Antonio Alanis

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Antonio Alanis serves as a community specialist and AmeriCorps member at El Centro Hispano, a non-profit organization based in Durham, North Carolina. Alanis discusses his role at El Centro Hispano and the work of the organization overall. He talks about his personal experience with El Centro Hispano as an immigrant growing up in Durham, North Carolina. Alanis names language barriers as one of the biggest obstacles that immigrants face. He explains the process of analyzing community needs and program effectiveness. Alanis also discusses the connection to and support from the local populations, Hispanic and Non-Hispanic. He explains how the work that El Centro Hispano does has shifted since the 2016 election and the positive relationship that they have with the local police force. Alanis describes the relationship that El Centro Hispano has with local schools and the importance of globally-minded education and unity within the community.



Claire Weintraub: Okay this is Claire Weintraub. I’m here with Antonio Alanis. It’s April 4, 2017 and we are in the office of El Centro Hispano is Carrboro, North Carolina. So, Antonio thank you for being here with me today and I want to talk to you about your work at El Centro Hispano, the work that the organization does and a gain a little more insight into the role of non-profits in working with immigrant communities in the area. So, to start can you tell me just a little bit about yourself and your background.
Antonio Alanis: Yeah so I am now an AmeriCorps member here in El Centro Hispano and I have been here since October of last year, 2016.
CW: So can you explain a little bit about what El Centro Hispano is and what it does in the community?
AA: Right, so El Centro Hispano’s mission statement is to strengthen the Latino Hispanic community in Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill and we have four major programs that we do that allow the people that we serve to become stronger in many ways. We have education, we also have health, we have civics and engagement programs as well and we have—what was the one? I don’t remember the last one, but we have four.
CW: So your role as an AmeriCorps member, what specifically do you do within El Centro?
AA: So I—my AmeriCorps program is mostly with my background. I come from an education background. I have a Spanish degree from UNC and also Wake Forest degree—Master’s Degree in education, so what I do mostly offer support and education, mostly for children who are in kindergarten to eighth grade. What we do there is offer anything from tutoring to finding more opportunities to live more enriching lives which they’re young.
CW: So, why did you decide to take a job with El Centro? What generally made you interested in this kind of work?
AA: Yeah so, El Centro has always been an organization that has been in Durham for many years. As an immigrant myself, I used it back in 2001 when I migrated from Texas to North Carolina. So, it’s a very useful resource. We used it mostly to find information as to how to register for Durham public schools, for going to school, and eventually I understood it was a very important resource for the community. I used it. I found out that they were hosting an AmeriCorps position and I thought ‘well, I have an education background, I have the experience, I am bilingual, I am able to understand both sides of being cultural—I’m bicultural, I grew up in the US and also I’m Latino, Mexican roots. So I have that knowledge that I think can be very beneficial to the work in both sides of the work.
CW: Great, so in your experience so far working with El Centro, what would you say are the biggest obstacles that the immigrant community, specifically in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Durham face? And are these specific to the area or just sort of you think general problems that you think a lot of immigrants face?
AA: Mainly problems they have faced in my experience here I think have to do with language barriers. Even in 2017, we still have families who come here and ask for resources who can’t, not only speak Spanish but can understand where they come from. Not many people here in the area in Raleigh, Durham, or Chapel Hill have the type of—they don’t have bilingual people who can help our families unfortunately. So what I end up doing is helping the people who come here to find more resources in the community and we’re always faced with that lack of personnel, unfortunately. I think language barriers are a huge one. I think that would be the main one, yeah.
CW: Do you think—on the flip side of that, do you think there are certain assets that the immigrant community in this area has that they might not have elsewhere?
AA: Assets, yes. We bring many positive qualities and our culture. We are a culture of family. We are a culture of hard work, people who have tenacity. We have dreams. We have plans. And I think that those serve as assets. Nontangible assets are really what define us as Latinos, as Hispanics in the triangle. I think it can be something that many Latinos and Hispanics can share throughout the whole US, not only in the South. But, I am interested to know more about how specifically Latinos in the South could distinguish themselves from others, other Latinos in other parts of the country.
CW: You grew up partially in Texas, but you’ve lived in Durham for much of your life.
AA: Right.
CW: How have you noticed personally changes within the immigrant community in Durham and this area over that time you’ve lived here?
