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Q&A: Charo Ledon of Casa Latina

Charo Ledon at Casa Latina

Charo Ledon at Casa Latina

Charo Ledon at Casa Latina

Charo Ledon at Casa Latina

When it comes to Washtenaw County’s Latino community, Charo Ledón offers a longterm perspective. Born in Cuba and raised in New Jersey, Ledón settled in Ann Arbor in 1974, at the age of 20. After years working as a travel agent, she founded her own travel agency, Olas, in 2001.

A speaker of both English and Spanish, she soon realized that she held a unique place in the community when local Spanish-speakers began to flock to her business requesting help with everything from registering children for kindergarten to translating English documents.

Although Ledón says she didn’t fully understand what social work was at the time, Olas was her introduction into that field. She entered it more formally in 2010 when she cofounded the Latino community center Casa Latina and became its executive director. We spoke with Ledón about the changes and challenges affecting Washtenaw County Latinos.
 
How has Washtenaw County’s Latino community changed over the forty years you’ve been here?
[When I moved here], if you heard someone speaking Spanish, you’d run right over and start talking to them. Nowadays, you can’t do that because you’d be stopping every three feet. I think about ‘92 is when I noticed a big influx, a lot of Latinos arriving from central America and Mexico. Since then it’s just been constant. 
 
What impacts has that influx had on the county?
There are more businesses that serve the Latino community, grocery stores and other services. Pediatricians are busier, that’s for sure. In the schools there are a lot more teachers trying to hire translators. A lot more ESL classes are available. And there’s a lot more sharing of the culture. I used to dream of a place you could go dancing to Latin music once a month. Now you can dance to Latin music somewhere almost every day of the week.
 
What are some of the biggest challenges for Latinos in Washtenaw County, and how have those changed in your experience?
Some of the challenges are inherent to any immigrant. They’re not familiar with how things run here. There’s also particular issues for people who are undocumented that affect many aspects of their lives. For one, they’re terrified to have any contact with authorities. There’s trauma that’s being experienced by the adults and the children. A lot of times people wonder, “Why do people even put up with that struggle?” And it’s because their options are not much better back home. 
 
Also, in Washtenaw County, there hasn’t been an agency people could turn to for good information [until the founding of Casa Latina]. It was a challenge. And so was the fact that the Latinos here are not in one neighborhood. When you’re trying to get the word out about anything there’s a lot of territory to cover. And we don’t have any Spanish-language media, so communication is a problem.
 
What could the county do to serve the Latinos community (or other minority communities) better?
Have language-access services: materials that are translated, and interpreters available. According to Title VI, if you receive federal funding, you have to provide language-access services. Are they being provided? A lot of the time, not really, and sometimes not at all. A lot of the time if you go to court, you have to hire your own interpreter if you really want to know what’s going on. So in an ideal world, language-access services should just be a given, but that’s not the case.
 
How do you see the county’s Latino population changing in the future?
The Latino population is very family-oriented, so it’s growing. There are more babies and more children, not to mention still more immigrants coming, every day. And people are setting up groups in the community and starting businesses and organizing sports teams and things of that nature, so it’s going to be more well-established as time goes on.
 

All photos by Doug Coombe

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