county initially launched were far from Latino strongholds. Council District 2, which has the highest poverty rate in Prince George’s and is predominantly Latino, received two sites. District 7, with the third-highest poverty rate, received six. Many distributions were located in parking lots of large Black churches not easily accessible via public transportation.

That format left residents without cars — including many in Latino communities — with few options, said Sydney Daigle, Prince George’s County Food Equity Council director, who frequently received reports about multiple households carpooling as the virus was rapidly spreading.

The setup also left Latino leaders to fill the gaps.

Alsobrooks’s Latino liaison at the time, Katina Rojas Nazario-Joy, secured a partnership in April 2020 with World Central Kitchen, which operated primarily in areas with large Latino populations in the county’s north. Alsobrooks’s spokeswoman, Gina Ford, said that partnership allowed the administration to focus its resources elsewhere. As World Central Kitchen began closing its sites in summer 2020, the administration tried to backfill them, including opening two additional sites in District 2, said John Erzen, the deputy chief of staff. He also noted that the county had three initial sites outside District 2 that served mostly Latino populations.

The disconnect between need and services also played out when it came to testing and, later, to vaccines, Latino leaders said, with initial sites — at FedEx Field, the county’s health department, Six Flags, and the county’s sports and learning center — difficult to access for Latino residents.

“The crisis within the crisis,” Taveras called the situation in an op-ed to The Washington Post, noting that the 20783 Zip code, which includes Langley Park, had more coronavirus cases in May 2020 than any other in Maryland, Virginia or D.C.

Opinion: The crisis within the crisis in Prince George's County

Taveras and other Latino leaders balanced pushing the administration to do more behind the scenes with worry about criticizing a government whose help they needed.

They said they leaned on a reluctant county health department to bring vaccines to people who weren’t yet registered for shots. The county’s pilot program in Langley Park, launched in May 2021, saw 200 people vaccinated on the first day and was rapidly expanded. Today, the Latino population has the highest vaccination rates of any demographic in the county.

Taveras, Peña-Melnyk and others were grateful for the results but wished more had been done sooner. Frustrated with how few people were there to raise such issues and how little progress Alsobrooks had made in recruiting Latinos, they decided to speak out this past fall.

“We do not expect mathematical perfection in appointed positions from Ms. Alsobrooks,” read their letter to the county executive. “We do however expect a number greater than zero.”

Maryland Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk is working with other Latino leaders in Prince George's County to get more representation in local government. © Julio Cortez/AP Maryland Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk is working with other Latino leaders in Prince George's County to get more representation in local government.

Small signs have given Latino leaders hope in recent months. Alsobrooks in February appointed a Latina to the school board. Gustavo Torres, the executive director of CASA, said that after not meeting with the influential group during her first year in office, Alsobrooks at a recent meeting privately promised to do better.

Alsobrooks’s chief of staff, Joy Russell, said the administration often does not receive Latino applicants, noting their absence among 96 applicants for a new police accountability board. The administration has asked community groups and leaders for Latinos to reach out to, she said. But it has not publicly detailed plans to improve representation. The county’s human rights office said a diversity audit sought by Latino leaders was outside its purview.

Peña-Melnyk, a longtime supporter of Alsobrooks, said she wrestled with publicly criticizing the county executive. As a Black Latina who emigrated from the Dominican Republic as a child, she felt a measure of pride as she watched Alsobrooks elevate Black women to cabinet positions including fire chief, schools chief and chief of staff, agreeing with their oft-repeated mantra: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

But she also saw clearly who was missing.

The county where Black women hold power — a few miles from the White House Dendry Aguilar, left, owner of Centro De Habla Hispana in Langley Park, talks to residents at the Bedford Station Apartments where she and her husband delivered boxes of food during the early days of the pandemic. © Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post Dendry Aguilar, left, owner of Centro De Habla Hispana in Langley Park, talks to residents at the Bedford Station Apartments where she and her husband delivered boxes of food during the early days of the pandemic.

A heavy burden

For the past two years, this had been a weekly workout. Mount Rainier Mayor Celina Benitez, one of Prince George’s two Latina mayors, rolled her wrist and grimaced after personally lifting dozens of food boxes, each weighing 30 pounds, into the hands of residents.

Benitez had worked with Taveras and the Capital Area Food Bank to set up this site amid a dense cluster of apartments on Chillum Road when the pandemic began — one of a variety of efforts in Mount Rainier, including a distribution that former mayor Malinda Miles conducts on her front porch, to get food to people in need. On a recent rainy Thursday as Benitez handed out boxes, 500 were snapped up in just over an hour.

Eunice Ortiz, a 38-year-old who emigrated from Guatemala in 2020, cheerfully greeted Benitez as she picked up her box. Her family had come to rely on the site after she and her two brothers lost their jobs. Her brothers are working again now, but Ortiz, who tested positive for the coronavirus in the hospital in February when she delivered her baby, is not.

They are still behind on rent. Ortiz, who mostly speaks Spanish, said she was not aware of the county’s rental assistance program.

More representation in government, Ortiz said, would be important to address the language barrier.

First as a council member and since last year as mayor, Benitez has tried to make Mount Rainier more accessible, including translating the newsletter and streaming on Facebook Live in Spanish and English. She personally drove about 20 residents without access to cars to vaccine appointments. But for there to be real progress, she said, systemic investments are needed at the county level.

“If tomorrow I choose not to become an elected official,” she said, “what does that mean for my community?”

When asked whether this distribution would have happened if she or Taveras had not been in office, she shook her head.

She imagined the answer was no.

Steve Thompson contributed to this report.

Mount Rainier Mayor Celina Benitez unloads a box of groceries at a food distribution on March 24, 2022. © Rachel Chason/The Washington Post Mount Rainier Mayor Celina Benitez unloads a box of groceries at a food distribution on March 24, 2022.
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