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Centro Hispano: A voice, center for Latino resources and advocacy

From the Latinos in Utah County series

Sunday is a historically significant day in the lives of many Latino families. It is Independence Day for five Latin American countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatamala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Because of that, Sunday begins a month-long celebration in the United States, proclaimed as National Hispanic Heritage Month in 1988, for the millions of Hispanic and Latinos in the country.

According to the United States Census Bureau, as of July 1, 2018, there were 59.9 million people of Hispanic origin in the U.S. Hispanics are 18.3% of the nation’s total population. The median age of the Hispanic population is 29.5 years.

In Utah County there are 71,000 Latinos according to the last census; making up 15 to 16% of the population. With a growing population, the need for more help and resources for Spanish speakers was pretty apparent about 20 years ago.

About 18 years ago, parents within Utah County’s Latino community were concerned their families were not getting the help they needed because of language and culture barriers. They would meet at then-Utah Valley State College and discuss with student volunteers how they could overcome those barriers. The group grew and later moved to the basement of the St. Francis Catholic Church in Provo.

When that building was demolished and St. Francis moved to Orem, the group of volunteers partnered with the United Way of Utah County and found a new home adjacent to the Community Action Services and Food Bank, now called Centro Hispano.

Centro Hispano’s beginnings

That was the beginnings of Centro Hispano, which officially opened in 2002. Before that time, there wasn’t a local center that provided resource information in Spanish for the Latino community.

Centro Hispano is a 501(C)3 nonprofit and its mission is to, “help empower Hispanics to have equal access to the information and resources they need in order to strengthen individuals, families and communities through education and skill building activities,” according to its website.

“We are called the Latino Google for Provo,” said Delmy Trujillo, community resources director for Centro Hispano.

English as a second language classes were the first services provided by the new center. After ESL, classes the second priority issue Centro Hispano tackled was working with domestic violence assistance.

Centro Hispano became a partner with police departments in the county, particularly with the Provo Police Department and its domestic violence assistance program, primarily providing Spanish interpreters to communicate with victims. It also provided basic clothing and other needs to start a new life for women and children who were victims of domestic violence, according to Teresa Tavares, executive director from 2009 to 2015.

Centro Hispano now works with Community Action and Food Bank to provide the same clothing, food and other basic needs to victims, while Centro Hispano remains mostly a resource and referral center, matching the Latino community to Spanish speaking advocates.

“We wanted to bring balance to the family back to the parents,” Tavares said. “We see empowerment and made Centro Hispano a center of the (Latino) community. We were paying attention to the needs and trends in the Latino community.”

A growing office

Since its inception in 2002, Centro Hispano now has a regular office in Salt Lake City and a small satellite office in St. George. It will move into a new location at 650 W. 100 North in Provo on Oct. 1.

Clients regularly ask for more satellite offices and Eagle Mountain and Saratoga Springs offices are planned, according to Abraham Hernandez, acting executive director and health promotion coordinator.

On Monday, Centro Hispano announced Jackie Larson was hired as the new executive director. Larson has spent the past seven years in health education with the Utah County Health Department. She is a graduate of Brigham Young University and is working on a Ph.D. in psychology.

Trujillo is the gatekeeper and public greeter as the front office receptionist at Centro Hispano. As the office has gained more recognition, Trujillo’s task of answering questions has broadened, with more variety and more need as the years pressed on.

“The No. 1 most asked question I get is, ‘How do I get a divorce?’” Trujillo said. “Depending on their situation, if it’s a mutual agreement, they can just go online. If they need it, we refer them to a lawyer.”

Trujillo also gets an ever-growing variety of calls, some she is more equipped to help with.

“I answered the phone and there was a woman who was worried that she had broken her parakeet’s leg and she asked ‘What do I do?’ That’s not related to the services we give, but we try,” Trujillo said.

But throughout the years, the majority of the people she helps are in the process of becoming legal residents and gaining political asylum.

“When they come here, they find it easier,” Trujillo said.

A taxing problem

Sherry Almquist has worked as an in-office specialist with tax and legal resources for Centro Hispano for more than five years.

“Of my case volume, 61% are (ESL) clients, and of that number 80% are undocumented,” Almquist said, who does not speak Spanish.

Centro Hispano had 450 tax cases this year and 358 in 2018. Almquist said these are people who are working and paying their taxes, but have concerns with interacting the Internal Revenue Service after hearing horror stories.

“There is a good force of Hispanic workers that have merit in our economy and our labor force and they are paying taxes,” Almquist said.

One of Almquist’s biggest concerns is the tax laws that have changed for undocumented workers. Two major changes include the child tax credit and President Donald Trump’s recent call for fast-tracked deportation based on the date of illegal entry into the country.

“The child tax credit that used to be refundable is not refundable now,” Almquist said.