AA: Well, in Texas, in El Paso more specifically, we used to live in a predominantly Latino community. So, I was young. I was six to ten years old so I didn’t really see many new people come to there. But here in Durham, when I moved in 2000, I saw a lot of huge influx of Latino and Hispanic people. And I think—we were just talking about this earlier with another person—we have had so many new acquaintances, so many new family and friends over the years, who have come not only from Mexico, but also all sorts of places, Central America, we have people from Chile in Durham and I think it’s just a huge, huge difference. Ten years ago, when my parents migrated to Durham, we did not have as many Latinos. So over the years we have grown to learn more about the business men and business women who started the business back in—I don’t know—1990 and now they have their own business. So we have a huge, huge amount of Latinos that are growing. So, I think we have grown tremendously as a population.
CW: Have you seen the resources available for the Latino population grow as well in that time?
AA: Well, yes. El Centro Hispano has grown tremendously. I think it continues to address the needs of Latinos. Not exactly sure in terms of my education, teachers—not many bilingual personnel in the organizations, like schools, or other things like that. I don’t think that’s been a huge change, yeah.
CW: So, in the work that El Centro does, how—what is the process of analyzing the community’s needs and figuring out maybe what programs to implement or—yeah, what’s the process of analyzing the community’s needs basically?
AA: Yeah so, we collect data in terms of direct support service. And what this means is that people come here to our office and ask for information for referrals mostly and what we do is collect information from a spot we have outside the door. We ask them to write their name, the reason they came here, mostly their phone number, so we can follow up on how we helped them later. But eventually what we do is we add up all the resources that people come her for and then we make—we decide okay so people who come here really need to speak to lawyers. What we do is reach out to the community. Okay, we need more lawyers. There is more demand to talk more about immigration. We have a need to know more about finance, how to plan for the finances for retirement possibly. At this time we do not have that service, but we do—we use that data is the future to attract more—to bring more professionals to the area so they can have workshops or other types of help—mostly workshops and events that happen at least once every six months or something, just depends. But that is how we analyze the data.
CW: So in order to sort of bring people in that first time, how do you do community outreach or is it mostly word of mouth?
AA: Yeah mainly we have both. So, as El Centro Hispano AmeriCorps member, what we do in part is to go out into the community. Right now we are mostly in the businesses phase and what that means is that we take brochures to local businesses and we do—we give them to them, so we ask that they give them—so we receive permission to post flyers and little handouts so that community knows about our events and workshops. Phase two really just depends on going to specific neighborhoods, handing out the same information, just talking more to them more person-to-person, that is the goal. We’re actually planning—we’re still starting to analyze the Carrboro demographics in terms of identifying where to go so that just means knowing where most Latinos live. We have a map, mostly from what information—from information we receive when people come here as well. And we also receive word of mouth as well and there’re people who’ve been here for the last seventeen years and don’t really know a lot about us. We have many mew immigrants come here and say “I did not know that you guys existed.” So they come and just want more information about us. We have also work with schools and the new—well, we have had in the past is offer legal help to people who want to know more about power of attorneys. So sometimes schools and other organizations, what they do is reach out to us first. “We don’t know how to address deportation cases. What do we do if parents of someone comes into our office?” So what we do is send out flyers and emails and sorts of announcements. I think those would be the main ways of our reaching.
CW: So would you say that El Centro Hispano is a pretty well-known resource within the Hispanic, Latino community?
AA: I think it’s a pretty well-known one. We have served over seven thousand people I think last fiscal year (background noise) and many people know about the resources. They come back. They do come back. Because the beauty of El Centro Hispano is that we offer programs from pre-k up until college. So what we do is try to follow up on people from when they’re babies, from going to the preschool room, to tutoring and then up to the college application process before going to college and eventually that would be the goal to track and help students navigate the college process while they’re in college. So, many people like to come back.
CW: So, would you say that the non-Hispanic population in the area is aware of the work you do as well or what kind of interaction does El Centro Hispano have with the non-Hispanic, non-Latino population, if any?
AA: Well it’s a hard question to—that’s a hard thing to answer. I’m not really sure. We have people come here who speak only English. We have many people from UNC Hospitals, from UNC, and local organizations and they just want to partner so that they can better serve their own population. So El Centro Hispano is only one of organization that has many partnerships with other organizations throughout the triangle. What we’re doing is trying to establish a good population but it’s hard for me to answer what non-Hispanic people know about us or not.
CW: Can you give some examples of the partnerships that you have with other organizations in the area?
