Local Latinos Want Their Voices Heard
77-year-old Julio Cesar Castro --- call him “Cesi” --- has a long reputation in Cleveland’s Hispanic community. After arriving here in 1954, he worked in factories, grew tomatoes, and even ran a restaurant before opening “Cesi’s Caribe Grocery” which he has operated here on West 25th street since 1969. The store offers basic food items, plus special import products.
CESI CASTRO: These are all the popular brands of coffees --- like Bustello. And this one over here --- I sell a lot of this coffee. I guess because the price is right, and it’s got the name of Puerto Rico.
Cesi Castro is a native of Yauco, Puerto Rico, and he says the town has a big reputation for growing coffee.
CESI CASTRO: Yauco was named “the town of the coffee” --- “El Pueblo de Café”
But, Castro doesn’t sell the Yauco coffee --- he says it’s a little too expensive for his customers, who are mostly working class and working poor. Cleveland’s Ward 14 is the heart of Northeast Ohio’s Hispanic community --- representing about 10% of the city’s population. The last census pegged the average household income here as under $15,000. Castro has seen a marked decline in the neighborhood and his business over the past 44 years.
CESI CASTRO: We lost so many people. If you start on Detroit and drive up to Denison on West 25th, you can count how many empty lots that you see --- and that’s only on the main street. If there is no people, there is no way that you can make business.
Magda Gomez grew-up here in the 1970s, and she’s also watched the streets slowly deteriorate. Today, Gomez is a member of the civic activist group, the Hispanic Roundtable, and she feels the city has largely ignored her community’s plight.
MAGDA GOMEZ: Our neighborhoods have been in such deplorable condition. These areas are so blighted and dilapidated, and we have so many abandoned homes. I think the people would take more pride if the city would realize that this area needs revitalization.
Juan Molina Crespo is executive director of the Hispanic Alliance, an umbrella group of social service organizations. He says there is a general sense of abandonment in the local Latino community, and he suggests that feeling is part of a larger disconnect.
JUAN MOLINA CRESPO: It’s not just a Cleveland issue, it’s about how this growing Latino community interfaces with government and with the major institutions in most urban areas.
Ward 14 councilman Brian Cummins has been feeling the disconnection ever since taking over leadership of the district in 2010.
BRIAN CUMMINS: We spent the first three years of my service to this community doing triage. We’ve spent the first three years identifying, inventorying and categorizing vacant properties --- which is huge. We’ve probably demolished about 160.
But, despite such accomplishments, Cummins says it’s been difficult building relationship with his community members.
BRIAN CUMMINS: The challenge that we have collectively is that I’m not Hispanic. I can speak the language, I’ve lived in Hispanic countries, but I’m not Hispanic.
There has been Hispanic representation on Council in the past --- Nelson Cintron was in office for two terms, and Jose Santiago only lasted one. Now, several Latino residents have indicated an interest in challenging Cummins for his seat when he’s up for re-election, this November. Hispanic Roundtable Chairman Jose Feliciano says a strong Latino voice representing the community is even more important now, after the discovery of the three young women held captive here for years. He says the global spotlight was not kind to his community.
JOSE FELICIANO: We’ve probably gotten more attention on this subject than we have on anything else. And it’s all negative.
And for Cesi Castro, it was personal --- the man accused of kidnapping the women was his nephew Ariel.
CESI CASTRO: You can’t blame a neighborhood, or a family, or a race for something that one guy did. My nephew, I thought he was a beautiful person. Everybody loved him. Nobody knew that he had that second image inside.
Images can be very powerful. Local Latino leaders hope to create a new one for their community with the upcoming announcement of plans for “La Villa Hispana” – an Hispanic Village, similar to destination neighborhoods in Miami, Chicago and Houston. It’s a proposal that’s been in the works for years. But now, maybe recent events will give a new momentum to the idea of celebrating Latino culture and giving some pride back to a community looking to tell its own story.