Latino nonprofit considers new name

Group should advocate for other immigrants, say proponents of change

October 23, 2003|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Normally, few people object if a nonprofit group considers changing its name.

But when leaders of the Maryland Latino Coalition for Justice contemplated a name change at a recent meeting, people rushed to microphones to give their opinions.

Some said the coalition - the state's largest Latino advocacy group - should keep its name and focus strictly on issues that affect Latinos. Others said the group has outgrown its title and should change its name and focus on issues that affect all immigrants.

The debate highlights a common problem for ethnic advocacy groups, especially since the Sept. 11 attacks, when many immigrants and minorities have felt targeted by the government and other citizens. Should such organizations focus on a core constituency or should they try and reach out to other groups?

"It's a complicated issue," said Ricardo Flores, the coalition's president, who cautioned that the group was merely considering a change. "We know we've grown quite a bit ... but there are people who want to maintain ownership of the original premise."

The nonprofit coalition was founded in 1999 and describes itself on its Web site as a "statewide advocacy organization that promotes human rights, civic participation, and the well-being of the Latino community in the state of Maryland."

The coalition has advocated laws that would improve access for those who don't speak English - through, for example, translators - to schools, hospitals and other public institutions. During the last legislative session, it pushed for bills that would have allowed some immigrants who aren't citizens to pay in-state tuition rates at state schools and for illegal immigrants to apply for driver's licenses. Neither measure was passed.

Such issues would have the largest effect on Maryland's nearly 230,000 Latinos, the state's biggest immigrant population, coalition leaders acknowledge.

But Flores pointed out that many of the group's concerns affect all immigrants.

"From the outside we look like strictly a Latino group, but that's not the case. ... I think all of our issues have been immigrant issues, not Latino issues," said Flores, who is also an attorney at the Public Justice Center, a nonprofit group in Baltimore.

Flores said a name change could help outsiders realize that the coalition works with everyone. "It would be a turning point for people outside the organization who aren't familiar with our work. They would know that `Hey, these people work with more than just Latinos,'" he said.

Gustavo Torres, a board member who led the recent discussion, agreed. "We should change because it's important to involve others," he said.

Some immigrants who work with the coalition said they were confused by its name.

"I thought it was only for Latino-Americans, but then I saw there were many immigrants from Africa" who were working with the coalition, said Emmanuel Toche of Garoua, Cameroon, a coalition volunteer who attended the recent meeting.

Touche said he wasn't sure what the new name should be, but others who also want the organization's name changed are reluctant to drop "Latino" from the title.

Luis Chiliquinga, a carpenter from Quito, Ecuador who lives in Germantown, suggested that the organization rename itself the Coalition of Latinos of Maryland for the Defense of Immigrants.

"This was created for Latinos so it would be good to keep Latino somewhere, but our conquests will be for everyone," Chiliquinga said.

Michelle Waslin, a policy analyst with the National Council of La Raza, said, "Obviously, all immigrant communities are coming under attack and it's naive to think that you can separate Latino issues from all other issues." Her group, based in Washington, D.C., advocates for Latinos and also works with other immigrant groups.

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