In order for illegal and undocumented immigrants to work they must have an Individual Tax Identification Number. To get the ITIN, individuals must fill out a W-7 application. Almquist, who helps with these applications, said one of the optional lines on the W-7 form is the date they entered the country.

“Nine months ago, the government started kicking back some of the applications saying they were incomplete,” Almquist said. “Eight weeks ago, the fast-track deportation was instigated. It applies to people who entered illegally after January 2016.”

According to Almquist, the only place the government has to find an entry date is from the W-7 application. She is concerned what that will mean for those she is working with are trying to do a good faith application for the ability to work in the U.S.

“They have humble attitudes when paying taxes,” Almquist said. “That stewardship they take seriously. They are honored in paying their taxes.”

Many of Centro Hispano’s clients do not understand that along with paying taxes they have certain rights. For those who do not know their Fourth Amendment rights, which protects against unlawful seizures or search warrants, Almquist said individuals are given a red card to show to INS, police and others should they feel those rights come into question. The card is printed in English and Spanish.

“We tell clients they have rights so they aren’t taken advantage of or bullied,” Almquist said.

While Centro Hispano services the Latino community, Almquist and Hernandez said the tax services are for everyone and they have helped immigrants from other nations as well as residents of the U.S. living in the area. Centro Hispano provides resource information to anyone.

“We’re just providing services to the community. Our mission is not about documentation,” Hernandez said. “Everyone is welcome, they don’t have to be Hispanic.”

Health and education initiatives

Hernandez said one of the first things that became needful in the early days of Centro Hispano was help with health-related issues, from eating to finding doctors they could communicate with, to educational opportunities to teach health and wellness goals, and more.

Hernandez noticed many of the clients coming into Centro Hispano were not familiar with local supermarkets, meal planning and healthy eating.

“Latinos were eating differently and were gaining weight,” Hernandez said. “We had to teach them to eat.”

While there is availability of the familiar staples like beans, rice and corn, the U.S. also has an abundance of fast food, different or unfamiliar fruits and vegetables and other food items many Latino immigrants, among others, are not sure how to use or eat in their diet to keep healthy.

“They were Americanizing their diets,” Trujillo said. “Fast food is more available. They were tending to chose cheaper more unhealthy foods.”

The nonprofit’s health training and coverage not only includes eating healthy eating, but it also includes tobacco education, cessation and prevention classes, communication skills for youth and young adults, parenting classes, sex education for youth and young adults with parental consent and HIV testing and counseling.

“We provide services and information on a variety of issues including the use of tobacco and e-cigarettes,” said Melissa Quintana, health educator with Centro Hispano. “That usually happens as they are immersing themselves in the American culture.”

Quintana and her colleague, Jenna Smith, spend most of their time collaborating on health promotion projects, including the annual Centro Hispano-sponsored health fair and writing grant requests. The health fair is held annually before school starts. There are several booths and children help stuff their own backpack.

“We got education grants and partnered with Provo School District and started English classes,” Hernandez said. “At the beginning (of providing classes) that is all we did. But as we grew in reputation, we had more partners.”

Centro Hispano’s biggest of their 20 partners across the county are the United Way of Utah County and the South Franklin Community Center. Having these partners has allowed Centro Hispano to be a more defined community resource center.

“We have implemented a rape prevention education outreach that received a five-year grant,” Smith said. “We have to create budgets and strategies and continue to find new grants all the time.”

Some of the requested classes held at the community center include finance classes taught by Almquist.

Other services and events

Centro Hispano’s services don’t stop there. Translation of documents, notary services and citizenship preparation classes, IRS and legal advocacy and financial literacy classes are all provided by Centro Hispano.

Centro Hispano is also involved in community arts and recreation, with several yearly events including the Three Kings Celebration in January, Family Fun Day in the spring, Safe Kids Day in May, Teen Health Summit during the summer, the health fair and a family portrait night in November.

Centro Hispano has also announced a new Latino roundtable. The goal is to help Latinos become community leaders, make a difference and impact change in the community.

The list of involved services go on and continue to expand.

“We partner with Provo Pride and Encircle,” Hernandez said. “This is very special to me.”

Centro Hispano is also becoming a voice across the country, advocating for rights and services for fellow Latinos.

“Throughout the year we also go to many events and speak at conferences both local and national,” Hernandez said.

Once a year, the Mexican Consulate comes to Centro Hispano to help residents with a variety of paper work on visas, documentation and other applications and provides information offered by the consulate. It is a popular program and has had great success in Utah County, according to Hernandez.

“This year the consulate was focusing on the census and helping people know the census is how we get funds,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez plans to soon move into a teaching career, passing the reins to Larson. But, he said he is proud of what had been accomplished and more that is to come.

“We are taking amazing steps to create a community that is more together than separate,” Hernandez said. “Having grown up in this place, I have a real love of Centro Hispano. This is home.”

Daily Herald reporter Genelle Pugmire can be contacted at gpugmire@heraldextra.com, (801) 344-2910, Twitter @gpugmire

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