AA: Yeah so we have a partnership with the Orange Country Rape Crisis Center. What we do is host a person who is the Latino outreach supervisor, the Latino community link, liaison. And what she does is comes here and offers confidentiality in terms of talking to someone and talking about sexual violence, sexual health, anything else, anything that ranges from that—talks or anything like that. We also work with SHAC from UNC. What that is, is the student medical association with many components, many students who come here and they give talks to parents in Spanish about diabetes, about stress management, nutrition as well. So we are very fortunate and we have a lot of people within the community, not only students, but just people who live around Carrboro. We even have a UNC professor who comes and volunteers with us. So we have a very strong not database—workforce I guess, volunteer force.
CW: So once you sort of have a project or program implemented, what’s the process of analyzing how effective that program is.
AA: Yes, so with direct support for example, we call people at least a month later and we ask them, “How was the service? Were you able to locate this? Were you able to go after coming to us?” Because most people come here for referrals. We do a lot of follow-up. We are implementing Google voice, which is like a text-implemented program which allows us to communicate with them easily and they are able to reply to us back. I think the main idea for that is to get as many people as possible to really help us know that what we’re doing is of quality and they’re actually making an impact, which continues to show that it is. Many people love to know more about Centro Hispano so they’ll call and say “I have more questions,” and they’re really thankful that we have all these resources for them. So we always are happy to provide that. How else do we measure that? We have flyers. We have surveys that we take as well. And people submit those to the directors, whether it’s education, whether it’s health. The directors what they do is just measure the effectiveness of the program. We’re always open to suggestions and how to better work as well.
CW: Is there an example of a time that you know of that a program or project was implemented and then later you realized it wasn’t achieving its goal or wasn’t as effective as you thought it would be?
AA: That’s a great question. You know, in my time here, since August of—no, excuse me October of 2016, I haven’t had a new program implemented. I’ve been here for six months now and I don’t think there’s been anything new coming up. So I don’t have information about that.
CW: So what are some of the challenges that El Centro faces on sort of an institutional level as an organization? (background noise)
AA: Like problems—that’s a hard question to answer too. Well I guess this is the nonprofit nature, sometimes it’s a little bit hard to come up with the resources to serve the community. We’re trying and doing our best to apply for scholarships and grants and we did get some, I wouldn’t say all of them. But sometimes it’s a little bit hard to secure that money to better serve the community I think. But I think that’s across the board in every non-profit. It’s a little hard to have the funds to help, yeah.
CW: So, where does most of the funding for El Centro come from?
AA: You know that’s information I don’t really have. It’s mostly from my director, from our grants manager. So I wouldn’t really like to go into the details of that, not because I shouldn’t, but I just don’t know the information, yeah.
CW: Yeah, so from your work, how would you describe sort of the relationship or interaction between the immigrant communities and non-immigrant communities in Chapel Hill or in Durham?
AA: Yeah, I’m not really sure. I don’t know, can you clarify that a little better?
CW: Yeah, so I guess have you noticed a sentiment among the people you work with that they feel welcome in the community or do you sense that there’s a degree of segregation I guess between the different populations?
AA: Between race populations, is that what you mean?
CW: Like immigrant vs non-immigrant or Hispanic vs non-Hispanic populations.
AA: Well you know I think we are very fortunate to live in Carrboro and even in Durham and to illustrate that we receive a large amount of support from the community and not only from Durham, Chapel Hill, but we receive letters from—support from—I think all the way from California. I know we’re recording this, but we have letters from people who wrote to us when we had an instance back in November 2016 when someone threw a rock in the back side of the door. So, right after the new administration came by. It’s still under investigation so we don’t know if that was because of the new administration coming, or disapproval of us being here. But over the years, we receive a lot of support from community members. The community people will come here and Weaver Street, they like to come and just show support. We don’t really have—at least myself, I haven’t seen much segregation between Latinos and anyone else.
CW: So, going off the story you just told, how has the nature of the work El Centro has done changed, if at all, since the new administration has come in? Or what has that changed the way you…?
AA: Yeah it’s been a huge change. Our work has changed mostly to address the—I guess the fear and secure—the community continues to feel ever since November, there’s a lot of concern in terms of what is going to happen to them or their children more specifically. What we have done is to partner with lawyers, I think the most—the present issue right now is finding those answers for them. So, since November what we have been doing is offering talks to the community in both cities, in Carrboro and in Durham. And in those talks what we do is talk about what to do incase an immigration office shows up in people’s doors. We tell them their rights and we offer them opportunities to sit one-to-one with a lawyer and then just talk about ways that they can assure their children or even possessions are going to be safe, at least until they get their children back and anything else, their possessions. I’m not really sure on the words—again I’m not a lawyer so I’m probably wrong with this, but I think that mostly addressing that insecurity and we do offer legal clinics as well, so many people come here asking how to better help themselves with the new—the new wave of changes.
