Ahora en Español: Candidates hold first Spanish forum

Candidates running for city council District 1 are listening to community members ask them questions during a Spanish speaking candidate forum on Oct. 24, 2016, in the cafeteria at Golden Valley High School. From the left, Lakisha Jenkins, Anthony Martinez and Jesse Ornelas. Courtesy of Monica Velez mvelez@mercedsunstar.com

Candidates seeking to represent the new City Council district that includes south Merced appeared before community members during a forum that organizers said was the first ever to be conducted in Spanish.
For a change, Spanish-speaking residents weren’t the ones who needed to wear interpreter headsets, noted Tatiana Vizcaíno-Stewart, manager for Building Healthy Communities, which coordinated the Monday evening event.
“It’s the first time South Merced District 1 will have their own special opportunity to have their voices heard,” Vizcaíno-Stewart said.
According to 2014 Census data, Spanish is the primary language for 51 percent of residents in the 95341 ZIP code, which encompasses District 1. Another 10.6 percent speak an Asian or Pacific Island language, according to the Census’ American Community Survey. The portion of those speaking English as their only language is just over one-third.
Of the nearly 34,000 people in the 95341 ZIP code, about 64 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to American Community Survey.
Residents had the opportunity to ask questions of three of the four candidates running for the City Council seat: Jesse Ornelas, Anthony Martinez , and Lakisha Jenkins. Sonia Alshami did not attend.
Issues discussed included how to cope with the homeless population, high rents, and stray dogs; developing safer places for kids to go; and the need for a grocery store and access to fresh produce in south Merced.
Cecilia Mendoza, a south Merced resident for more than 40 years, said the most important factor for District 1 is electing someone who wants to represent south Merced and the people living in that community.
“They need to teach the people how to unite,” said Mendoza, 70. “It’s very difficult to organize and unify all of the people.”

The free T-shirts and posters Building Healthy Community provided for community members who attended an all Spanish speaking forum for candidates running for City Council District 1 at Golden Valley High School on Oct. 24, 2016. Courtesy of Monica Velez mvelez@mercedsunstar.com.

Some Spanish speakers don’t feel as confident or comfortable speaking up, Vizcaíno-Stewart said, and being in a setting that caters to their language barrier is “extremely important.” This is an opportunity for the candidates in District 1 to make south Merced residents their priority, she said, and to help end the marginalization of Spanish speakers.
While the forum was conducted in Spanish, the three candidates present all spoke in English, with their answers and comments translated for the crowd.
Jenkins mentioned that one of the main concerns for the Latino community is the language barrier and she knows that she doesn’t personally identify with their needs, but she will work with them and have an “open door policy,” as well as practice her Spanish.
Jenkins said she would work with the city to have more classes and resources for non-English speakers so they are able to better connect with the rest of the community.
“We need to have a City Council representative that looks like you and that understands you,” Jenkins said.
Ornelas brought up the high population of Latinos in Valley prisons and wants to focus on making sure there is a “pipeline” for south Merced Latinos to UC Merced instead of to prisons.
“I want to be a voice for the Latino community,” Ornelas said. “That’s the only reason why I’m running.”
Martinez’s focus was on youth education, higher education and bringing together community members with elected officials and law enforcement. If elected, he said, he hopes to access grants and scholarships for children, as well as start recreational sports with high school students and law enforcement.
“I’m not here to be the leader for you,” Martinez said. “I’m here to lead with you.”
Monday night was the first time Guadalupe Caravajal, 41, had attended a candidate forum. She said she felt comfortable being there and was able to understand much of what was said in English by the candidates.
The candidates’ lack of Spanish fluency isn’t so important, she said. “If they want to help the community, then it shouldn’t matter if they speak Spanish.”
Caravajal said the event was a good start to bridging the relationship of candidates with the community. And while more than 50 people attended, she wished, even more, people had shown up.
Rodrigo Espinoza, supervisor-elect for Merced County District 1, said he thought the forum went well and had a “pretty good turnout.” Although he said having a Spanish- or Hmong-speaking candidate is important for south Merced, it’s all about who cares about the community.
“Vote your conscience and be informed on who you’re voting for,” he said.
On Nov. 1 there will be an all Hmong-speaking candidate forum for District 1 candidates, at 5:30 p.m. in the Golden Valley High School cafeteria.
“They (community members) are really truly the experts overall,” Vizcaíno-Stewart said.

Monica Velez: 209-385-2486, mvelez@mercedsunstar.com

Read it on the Sun Star: