When the audience at a Latino town hall last week at Mount Tahoma High School was asked to voice their concerns about Tacoma life, Luz Maria Chavez spoke of a frustration that had simmered for two decades.
As a fresh immigrant from Mexico, where her life had included a four-year business degree and a job supervising more than 100 people, she had gone to a Fife employment agency to get work. There was an accounts receivable job that sounded perfect.
Then the official who read her application spoke with her curtly.
“She said, ‘There must have been a mistake,’” Chavez recalled.
Mexican immigrants, she was told at the agency in the mid-1990s visit, got placed only in farm or restaurant jobs, not in the white-collar business world Chavez already knew.
Now in her 50s, she is a social worker and still sees the same underlying problem.
“This culture needs to be aware that there are educated Latinos,” Chavez said.
Amid an ongoing increase in the Pacific Northwest’s Latino population, which is growing at a faster rate than the region's overall population, officials from Tacoma and nonprofit agencies convened the Saturday event to collect stories and perspectives from people such as Chavez.
In separate rooms for English and Spanish speakers, more than 100 people gathered Saturday to discuss extra hardships that confront the South Sound’s Latino residents.
In the Spanish-only room, the reported difficulties included fundamental aspects of life.
Among them: Employment opportunities often go to English-speakers who build relationships easier. Landing a job means losing available time to study English. Helping offspring do better in school is hard when the lessons and teachers all use another language. Newcomers grapple with citizenship, professional and safety issues without a well-structured system to ease the process.
“In our lack of unity, we are suffering the consequences of being forgotten,” Jairo Garcia said.
Marna Estrada, 59, said in Spanish that the city’s police relationships and access to medical care were fraught with difficulty for immigrants.
“There is a lot of racism,” Estrada said.
In the room of English speakers, several audience members spoke of challenges beyond the language barrier:
Landlords often let repairs slide. Help with employment applications and government paperwork is difficult to find. Other signals of inclusiveness, such as Latino representation in the political realm, are rarer still.
Mayor Marilyn Strickland, who noted she is an immigrant, said Tacoma should be a welcoming place regardless of language or citizenship. She said she wants to help more Latinos become part of the advisory boards and commissions that city government leans on for many official actions.
“You belong in this city,” she said, in remarks a translator repeated in Spanish. “You have a right to be here, and your voice matters.”
The goal is to come up with priorities government and private groups can develop through better organization and open dialogue, said Philip Gonzales, chairman of the city’s Latino Leadership Network and an organizer of the town hall.
“To work intricately with the city and county, we have to be a part of it,” Gonzales said. “We can’t stand on the outside. ... There has been things like that in the past, but there has been a loss of trust.”
The reported problems reflect a social framework that has not evolved as fast as the Tacoma area’s Latino population has grown, Ali Modarres said Monday.
The region’s Latino community grew by an average of 8 percent a year from 2000 to 2014, during which the overall population had grown by 1.3 percent, said Modarres, the director of urban studies for the University of Washington Tacoma.
“With that level of growth, you would think in the last 14 years we would have paid more attention to engaging with the Latino immigrants,” Modarres said.
Latino residents were estimated in 2014 to make up about 12.2 percent of the population, up from 11 percent in the 2010 census.
Barriers to civic engagement for Latinos remain common, said Peter Bloch Garcia, executive director of the Washington state Latino Community Fund. Reached by phone Monday, he gave the court-ordered changes to the Yakima City Council before last year’s elections as one example.
“Those issues that led to Yakima losing its case are still in place in lots of counties across the state,” he said.
At the town hall, Strickland said Tacoma needed to be welcoming despite a national political climate in which immigration remains a charged topic.
“It feels like it doesn’t take much for people to behave in ways that are xenophobic or hostile to immigrants,” the mayor said.
Rafael Granados, who hosts a Spanish-language political show on KXPA-AM, told the crowd later that they had been poorly served by the tide of national debate.
“Political parties do not understand that we are builders of this country,” he said.
Translated downward through society, he said, this has led to young people confronting hard and bewildering situations fast.
From the stage, Marco Antonio Flores, 19, said he knew of people whose lives were cut adrift when family members were abruptly deported.
“They have no idea where they can go to get help,” he said.
Afterward, he said the lack of guidance for that situation, as discussed in the town hall’s separate group for young people’s issues, had him stumped.
“I don’t know if I’d be supposed to talk to a lawyer,” he said with a shrug.