CW: Have you seen that that legal support has helped settle some of people’s fears and concerns?
AA: Yes, yes, I think it continues to assuage the fear. First, what lawyers try to tell them—and I’ve been to a couple of talks. It can be summarized that there’s a lot of uncertainty and I think lawyers are experts and know what’s going to happen still. So it’s just waiting to see—and to see a new law or something face to face to act. What we’re trying to do is give them tools—give the Latino population tools to address these types of problems. What else was I going to say? I think that’s mostly what we’re trying to do—just give them a safe space for them to come by and just talk to us about anything that they—that may be hurting them. Oh yes, also we have a Faith ID drive that we have in Durham, and Chapel Hill too. And what we do there is to invite local police representatives and we’re so thankful that we have officers who come and speak to us about the new administration and what their main goal is to serve the community, to ensure that the community is safe for living. Most, if not all of the officers, have affirmed and declared repeatedly that they’re not to be ICE agents or anything like that. They’re here to mostly protect ourselves and we continue to live peaceful, peaceful lives. And with—in Durham they stopped doing checkpoints, so people have that extra reassurance that they’re safe, at least for now and that the police department doesn’t have the goal of deporting people, yeah. And I think just hearing from them is—I feel that it’s a lot of tension sometimes. They see police in the podium and they’re like “oh my goodness, what’s going to happen? Is someone getting in trouble?” But afterwards they kind of feel that sense of relief inside and everyone is this calm you know, “it’s okay. We’re all in this together. We’re all fine. It’s a community.”
CW: So has the relationship with the police department always been pretty strong or has it you know stepped up in recent years or changed at all?
AA: I think its been pretty, pretty strong over the years. I think we’ve had Faith ID for the last five years. But, yet again I don’t really know before August—October of 2016. But I think we live in nice counties that are just—have good things like El Centro Hispano does.
CW: Do you have any kind of relationship or interaction with the local government as well? Like, town council or mayors or anything like that?
AA: We really don’t have any contact with them. That is mostly Pilar’s job in terms of representing us at that type of level. But she always offers the chance for anyone at El Centro Hispano to go up with her and just be side by side. But we don’t necessarily work with town councils or lawyers. But it’s nice…
CW: Could you talk about maybe a—since working here, one of the moments that was most memorable or most impactful that you’ve had?
AA: Yes. So in confidentiality, I can’t really talk about anyone specifically, but we have had people who come here with many problems and what we do is try to point them to the right resource. We listen to them and just knowing that they come back again—we, although we’re not like a social worker type of environment—we don’t really do case management in terms of like tracking how they’re doing, but knowing they’re back here and home in Centro Hispano and knowing that their case is moving forward in positive light is really impactful, is meaningful. We know that what we’re doing matters and it’s just an amazing, amazing feeling I think. Not only in direct support, we also have a tutoring program. Children are sometimes coming here with really, well, low grades or just not performing to the grade level and what we do is offer tutoring as well. That is—knowing that sometimes parents, like I said, sometimes there’s not a lot of resources in the communities in terms of how Spanish-speaking resources, not a lot of Spanish-speaking personnel can help them in tutoring so they come. And also see that parents come and also bring their children. They know that their children are improving. That is also a very nice feeling. I think that’s in general, yeah.
CW: Since being here has the work you’ve done changed or shaped any career goals—different career goals you might have for the future?
AA: Well, I still want to continue on with what I do here, pushing forward for the betterment of not only Hispanics, Latinos but just for the integration of everyone, mostly focusing in education. That is where I come from, where I’m most familiar with. So my ultimate goal is to work in a non-profit and hopefully here in El Centro Hispano in the education branch—department. But also perhaps as a coordinator in terms of helping just children learn more about higher education specifically, just becoming stronger through the education that they will receive in the future. I think that’s mostly what I want to do—education.
CW: Do you—so in your current role, do you do a lot of work directly with the school districts in Chapel Hill and Durham?
