Adrian Vazquez remembers the anxious tone in a little girl’s voice and how it hurt his heart.
“She asked me, ‘Why do I have to go back to Mexico if I was born here?’ It breaks your heart sometimes, the level of stress that so many in our community live with, but it only makes us want to work harder for them.”
For more than two years, Vazquez has headed El Concilio, formerly the Hispanic American Council. the greater Kalamazoo region’s foremost nonprofit advocacy agency for Latinos. Since 1981, the organization has helped countless individuals and families with a host of human services and immigration and legal needs. But these days El Concilio is needed perhaps more than ever, Vazquez insists.
The interaction with the little girl happened just last year, as the Trump Administration began to institute tougher immigration policies and talks of a wall on the country’s southern border ramped up. Anxiety among members of Vazquez’s ethnic community steadily rose, he says.
“We have to try to change the narrative, because we can’t change the administration — yet,” he says. “Whether they’re citizens or undocumented, Latinos are living in this community, working hard and adding value to our city. They’re deserving of human rights, the same as everyone else.
“They are not taking jobs, they are filling jobs. They are opening businesses. They are sharing their culture. They are creating jobs. Latinos have an entrepreneurial spirit and strong family values that make where they live a better place to be.”
Serving as the middleman
El Concilio — Spanish for “The Council” — is located at 930 Lake St. It works as a kind of middleman between those in need and community service providers that can fill those needs, ranging from food stamps and child care to tutoring programs and legal assistance. It’s important work because a significant share of those seeking help have trouble with English or simply don’t know where to look for much-needed help.
For example, Vasquez relates the story of a child in an immigrant family who was struggling with anxiety, thinking that, because of the current political climate, her parents might not be at home when she returned from school because they had been deported. Staff facilitated getting her help in the form of counseling and other mental health support, and she is back to school and much more stable emotionally.
Another family needed assistance with an older member of their household, a man with diabetes who needed treatment and medication to keep his disease in check but, because he is not documented, did not qualify for health-care benefits. The language barrier also hampered the family’s efforts to get help. El Concilio put the family in touch with the Family Health Center, where the man now receives his medication and has his condition monitored.
The degree of need is seen in the numbers: El Concilio served 3,200 people in 2018, a 40 percent increase over the year before. Of those, almost 80 percent were undocumented, Vazquez says. And even though the vast majority — some 90 percent — of those the organization serves are
Latino, immigrants from Asia, the Middle East and other regions around the world are helped there too.
The current political climate surrounding the issue of immigration has meant many more Latinos are nervous about their future, Vazquez says, even though both the Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Department and the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety have pledged not to inquire about a person’s legal status during interactions with them.
“We exist because we know our community needs us,” he says. “Our community is not going away, so we can’t go away. Our work is too important.
Rebranding and rebuilding
El Concilio has weathered several storms over the past several years, including a former executive director embezzling $50,000 from the agency, a decline in funding from donors as a result, and trouble keeping the group’s top leadership position filled. Those are among the reasons that in 2017 the organization changed its name from the Hispanic American Council to its current name.
But all that trouble is in the rearview mirror, Vazquez says.
The trust that local foundations and private donors have in El Concilio appears stronger than ever, most clearly evidenced by its receiving a three-year $100,000 grant from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation this year. Other service agencies and philanthropic groups are back on board as well, including the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region. Four full-time employees run El Concilio’s day-to-day operations, up from one full-time and one part-time employee a few years ago.
Community support is also critical to the organization, and this month it will host its annual Nuestras Raices (Our Roots) Fundraising Gala. In addition to providing funds for El Concilio’s operations, the gala proceeds will also go to support the organization’s Escuelita Nuevo Horizonte (New Horizon School), a new bilingual preschool that will begin in the fall.
The commitment El Concilio has to those it serves is akin to the commitment Latinos here have for the Kalamazoo community, says Vazquez, noting that if you get away from the often divisive nature of the current political debate over immigration policy and see Latinos of all legal statuses, you will find generous people as eager to share their heritage as they are to integrate into their new home.
After all, many of them gave up so much to be here, pushed on by a desire for a better life for themselves and their families, an almost instinctual human motivation.
“For many families,” Vazquez says, “they think, ‘We gave up so much to get here. We can’t give up. We want to know our struggle was not in vain because we came here to become something we couldn’t become in our home country.’”