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Local Latino study yields mixed results

WORTHINGTON -- Latinos living in Worthington find the community to be safe, with adequate programs and services, but some feel they experience discrimination from other citizens, according to a recently released study by the Marshall-based University of Minnesota Extension office.

"The majority of groups we spoke to in the focus groups felt that Worthington is a good place to live because it's safe, it's accommodating with services that they've been able to benefit from, and in most cases, they've been able to find work," said Toby Spanier, of the Extension's Center for Community Vitality.

The study drew on the experiences of 20 Latinos who live in Worthington, with four focus groups broken down by gender and length of time spent in the community -- two years or fewer or five years or more. The July study aimed to gauge the attitudes of local Latinos, both in terms of community engagement and perceptions of customer service.

"We're looking for more (Latino) voices to be heard in schools and in the community. And (researchers) want to know why the number is disproportionate in civic engagement, why people aren't involved," explained Extension intern Alena Rivera, who helped organize the study.

Rivera's review of literature on the subject found that although Latinos comprise "the largest ethnic or race minority in the United States, they are less likely to be involved than any other minority group."

According to documents provided by Extension, that lack of participation comes from the language barrier, fear of deportation, lack of daycare and not knowing where and how to get involved. The study also found second-generation, educated parents and English-speaking Latinos are more likely to become civically engaged.

Spanier reported that participants in the study, who were rewarded for their efforts with a $20 Wal-Mart gift card, preferred to shop at Top Asian Food, local Latino-run businesses and Wal-Mart.

"They indicated they really enjoy the opportunity to go to local Latino stores because there's a sense of local culture," Spanier said.

Products purchased at Wal-Mart are perceived to be a higher quality than what many Latinos could find in their home countries; while the lower prices and opportunity to shop near others of their ethnicity is also appealing.

"Some employees there could speak Spanish, and they also considered that a positive customer service," he said.

A drawback for some was the feeling that other community members discriminated against them.

One male participant related an experience with an employee at Burger King.

"She looked at us, making disgusting faces. She kept looking at us and whispering things like, 'Oh, these people aren't welcome here,'" was his comment as recorded in the literature review.

Another male reported he feels uncomfortable while shopping at some stores because he's followed around like a suspected shoplifter.

Additionally, Spanier said, most participants said experiences of discrimination came largely from regular citizens, not those in power.

"The perception is that providers -- schools, churches, community services like police and fire -- generally Latinos would say that those institutions (have) done a good job of reaching out," he said. "They thought the public safety department has done a good job of trying to cross the language barrier, but still there are some who feel they have been treated differently. We have no way to validate whether the treatment has been different or not."

The study will be used to inform Spanier's efforts as he facilities the Worthington Community Leadership Program, a workshop for both Latino leaders and others that runs through December. He has found Latinos who take leadership roles, just not in the places one might expect.

"Participants in the leadership program are very engaged individually, but they may not be engaged in leadership seen externally," he said.

For example, Latinos are not as active in city, county or school district leadership, "but you'll see them engaged in their church, the (Nobles County) Integration Collaborative, or Latino or Hispanic advocacy groups. ... They're active in places where they feel they can make a difference," Spanier said.

He said the goal is to merge leadership among Latinos and Caucasians, seeking more "civic" leadership among Latinos.