Hispanic Liaison's youth group empowers, supports Siler City’s Latinx youth

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SILER CITY — Jordan-Matthews graduate David Gonzalez Hernandez received a “full ride” to attend UNC Greensboro — an achievement he said he owed in large part to Orgullo Latinx Pride, the Hispanic Liaison’s youth program.

This program — offered freely year-round to Siler City’s Latinx high school students — connected him and other members in their junior and senior years with college counselors who read over their essays and helped them apply for scholarships.

“I think that was a really big help for me, because without them, I probably would have not got a full ride,” Gonzalez Hernandez said. “It was like multiple scholarships that I got to compose that full ride.”

For many students like Gonzalez Hernandez, Orgullo Latinx Pride (OLP) provides multiple pillars of pivotal support: academic support, cultural education, mentorship, and even “a second little home,” according to Selina Lopez, who manages OLP as the Hispanic Liaison’s youth program coordinator.

“Our focus is really students who don’t necessarily get the opportunity to participate as much as they would like in the community or at school, who need academic support, who need emotional support, or can benefit from a community where they can grow with their peers,” she said.

The program seeks to empower youth, she added, by forging them into leaders, building their confidence in their cultural identities and encouraging them to pursue higher education.

“It’s a space for them to really just open up and learn and grow together as a familia,” Lopez said. “(It’s a space to) just bring in all of their different experiences and, as I like to say, sazones (flavors), so that they can all learn from each other and uplift each other.”

Created in late 2017, the group’s origins lie in a community survey. In the summer of 2016, the Hispanic Liaison (EVH) and UNC-Chapel Hill’s Latino Migration Project conducted a joint community assessment in Chatham County to identify Hispanic residents’ needs and hear feedback about EVH’s services.

The assessment found that a large part of the community wanted a youth leadership program, Lopez said, which prompted EVH to hire her in July of 2017. About four months later, OLP was born — a name Lopez said the first cohort of youth chose themselves.

“At first it was like, ‘Orgullo Latinx,’ but then someone was like, ‘Yeah, but we’re bilingual (and) bicultural,’” she said. “And so, they translated the ‘Orgullo’ (or ‘pride’) part to English and so made it ‘Orgullo Latinx Pride’ to encompass their bi-culturalism and who they are as Latinx youth growing up in North Carolina.”

This year, about 25 students form part of OLP. The group typically caps off around 30 students — Lopez said that’s her capacity — but that’s not set in stone. Last year, she had 32.

“But this year with COVID, it’s really hard to recruit, and we can’t go to the schools as we’re not a school-based program,” she said, adding, “I have interests in upperclassmen of youth, but I’m really holding off my five spaces for ninth graders, which is super hard right now, because they’re holed at home.”

Eligible high schoolers interested in joining OLP can call EVH’s office and ask to speak to Lopez, who would then arrange a meeting with interested students and their families. Students also have to fill out a Google Form, which Lopez said asks for demographic information, why students want to join OLP, and contact information, among other things. The form also assesses students’ self-esteem and support systems.

No essays necessary, Lopez assured.

“I think a lot of the times youth get a little overwhelmed when they hear ‘application’ because usually it’s associated with essays,” she said. “And I didn’t want that to be a barrier for some youth, especially, youth who aren’t necessarily seen as youth who are on the right track or youth who are already interested in joining these extracurricular clubs or organizations.”

‘If you can do this, you’re set for life’

Much of Lopez’s inspiration for OLP activities comes from her own experiences growing up in a small town in rural Warren County, where she said she faced many negative stereotypes or discrimination.

“For me, it was a challenge loving who I was,” she said, “and I don’t think I fully came to terms of being a proud Latina until I actually went to UNC and started taking courses on learning more about my history and my culture as crazy as that sounds.’”

As the name implies, that’s part of the bundle of services OLP provides — discussion and education about their identities, cultural heritage and issues like mental health. But that’s not all.

Before COVID-19 forced all of the group’s activities online — even community service — the group would meet weekly after school for tutoring, homework help and career readiness talks.

“They would come in and they would focus on their homework, on their assignments, and we would have tutors that would just help them on those assignments,” Lopez said, adding that she routinely monitored their grades.

Meanwhile, juniors and seniors would receive career readiness advice and help with college applications — many of whom will be first-generation high school graduates and the first in their families to pursue higher education.

“A lot of times it’s just no one has ever spoken to them about college or university and this idea of it being possible,” Lopez said, adding, “A lot of their parents just didn’t have that opportunity. Like my parents, they either didn’t finish a lot of schooling in their home country or here, depending on what you ask. And so, the goal is to really help (the youth) get those resources.”

So far, it’s worked: Since the program’s start, 100% of OLP alumni have gone on to attend some form of higher education, Lopez said, whether that’s a four-year university or community college.

During other meetings, Lopez said they’d listen to guest speakers, such as former town manager Bryan Thompson, who introduced himself and talked to the group about local government. They’d also go on field trips, visiting universities and museums, or attend town commissioner meetings.

Last year, Lopez added, the youth even gave a presentation to city and county commissioners about OLP and what it meant to be Latinx in Chatham County.

“We had a couple of really, really shy kids doing it, and so, I really pushed them out of their comfort zone to do this,” she said. “I was like, ‘If you can do this, you’re set for life, like you are absolutely golden.’ And so, I think that was one of their proudest moments.”

‘It’s like being part of a family’

Siler City parent Celsa Hernández Jiménez has noticed a big difference in her son, Carlos, who’s been a part of OLP for about three years. His grades are better, he feels more sure of himself and he’s learned a lot, she said.

“He’s been a kid who’s shy to talk or be with other people,” she said, adding that now, “He knows how to interact more … I feel like I owe them (OLP) a lot in terms of taking away his shyness of talking 100%.”

Many OLP members and alumni describe a similar transformation: They’ve grown more confident in themselves and their cultural identities, learned about a history and culture many schools don’t typically teach, and now know how and why to raise their voices.

David Gonzalez Hernandez, now a freshman at UNC-G, joined OLP in December of his sophomore year, when the program was just getting started.

“I feel like I’m more confident and more outspoken to talk about topics that really are impacting me or people around me,” he said adding, “I feel like it was worth it because I got a lot out of the program.”

Berenice Diaz-Acosta, a Jordan-Matthews junior, joined in her freshman year. That decision, she said, changed her high school experience.

“It’s difficult for me to explain my experience as a Hispanic to my white friends because they won’t understand any reference at all,” she said, “but I feel more comfortable with my friends in OLP because we have a connection. We do understand each other, and that’s how OLP’s actually helped me.”

Jordan-Matthews junior Ashley Perez joined OLP in her first year after a friend told her about it. Since then, she said she’s learned a lot about college, government and Hispanic heritage.

“And I can bond a lot with my mom because of that because she wouldn’t really talk much about her past,” she said, “and now that I had these questions and now I’m more curious, I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I want to learn more. I want to know you more.”

All three members, past and present, called OLP a “family.”

“Being a part of OLP feels like being part of a family because I’m with people who I have a deep connection with,” Diaz-Acosta said, “and every time I go to their office, I feel like I’m wanted and needed.”

That’s something for which Perez is especially grateful. In her first year of high school, she and her family moved to Siler City from Orange County. She still remembers how lonely she felt after leaving behind all of her friends. In fact, she thought she was “going to be alone forever.”

That changed after she found OLP.

“It’s like being part of a family or being part of something which I was missing. It’s a lot of love,” Perez said, adding, “And once I felt that bond, I was like, ‘Well, I’m not alone anymore.’”

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.

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