For many in Arlington's Latino community, Andres Tobar is the man to turn to when trouble arises. If an employer refuses to pay for a day's work, he is there to negotiate. If the authorities are threatening deportation, he is there. And for his work, Arlington County honored Tobar this month with the James B. Hunter Human Rights Award.
"I've been involved in community work since I was 19," he said Saturday in the lobby of his South Arlington apartment building. "It's important to me to try to improve life for others."
The child of migrant farm workers, Tobar spent much of his childhood working in Texas cotton fields and picking grapes in California. It was a life of labor but education brought him to new places, to college, and when he graduated, Tobar turned his knowledge towards bettering the community.
"This is when Caesar Chaves was doing his work with migrant farmers in the 60s and 70s and I really got hooked on that stuff," he said.
Tobar has since chaired, co-chaired or otherwise served with more than 20 organizations advocating for the rights of Latinos in America. After college, he moved to the Washington, D.C. area, to serve with the U.S. Department of Education, working with scholarship programs for underprivileged youth.
He also became a highly visible public voice for Latinos in Arlington and in 1986, he was appointed to the county's Commission on Arlington's Future and later to its Equal Employment and Opportunities Advisory Commission. He and other Latino activists lobbied the County Board for help in ensuring fair hiring practices in Arlington and better social services. As a leader in both state and local chapters of the League of United Latino American Citizens, he also became a champion for immigrant families.
"We [LULAC] advocate employment for Latinos at higher levels," he said. "We went to the county board — this is back in the 1980s — asking for their help in finding better positions for them. It wasn't so much that we were asking for good salaries but rather we just felt that the County government needs to have people that represent their constituencies and who understand the challenges Latinos face. It has taken a while but the county is becoming more responsive."
At the same time, some conflict between Latinos and the African-American community became a concern for many in Arlington. Along with conflicts among youth in local schools, some members of the two groups also found themselves competing for jobs, housing and other necessities of life.
Facing a crisis, Tobar and other activists sought to heal the wounds created by these conflicts with the help of leaders in the African-American community.
"We knew it was going to be impossible for two have-not communities like Latinos and African-Americans to agree on everything from housing to employment but our communities need them," he said. "And we definitely agree on the need for our children to have a decent education."
Tobar became the co-founder and co-chairman of the African-American Hispanic Coalition, a new civic group. Among the AAHC's many projects, was creating a summer diversity retreat in Front Royal where black and Latino middle school students could meet, mingle and learn from one another in a constructive environment.
"It was a real bonding experience for them," he said.
The camp was in operation for several years, but a lack of volunteer support eventually caused it to close down.
"It was a good idea," Tobar said. "We proved that it could work."
Tobar later got involved in local politics as the deputy campaign manager for Walter Tejada.
In 2002, as the state's General Assembly was considering a measure that would deny in-state tuition to students who are "undocumented", or illegal, forcing them to pay the high rate of out-of-state tuition costs, Tobar went to Richmond. Then the co-chairman of the Immigrant Educational Coalition, Tobar testified on behalf of Latino students who cannot afford higher tuition. The IEC also filed suit against seven public colleges and universities throughout Virginia that considered following these guidelines even after the Assembly failed to pass them.
Tobar's political activism ultimately led him to make a run in 2004 for a seat in the Assembly. He won the endorsement of 15 elected officials, including former delegate Karen Darner, who later nominated him for the Human Rights Award.
Tobar lost the election but his work with Latino community continues. He is now the executive director of the Shirlington Employment Education Center (SEEC), a local organization that strives to find jobs for day-laborers, many of them Latino immigrants.
"At the 7-11s, there's a lot of Latinos hanging out, waiting for jobs," he said.
Most day-laborers wait for contractors and other employers to select them for daily work at the Arlington Jobs Pavilion, a weather beaten, covered stand, much like a bus stop.
"Arlington has become the first to designate county property as a place where day-laborers can stand and wait," he said.
But county officials wanted some authority to maintain order among the laborers at the pavilion and that's where SEEC stepped in to help. The group created a lottery system to ensure that younger or more able-bodied laborers didn't create a monopoly on the scarce jobs available.
"We had some significant opposition but the county has said it's important that we have some control and it is beginning to work," he said."
Protecting the laborers from exploitation is the second aspect to SEEC's mandate. Many come to the center when an employer fails to pay them or mistreats workers. SEEC also ensures that laborers are paid honest wages for a day's work.
"Some of these folks go out on a job and don't get paid, so we have to take this to the employers and interceding on behalf of these workers," Tobar said.
The SEEC is currently working to develop training courses for laborers — classes in basic skills like painting, drywall installation and carpentry — to assist them in finding better jobs with better salaries. "Some of those guys are still sending money home to their families on a weekly basis," he said. "And they barely have money to buy food, pay rent or buy clothing. I don't know how they do it."