AA: Yeah, so in Durham we have a program—when we started it—we haven’t replicated it here in Chapel Hill. But in Durham what we do is go specifically to schools where students come from mostly and what we do is establish that connection with principals and we ask for permission to better work with students. And what we do there is to ask principals to let us talk to their—to students’ teachers to that in tutoring we can work alongside the teacher, whatever she or he’s teaching. That means that we’re tailoring children’s education outside of school in terms of—in the non-profit here—and what we do is try to provide extra reinforcement on what they’re doing in the school so that students come here and just practice on that skill that they need, not only just go and pick out a book and start reading. So what we do is be more intentional and we are goal-oriented, so that’s what we have here and in Durham. Yeah, we haven’t started in here in Chapel Hill. Again, we don’t have enough workforce capacity right now, the person who can come here. So in Durham we serve 53 children, here in Durham we—in Carrboro we serve 30 children. So that is just wonderful children, but just not enough time or energy to help one-by-one, so we are starting slowly.
CW: And have the schools and the teachers at the schools been pretty receptive to this program?
AA: Yeah, they are just amazed at what we do. Some principals don’t know we existed and some do and what we do is just send them resources about what we do and they’re so receptive that they start asking and inviting us for parent orientation nights or open school nights so that we can talk more about how to better help their children, mostly be better prepared for school, but also talk about the legal clinics, about the health program as well. Yeah so just we have a lot of—we receive a lot of invitations from schools. And we are actually partnering with Durham public schools to better strengthen the community through education. Only—well that’s only what I know from my own branch. I’m sure we’re doing that through other branches as well.
CW: I know Chapel Hill has at least one bilingual elementary school. I’m not sure if Durham does, but I guess what are your thoughts on that as a model of sort of more, I don’t know, integrated education?
AA: Yeah well in Durham, we do not have a fully bilingual school, but we do—I know that we have Holt Elementary and we have Burton Elementary and I don’t remember the other. I think we have three schools that offer more languages other than Spanish. We have Chinese and French and I think that’s the only ones that they offer, but in a highly globalized society, I think that—I think you’re referring to Frank Porter Graham, yes. So I think Frank Porter Graham is, like you said, a great example of what we should be aiming for to educate our student in multiple languages, not only Spanish. Because here we don’t only serve Spanish-speaking populations, we also serve people from all over the world. We serve people from Burma. We serve people from Syria as well. We don’t have that type of background. What I do sometimes is just communicate with them in English, but sometimes they don’t speak it at a proficient level so they don’t really understand and we start pulling out our phones and translating using Google voice and Google—not Google voice—Google translate and then we—it’s fun. I think it’s a fun process, but we also do need more languages, not only Spanish. So I’m going to advocate for—in a realistic world we can’t teach every single language in the world, but it would be lovely.
CW: You said you work with the refugee populations in the area too. Could you talk a little bit about how—what kind of work you do with those populations and how it might be different from the work you do with the Hispanic populations?
AA: I think—well the two main programs we have is direct support. We have a diaper bank, so we work with a diaper bank and people from all over come here and ask for diapers every two weeks, but I don’t think that’s really related to the—I think that the most—I think that instead of being a difference, it’s more of a similarity. They come here to get integrated and learn the language. They come to our ESL classes in the evenings. The teacher does not talk in Spanish or any other language. He or she talks mostly in English, so the students are really forced to listen attentively and what a great way to learn than by immersion and just hearing from a native—a native teacher. But I think there’s mostly similarities just by learning to speak the language, which is really important. What we have observed here is that our teachers really like to address students’ needs by offering them a little bit of maneuvering time or the ability to choose, you know ‘let’s talk about going to the doctor. What type of things do you want to talk to your doctor about? Are you worried about a specific ailment or something like that?’ So what she does is you know, helps them choose some vocabulary words and they go from there. So it is very personalized from what I’ve seen.
CW: (pause) Sorry
AA: It’s okay
CW: (pause) Okay well I don’t remember what the other question—
AA: That’s fine
CW: I was going to ask was. But, yeah those are really most of the questions I have for you. Is there anything else that you want to add about your work or your interest in education or really anything else?
AA: Well, kind of like a closing statement. I think more—now more than ever, we need to continue working together instead of just separating ourselves between ourselves and the other, whatever that means. I just—we could be more united and that’s why we’re here, to help with that void. And just myself, I’m just someone who has strong desire for seeing more equality, more—just more united society. People who feel comfortable where they live, who feel safe, people who can concern living—who can live happy prosperous lives. I just—I’ve been so grateful that as an immigrant myself I’ve had many fortunate circumstances that allow me to be where I am and as long as I continue with the job that I’m doing and I’m serving the population in terms of going to school and just educating themselves, formal or informally, I think my job is just done. Yeah.
CW: Well, thank you so much for answering all my questions and for sharing all of your thoughts with me today.
AA: You’re very welcome. My pleasure.