Northern Kentucky was a much different place in the 1970s, when Leo Calderon came down from Chicago to study at Thomas More University. He describes the number of Latinos he found in the area as “just a few of us.”
Now Northern Kentucky is home to a Latino population estimated to be in excess of 13,000. For comparative purposes, that figure if it were a community unto itself would be the eighth largest in Northern Kentucky, between Newport (15,219) and Alexandria (9,022).
An even better measuring stick might be reflected by Calderon’s own career. He started work at NKU in 1985 as a police officer. That grew into a role in university administration. In 2001, the university decided they needed to create a new position which Calderon filled, director of Latino Programs and Services. At the time, enrollment included 57 Latino students. Fast-forward 18 years and that number is now over 500 students.
Calderon has legitimately earned the status of community elder for Northern Kentucky’s Latino community, and he’s stepped up to that responsibility in part by chairing the board for the new Esperanza Latino Center in Covington. At NKU, the Bellevue resident supports a large number of Latino students realizing the possibilities of America as first-generation college students. The Esperanza Center will seek to help bridge those gaps between Latinos and the community that separate those who are new to the area or are struggling from the resources that are available.
We talked with Calderon about his hopes for this new community addition which opened in January and is currently serving the community on Tuesdays and Thursdays each week.
How much of what you are bringing to this role is informed by your NKU experiences and past experiences in helping the Latino population here in the area?
That's a good question. I think what has happened is there's unfortunately not too many social agencies that can provide that essential information to the Latino in this case, and sometimes it's frustrating from their point of view that once they go to a place, whether it be a social service agency or an institution of higher education, that they're not providing them with those essential services that they are looking for.
How do you begin to assess and address that kind of problem?
So when a (Latino) person goes to a place, they may have a person who's able to speak Spanish, but often times, when they're referred to another place, then they have problems communicating. One thing that we did with this center was first to identify our resources, because we don't want to reinvent the service — we don't have the personnel nor the financial resources to do that.
So what we're investing in doing right now is identifying, say, someone you are referring to the Woman's Crisis Center. Do we have a contact at the Women's Crisis Center, and if so, who that is. One of the things that Professor Encarnacion (Irene Encarnacion, the Esperanza Center’s executive director and also an NKU faculty member) is doing is meeting with the directors of these places to better get to know who they are and what they do, and whether they have bilingual staff that we can refer our clients to that can provide them with the resources they need.
Does the current political climate and the stories you hear about ICE and deportation fears impact how you reach those who should be benefiting from your services?
They need to find out they can trust you. If they come to our offices and our staff there is culturally competent and bilingual and one family member experiences it and has a positive experience, they will tell the others. It’s not really any different from what we’ve done at NKU through the years. NKU is well known in the (Latino) community because over the years we have worked with people by attending Mass and providing information to them after Mass or having college fairs.
That’s no different from what we’ll be doing with the Esperanza Center. You have to build that trust level and, with this particular population, you have to work extra hard at it. We’re talking about basic needs — if someone needs a therapist or a psychologist or a dentist — they’re so grateful your able to tell them where they can go and that you are able to talk to them in Spanish. That in itself is an incredible feeling for them.
What has your experience been like over the matter of weeks that the center has been open?
It’s been very rewarding. We have now a one-stop shop where we can make these referrals to services.
We also teamed up with the City of Covington and the mayor, Joe Meyer, launched a program to improve reading literacy for children who are 2–5 years old. We want to make sure our kids are ready to start kindergarten, because many times because of socio-economic factors, Latino kids are not ready to start. The program that has been purchased is in Spanish and English, so the parents who know only Spanish are able to teach their kids to start to read and this way they can transition to English.
Much of the population in Covington happens to be Guatemalan, and often times, they may not have had a formal education. They can use this tool so that they can transition over to English.
What kind of staff do you have working in the center?
Professor Encarnacion works full-time here at NKU, but she’s also the executive director at the center. We have three interns from NKU, and a volunteer from UC who graduated from Holmes High School who is fluent in Spanish and is majoring in Spanish and is a native of Covington. Of the three interns from NKU, two live in Covington.
Beginning in April, we’re going to be offering classes in basic Spanish conversation to nonprofit organizations for their employees. We’ll also have intermediate Spanish conversation, and it’s going to be free for them.
The same thing will happen for Spanish speakers who want to learn basic and intermediate English. We’re going to have a pathway to college and a pathway whether you want to go to a vocational school or get a GED. We have a retired employee from NKU who has agreed to come twice a month and she will help families with what the admissions process looks like.
We are also going to have programs for kids on fitness and wellness.
This all seems fitting, because it was education that first brought you to Northern Kentucky.
Yeah, I was raised and grew up on the south side of Chicago and finally I received a scholarship to go to Thomas More. This has become home for us and we raised our kids here. I can go back to 1976 and there really weren’t any Latinos and I think they thought I was Hawaiian! (laughs)
We fell in love with Northern Kentucky. Thomas More was a good education, you have a lot of good people and it’s a good place.