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Arlington celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month

Local officials call for greater leadership opportunities for Latino community.

To mark the inauguration of Hispanic Heritage Month, the Arlington County government unveiled its revamped Spanish-language Web site, as officials celebrated the accomplishments of the community and called for more Hispanics to assume leadership positions.

The Web site, Arlington en Espanol, was originally launched last year but was modified to give Spanish speakers greater access to government services and programs.

The site is an important medium for alerting Hispanics to emergency information, but more needs to be done to prepare the Latino community for disaster situations, said County Board member Walter Tejada.

Approximately 20 percent of Arlington’s population is Hispanic, giving the county the highest proportion of Latinos in the Washington metropolitan region. Eighteen percent of Arlington residents age five and older speak Spanish at home.

“Our commitment to diversity is embedded in every decision we make,” Arlington County Board Chairman Jay Fisette told a crowd of more than 75 at a ceremony to debut the new Web site last Friday. “It is what makes this county so special ... and it is our strength.’

Hispanics make up 12 percent of Arlington government employees and every department in the county’s government contains at least one Hispanic staff member. Tejada, one of Arlington’s five county board members, is Hispanic, as are two assistant county managers.

Though the county’s Hispanics have made tremendous strides in recent years, and are far ahead of neighboring jurisdictions in terms of community contributions, Arlington needs to establish more programs to cultivate leadership among Latinos, said Walter Tejada, a native of El Salvador.

“We need to go a little deeper to reach out to the Latino community,” said Tejada, who would like to see greater assistance given to Hispanic business owners.

The county helps run BizLauch Bootcamp en Espanol, which teaches potential entrepreneurs how to establish new businesses and offers workshops on writing marketing strategies and financial planning advice. To date Bizlaunch has completed 39 counseling sessions and trained 632 Hispanic residents.

ANOTHER GOVERNMENT INITIATIVE, the Arlington Neighborhood College, nurtures civic engagement and educates students about the structure of local government and its decision-making process. It encourages Hispanic enrollees to become more active in community affairs. Since 2000, 35 Hispanics have graduated from the course.

“Leadership starts with civic interest and activism in a project like Arlington Neighborhood College,” said Raul Torres, assistant county manager. “We are trying to attract the interest of younger minorities to get more involved in community life.

Tejada said he would also like to see greater minority interest in the Community Role Models program. This initiative promotes volunteer opportunities and community participation among young adults.

“We have to think about ways to engage people who might have difficulty participating in activities because of language or cultural barriers,” Tejada said.

The hope is that Hispanic youth will use the new Spanish Web site to learn more about these programs and it will help foster future leaders in the community.

The refurbished Web site also enables people to take care of basic services at home and avoid traveling to Arlington government offices, said Serena Ingre-Martinez, a government spokeswoman. Through the site residents can pay for parking tickets, acquire a library card and file complaints with the police department.

The slow response of local, state and federal agencies in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was a deadly reminder of the need for government officials to be able to effectively communicate with residents in emergency situations. The new Web site will be used to alert and prepare the Hispanic population for impending emergencies, but the government needs to create greater awareness in the Spanish-speaking communities, Tejada said.

“I am pleased to see some publicity in Spanish about emergency preparedness, but it is not enough,” he added.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Isabel, many were concerned not enough information was dispensed to Spanish speakers.

“We need to be better prepared,” Tejada said. “What is the plan to communicate with ethnic media if there is an emergency?”

This is a concern for other ethnic communities as well, especially for older residents or recent immigrants who might not have a firm grasp of English. It is imperative that the county work to ensure that those individuals receive emergency warnings and information in their native tongues, Tejada said.