Riverdale Park takes steps to engage Hispanic community

November 14, 2012

As Riverdale Park has seen a boom in the number of its Hispanic and immigrant residents, town officials have taken steps to ensure that the population is integrated into the town’s affairs.

But reaching out to the Hispanic population has offered some challenges, Mayor Vernon Archer said.

Town officials have sought to ensure Hispanic participation in civic and community events by hiring more bilingual staff and translating some of the town’s literature into Spanish, Archer said.

The town’s Hispanic population climbed to 50 percent in 2010, up from 28 percent in 2000, according to U.S. Census data.

In 2010, 40 percent of the town’s population was foreign-born, and 30 percent spoke a language other than English in the home, data show. George Escobar, director of the services department for the immigrant rights group Casa of Maryland, said he thinks the population is increasing because many Hispanics have family in the area and there are more affordable housing options than in Montgomery County and the District.

Officials have hired bilingual staff for almost every department and translated into Spanish some important town literature, such as invitations to the town’s Oct. 6 Riverdale Park Day and information on new developments, Archer said.

Most of the translated literature is distributed on the eastern side of town, where most Spanish-speaking residents live, Archer said.

However, because many Hispanic residents live in apartments and move often, the large amount of turnover in the town’s population makes it tough to engage over long periods, he said.

“The people you tried to reach out to five years ago are gone,” Archer said. “The demographics are the same, but they are a different group of people.”

Escobar said the high amount of turnover is expected because the area generally has a highly transitional population. He said because many Hispanic residents do seasonal and temporary jobs, they may be moving to where the work is.

Some in the town believe that more interpreters should be present at Town Hall and that more literature should be distributed in Spanish.

Riverdale Park resident Erick Mendez said he has never visited Town Hall. Originally from Mexico, Mendez, 28, lives in a multifamily apartment complex along Riverdale Road with his parents.

He said he felt there was a lack of staff who spoke Spanish at Town Hall, making it difficult for him and his primarily Spanish-speaking family to become engaged in the town’s affairs.

“Some people don’t speak English; they have always spoke Spanish,” Mendez said. “It’s difficult for them to write stuff and to read because they do not understand what they are talking about.”

While overcoming the language barrier is important when trying to engage the Hispanic and immigrant population in any jurisdiction, it is crucial to develop leaders who come directly from the community to inspire activism, Escobar said.

“Translating and having bilingual people is great and necessary, but it is only part of the solution,” Escobar said. “It is really important to spend resources on getting people to be champions of the community themselves.”

Archer said he recruited the town’s two Hispanic council members — Raymond Rivas (Ward 5) and Alejandro Silva (Ward 6) — by knocking on their doors and asking them to run in the two wards, which have a large Hispanic population.

He said he believed the two wards needed representatives who reflected the communities.

Rivas won his seat in 2009 and won reelection in 2011, running unopposed both times. He declined to comment for this article. Silva won his seat in 2011 and also ran unopposed.

Silva said he thought the town has done well in reaching out to the Hispanic population and felt that the number of translators was adequate to handle Spanish-speakers in the town. He said Hispanic residents in his ward usually come to him if they have any concerns about town issues.

“There is no problem from what I understand,” he said. “They don’t complain that much.”

Archer and Rivas plan to make presentations this month at the Park Tanglewood Apartments on Riverdale Road, in which many Hispanic residents live, on the town’s plan to renovate and expand Town Hall, Archer said.

The literature at the event will be translated, and interpreters will be on hand.

Archer said that, although he is not completely satisfied with the town’s outreach to the community, he is unsure of what else can be done.

Town officials want to continue to implement plans, such as a proposal to renovate and expand Town Hall, so that the entire community will benefit, not just Hispanics, Archer said.

“These are the kinds of things that we are trying to do to make life better for everybody,” he said. “I am not sure what else you can do.”

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