Hundreds opened bank accounts, lined up for medical screenings and got information on a wide variety of government and nonprofit services at the second annual Latino Family Fair yesterday at Bell Multicultural High School in Northwest Washington.
The event, sponsored by the Mayor's Office on Latino Affairs, "brings information about services to the Latin American community, especially government services they don't know about," said Claudia Marquez, community programs coordinator with the Latino affairs office. About 55,000 Latinos live in the District, and many do not get services they are entitled to because of language barriers or a belief that they must have documents to qualify, Marquez said.
At the fair, some young people called family members abroad from a Verizon vehicle. Other participants learned how to install and use child safety seats for cars. Parents tugged reluctant children into a truck for free dental screenings, and another site offered on-the-spot HIV testing.
Staff at the Bank of America booth signed up more than 50 people for checking or savings accounts or free financial checkups. Brochures in Spanish and English explained how to use debit cards, how to balance a checkbook and other banking basics. Many who opened accounts had not used a bank before. "When they keep cash, they lose it, they get robbed. There's no security," and they have no credit history, said branch manager Brahim Rawi.
Nearby, Juana Leon stopped by the D.C. Public Library booth to inquire about college scholarship programs for her son, a high school junior. Leon, who moved to the area from El Salvador, said she knew about most of the available services after 16 years in the District. "There are things I know about, but I don't know exactly where to go for them -- so I came here," she said in Spanish. She found what she needed: The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library has an office that can help her find scholarships.
"I think what happens a lot with our community is they're really busy working . . . and they just don't find out about" programs, said Elsa Zambrano of the nonprofit Housing Counseling Services, adding that many immigrants hold multiple jobs to support their families. Zambrano was handing out information on tenant rights and responsibilities, homeownership programs and home loans. She said Latinos often are unused to the U.S. mortgage system because cash transactions are more common in their countries of origin. And she said education keeps them from falling victim to predatory lending.
"A lot of the services people use are based on trust," said Yvette Missri, an assistant attorney general who was providing information for those trying to escape domestic violence. "In a lot of Spanish-speaking countries, people don't trust the police or the government," and events like the fair where Latin American residents can get to know people with various agencies are crucial, she said.
People who cannot speak English often are deprived of programs they need, Columbia Heights resident Maria de la Luz Ortiz said in Spanish as she picked up brochures on allergies and free tutoring programs. But the fair, she said, can reach a community disadvantaged by language barriers.