Latino Activists Get Two Kinds of National Recognition
By Darragh Johnson
Sunday, July 18, 2004; Page C04
In front of a rented 57-inch television tuned to Channel 7, about 27 Latino activists and supporters gathered at CASA de Maryland's Silver Spring office to see their work lauded on "Oprah."
"We're asking you to become aware right this minute of what's happening to children around the world," talk show host Oprah Winfrey said on her Thursday afternoon show, which focused on atrocities against children around the world. "Today I wanted to give those children who have no voice, a voice of their own."
Included in the hour-long show were stories on babies being raped in South Africa, children sold into prostitution, child soldiers forced to kill in Uganda, and a teenager imprisoned in Silver Spring, doing maid work for suburbanites who abused her.
Suddenly CASA's attorney Kim Propeack was on screen, telling television journalist Lisa Ling, "We've heard today from women who've had their childhoods essentially stolen from them."
CASA, a Latino advocacy group based in Takoma Park, has devoted much of its legal resources to freeing foreign women who were brought as maids to the United States but who are kept as virtual slaves.
The U.S. attorney's office has prosecuted four human trafficking cases brought to it by CASA, Propeack said later.
As Propeack spoke onscreen, a slight, supportive "Whoo-hoooo!" murmured through the spare room. CASA advocates and employees cheered Propeack's national appearance, even as they were horrified by the crimes broadcast on Oprah's show.
Just before the show started, the group gathered on white folding chairs in a long corridor next to CASA's Rigoberta Menchu room. People passed around potato chips, braided twists and white-cheddar popcorn, but the celebratory mood quieted as soon as the show started and the grim faces appeared, larger than life, on the color screen at the front of the room.
"This reflects that the word about what's happening is going to get out to a much broader audience," CASA's executive director, Gustavo Torres, said during a commercial break in the show. "We have to keep on fighting and working together. It's the only way we're going to bring justice to our communities, and the only way we're going to bring justice to the domestic workers."
The mood Thursday was far more serious than a day earlier, when the group -- which is devoted to Maryland's 225,000 Latino residents, 70 percent of whom live in Montgomery and Prince George's counties -- received another national recognition.
On Wednesday, the National Council of La Raza, one of the largest national Hispanic civil rights organizations in the country, presented CASA with its "Affiliate of the Year" award at a news conference crowded with about 75 day laborers, domestic workers, Latino activists, supporters and politicians.
Along with the recognition -- which was granted after consideration of La Raza's more than 300 other affiliates -- came, for the first time, a financial reward: a $25,000 check from the Ford Motor Co.
Five television cameras filmed the proceedings as Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) helped celebrate by telling the group -- which was founded in 1985 -- "You're at a whole different level now. I remember when you had bake sales to raise money."
Duncan talked about his father, who escaped Nazi-occupied France and came to the United States as a teenager. Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) described how her father came at age 17 from Sweden, "and he didn't know one word of English." Her colleague George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) gave his remarks entirely in Spanish, then translated into English -- "CASA de Maryland is a model of social services," he said.
In the past year alone, CASA officials said, the organization has placed about 7,000 immigrant workers in jobs -- 294 of which were permanent -- while more than 3,100 immigrants enrolled in CASA's education courses.
"CASA de Maryland is one of our model affiliates," said Janet Murguia, executive director and chief operating officer of La Raza, speaking to the crowd gathered on Wednesday.
In Spanish, she lauded CASA de Maryland for the way it helps immigrants: First, by "offering programs and services," and second, with its "legal power" that "is a strong voice that affects the community."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company