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Town 'N Country reaching out to Hispanics

A county liaison officer suggests ways he and the alliance can draw more Hispanic involvement.

By JACKIE RIPLEY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 14, 2003


TOWN 'N COUNTRY -- Members of the Town 'N Country Alliance have asked for help in getting more Hispanics involved in their organization and ultimately in the community. And they're getting it from the county.

"I want to help you help them," said Tony Morejon,Hispanic Affairs liaison for Hillsborough County. "It's amazing the wonderful work this group has done, but the Hispanic community is not participating."

The Town 'N Country Alliance, an umbrella group for many schools, churches and neighborhood associations, is predominantly white and Anglo-Saxon despite the fact that some of Town 'N Country's neighborhoods are as much as 65 percent Hispanic.

"There are 720 community organizations in Hillsborough County and I found 29 that are maybe Spanish speaking," Morejon told a meeting of the Town 'N Country Alliance Monday night. "I plan to communicate with them, the churches, talk with pastors and show them the alliance's track record. And I'm going to visit people in the neighborhood and tell them what good things you're doing."

It's not that Hispanics have never been involved in the alliance. When community leaders came together seven years ago to deal with flooding concerns and find activities for bored teenagers, Hispanics took a leading role.

But participation dropped off after those problems were solved, partly -- although not entirely -- because of language barrier.

"We need to recognize for Spanish-speaking people that learning English is hell," said Argentine-born Cathy Pena, who represents Incarnation Catholic Church on the alliance. "You have to master the courage to speak at a meeting and then understand if you mispronounce a word people are not laughing at you, they are laughing at the circumstances."

Hispanic Americans say that cultural differences are another possible cause.

"I've been at meetings where (Hispanics) were terrified because they said something," Morejon said. "They wonder: Did they say too much? Will they be deported? That's what you're up against."

In addition to Morejon's efforts, leaders in the alliance say they also are reaching out.

Joyce Smith, the group's past president, said she asked the principal at Leto High School to help get people involved in the group. "We need them here to represent themselves in the alliance," Smith said.

-- Jackie Ripley can be reached at (813) 226-3468 or ripley@sptimes.com

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