El Puente: Attempting to Bridge the Divide Between Grassroots Community and The System
When people refer to “the grassroots” in communities they are generally describing average men women busy living their lives, working jobs, raising families, and thus mostly disconnected from the official city apparatus, such as law enforcement, in place to protect and serve them. This is especially true of inner city neighborhoods with a high proportion of residents for whom English is a second language. There’s often a built-in distrust of The System. One attempt to bridge he divide in South Omaha’s barrios is El Puente, a joint effort by a local minister, Rev. Alberto Silva, and a local journalist, Ben Salazar, with deep ties to the Latino community there. This is their story.
El Puente: Attempting to Bridge the Divide Between Grassroots Community and The System
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in El Perico
Experience has taught two longtime South Omaha community activists that a gulf exists between some residents and those assigned to protect and serve them.
Nuestro Mundo publisher Ben Salazar and Grace United Methodist Church pastor Alberto Silva recognize the need for a confidential, community-based advisory service that operates independently of police or government.
“It doesn’t take a genius to figure out there is this fear on the part of many immigrants and Spanish speakers to come forward and speak to the police when an issue arises, so we know there’s a void there that we hope to bridge,” said Salazar.
That reality led Salazar and Rev. Silva to form El Puente or The Bridge as a conduit that links community members with professionals. A March 29 press conference at Grace announced the nonprofit, a companion project to the church’s Latino empowerment outreach program, La Casa Del Pueblo. Both are based at the church, 2418 E Street.
The men say many things explain why individuals remain silent rather than contact officials: a person’s illegal or undocumented status; fear/distrust of authority; language barriers; and unfamiliarity with the social service, law enforcement, justice systems.
Salazar and Silva say they and other volunteers staffing El Puente can directly assist inquirers or refer them to experts.
Already, Silva said El Puente’s fielded complaints of racial profiling, discrimination and domestic violence. Tips about criminal activity are welcome. Whenever possible, a person’s identity is kept private. As necessary, information is passed onto authorities or agencies. In many cases El Puente connects people to social and/or legal services.
Rev. Alberto Silva leading a prayer vigil, ©Omaha World-Herald
Journalists and ministers don’t often work together, but this newsman and preacher saw they could do more together than apart.
“Since we both worked almost exclusively with the Latino community in different ways we knew that if we merged our experiences together in this effort it would be beneficial to the community because we know the void exists,” said Salazar.
Both want the community and police to view each other as allies, not adversaries.
“The whole thing for me is I want to see collaboration between the police and the Latino community,” said Silva. “The domestic violence issue is very prevalent right now, but there’s such a fear.”
As illustration, he said a young Latina at the press conference testified she did not report her former partner’s domestic violence against her because he was a U.S. citizen and she was not. Rather than jeopardize her residency status, her abuse went unspoken. Silva said the woman went on to say she and others in such predicaments would welcome a resource like El Puente.
Silva has a sense there’s a big problem out there. “I have been dealing with a lot of domestic violence cases. People keep calling with these types of issues, especially immigrant women,” he said. Ideally, he said, El Puente can link men or women or families to counseling or shelters or other assistance they need.
The need for a discreet sounding board may be greater than ever because the anti-immigrant climate imposes a chilling effect on people volunteering or reporting things, say Salazar and Silva. They feel the recent “green card” incident targeting South High athletes and fans was a symptom of racist fervor that “gives license” to prejudice.
“My opinion is that discrimination has been holding on fast like Jim Crow for years, maybe just not as blatantly as now,” said Salazar.
“It just went underground for a little bit,” said Silva. “It wasn’t socially acceptable to display it or talk about it like it is now again.”
Silva said soon after El Puente’s launch, several people reported loved ones being detained after traffic stops. Those kinds of incidents, he and Salazar say, diminish trust and discourage some Latinos from expressing their concerns or asserting their rights.
“How are they going to have that trust to come forward when they hear that people are getting stopped on the Interstate and being taken directly to the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) office and held for deportation?” Silva asked. “People are disgusted with the graffiti problem. They would love to come forward but how are they going to go to the police when you have this immigration enforcement mentality permeating the thought of the immigrant community?”
The absence of an Omaha police auditor office is a barrier to people reporting possible law enforcement misconduct, say El Puente leaders.
Southeast precinct captain Kathy Gonzalez acknowledges that “sometimes people don’t feel comfortable coming directly to the police department.” She endorses El Puente, terming its bridge or mediator role “a huge asset” and “a working partnership between the police and the community. She added, “Sometimes people don’t know where to turn…so it’s just one more step that can assist us with community outreach and it’s one more place they can go to get connected to resources.”
Retired Omaha Police Department officer Virgil Patlan sees El Puente, which he volunteers with, as “an extension” of the community policing efforts of the Nebraska Latino Peace Officers Association he headed up. “We can work with people in ways the police can’t,” he said. “It’s just better to have someone not in uniform that the community may feel more comfortable with. He frees up the police also.”
Patlan, Silva and Salazar say they have ample street credibility but “building trust” is an ongoing process. Silva said it’s critical people know what they say will be held in strictest confidence. Patlan said he and his El Puente compadres each bring something unique to the task: “We’re not from the same mold and yet we all complement each other in certain ways. We just love the community, there’s no doubt about that.” Each boasts extensive community connections.
Despite not being immigrants themselves, Salazar said they don’t feel “completely removed” “because our parents and grandparents were a part of that experience. And it’s not purely an immigrant experience per se we’re responding to. It is a Latino experience of living in this country. Discrimination is not limited to legal status. Often times even Latinos who are second-third generation born here are treated as outsiders, as immigrants, as not fully a part of the Anglo society.”
El Puente contact numbers are: (Silva) 650-0848, (Salazar) 731-6210 and (La Casa) 614-2820.
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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