Opinion: Recognizing Latinos' heritage, legacy

Cory Mosser (center), founder of Natural Born Tillers, works with volunteers at The Edgar Flores Memorial Garden in Sara J. Gonzalez Memorial Park in Atlanta on Saturday, June 22, 2019. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Hispanic Heritage Month, which ends Thursday, highlights Latinos' contributions, sacrifices and needs.

Last summer in a small, tree-lined park that sits within a gentrifying nook on Atlanta’s Westside, children in masks played on swings momentarily unburdened by the tragedies of the day. Also at the park were their parents, about 200 of them in masks too, and mostly Latino. In contrast to their children, the adults were carrying food, supplies and papers as well as the stress of their increasingly difficult lives.

For several hours they navigated tables set up for the distribution of vegetables, backpacks, gift cards and other essentials donated by private and public entities to help the families at a time when they would otherwise be going without due to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on their community. It wasn’t the first time this year that vulnerable families visited the park for the support they aren’t getting through federal and state programs, and as things stand, it won’t be the last.

The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, also known as Welcoming Atlanta, is the organizing force behind the effort, which pursued private grants to set up these distribution events starting in May just as data was first emerging exposing the tragic impact of COVID-19 on Black and Brown communities across the country. Latinos are 18.7% of the U.S. population at 62 million people, but represent 33% of all positive coronavirus test results and are hospitalized for the virus at a rate four times that of white Americans, according to the CDC. Furthermore, in CDC research, Latino children are at the highest risk for death from COVID-19.

Providing lift to these outsize statistics are the double-pummel of poverty and its ever-present companion: negative social determinants of health. In Georgia, where there are 1 million Latinos, 23.4% live in poverty, the highest percentage for all races and ethnicities in the state. It is well-documented that Latinos in Atlanta and elsewhere – 63% of all working Latinos across the country -- fill the low-wage essential jobs that keep our society functioning, from sanitation to food preparation to factory jobs. It’s work that puts them at risk for coronavirus, which they then may bring home to multigenerational households (an approach to cohabitating that can be culturally and/or economically driven). That many low income-earning Latinos do not qualify for, or can afford health insurance, coupled with fear of debt or bankruptcy for seeking medical help adds to the virus’s high mortality rates within the community.

Sofia Bork

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Isabel González Whitaker

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

And yet it’s not just catching the virus that is proving highly problematic for the community. Latino workers overindex in construction and hospitality work (27.3% and 22.3% respectively), industries that have been decimated these last months and forced to lay off millions of people across the country. Even as things rebound, these sectors are slow to uptick and even as jobs become available, these are service and hourly jobs that do not include time off, health insurance or other protections that are critical to maintain well-being, especially during a pandemic.

As for the spring’s federal stimulus check, it was denied to most of Georgia’s taxpaying Latino immigrants. As these economic losses hit home, so enters the aptly named “eviction storm,” which sees Brown and Black communities displaced from housing across metro Atlanta when rent can’t be met or in some cases where rent is raised thanks to the unimpeded velocity of gentrification. That’s exactly what’s happening at apartment complexes near the park where the food distribution events take place, the Sara J. González Memorial Park, the first memorial park named for a Latino individual in Georgia.

Since May, 4,000 Latino families in need in Atlanta have been helped at the Sara J. González Memorial Park, thanks to Welcoming Atlanta’s efforts. The park was created in part to honor this community, one whose volume and importance only continues to grow and for which we should be thankful, considering its significant economic impact and productivity.

From 2000 to 2010, the Latino population in Atlanta increased 118%, a trend that is accelerating in Georgia -- which has the 10th-largest population of Latinos in the nation. Nearly 1.75 million Latinos are expected to call the Atlanta area home by 2040. Latino buying power is now $1.7 trillion, the largest of any ethnic demo in the U.S. and larger than the GDP of Australia. It’s growing too.

An early proponent for diversity and inclusion as a benefit to business and culture, Sara J. González was a pillar of the Latino community who came to prominence thanks to her work driving minority economic empowerment and entrepreneurial preparedness programs across the state. Her legacy lives on in the park where, in addition to food distribution events as of late, Latinos and constituents of this historically diverse neighborhood gather for interfaith vigils, tutoring lessons, soccer clinics and to tend to the Officer Edgar Flores Memorial Garden, which is dedicated to the first Latino police officer shot and killed in Georgia. The broad popularity of the park, which is located walking distance from where Sara J. González lived up until her death in 2008, is a testament to the importance of inclusive greenspaces and how they should serve as authentic reflections of the community that exists alongside them.

Through the power of community, volunteerism and intentional leadership, community-centered events are birthed and taking place not just at the park but through the efforts of the Latin American Association, the Latino Community Fund, Ser Familia, Agape Youth and Family Center and many more. Still, these episodic events aren’t enough to make up for the gaps and tragedies facing Latinos right now.

Much like the 100-year-old trees that line the park and which have weathered many storms, the Latino community has deep roots across Atlanta, Georgia and this country. Though at times they may be thrashed about and even uprooted, those roots run deep -- and at great sacrifice they benefit our lives. But we can help them when we stand together as allies, advocate for them, take agency in policymaking and come together to honor them.

Isabel González Whitaker is a Presidential Leadership Scholar, journalist and author. She is the founder of the Sara J. González Memorial Park. Sofia Bork is a Latina civic leader and advocate. She is the founder of the Officer Edgar Flores Latinx Ethnobotanical Memorial Garden located in the Sara J. Gonzalez Park.

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