Since 2000, Thurston County’s Latino population has more than doubled in size and now constitutes 8.1 percent of county residents. Latino students now constitute more than 15 percent of students in the North Thurston and Rochester school districts.
The majority of local Latinos are Mexican, but some trace their roots to Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central America or South America. They are a diverse group not only by nationality, but also by education, native language and economic circumstances.
Some of these families speak indigenous languages rather than Spanish. Some are educated, bilingual or multilingual professionals, and some have never set foot in a school.
What nearly all recent Latino immigrants have in common is the need to figure out a new and perplexing culture, to find education and jobs, to learn how to help their children succeed in an unfamiliar school system, and to master a new and difficult language.
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They also must balance the need to fit in to the dominant culture with the need to honor and preserve their own culture and heritage — the challenge of becoming bicultural.
In meeting these challenges, they follow in the footsteps of every immigrant group that has come to this country. And like the many immigrant groups that came before them, Latinos often face discrimination, isolation and poverty.
Family life can also be disrupted as people struggle to adapt. When children learn English and American culture at school, they are sometimes drafted into service as the interpreters for the parents, which can undermine parental authority. The American expectation of women’s equality may cause turmoil between husbands and wives.
In 1996, the nonprofit Centro Integral Educativo Latino de Olympia was founded to help the Latino community — and particularly recent immigrants and refugees — with services that now include education, computer skill training, early learning and child care, a homework club for kids in school, coaching for parents in how to help their children succeed in school, mental health and family preservation services, job readiness and income generation.
According to Education Program Manager Charo Garcia de Portaro, an example of a successful CIELO project is a sewing class that helps women connect with each other and with volunteers, practice English and learn a skill that can generate income. The class has earned money from hand-crafted Christmas decorations and grocery bags sold at the Olympia Food Co-op.
This growing list of programs is supported on a shoe-string budget, with endless grant-writing and fundraising. There is a small staff of part-time managers, a volunteer board and about 60 community volunteers who teach, tutor, mentor and organize events. The board president, Sherry Sullivan, is now working as the de-facto unpaid executive director until sufficient funds can be raised to hire someone for that role.
As the Latino community grows, CIELO struggles to keep up with the demand for its services, but its staff, board and volunteers are committed to its mission of “promoting community, self-sufficiency and leadership.”
We salute CIELO as it celebrates its 20th year and hope readers will join in supporting its continued growth and success.