Holyoke residents, leaders, activists buoyed by listening session with governor’s Latino Advisory Commission; press barred from attending

HOLYOKE — Residents, political leaders and social activists left Holyoke Community Charter School on Tuesday night with a sense of hope that things will change for the better for the Latino community.

They voiced the concerns of the Latino community at a listening session of the Latino Advisory Commission formed last year by Gov. Charlie Baker. The meeting was one of six statewide listening sessions the commission has scheduled. 

“I felt like we were able to express many of the concerns that have been the same in this community for 40 years,” said Holyoke City Councilor Gladys Lebron-Martinez. “Now we have to see if these sessions will bring about real change.”

Lebron-Martinez spoke with a reporter from The Republican outside the school after the meeting because the commission barred members of the press from the listening session.

“I think it’s important to get the message out to as many people as possible,” she said. “A lot of times, concerns for the needs of the people of Western Massachusetts are not a priority. The funding and the concern stops somewhere around the Worcester line.”

A sign on the front door of the school read, “To promote authentic sharing all of the Governor’s Latino Advisory Commission statewide listening sessions are CLOSED TO THE PRESS.”

Anthony W. Richards II, director of community affairs for the state, would not comment on the commission’s decision, but informed reporters they would not be able to attend the session.

Michael Knapik, director of the governor’s Western Massachusetts office, attended the meeting but said he would not comment on the decision to bar the press.

State Rep. Aaron Vega, D-Holyoke, said he felt the meeting was productive and he was puzzled as to why the media was not allowed to attend.

“If anything, this is a good thing for the Baker administration,” Vega said. “It shows that there is an interest in hearing the needs of the Latino community in Western Massachusetts.”

During the meeting, Vega said, the public expressed their frustration with many of the social and economic issues facing the Latino community and the region, which have been compounded with the arrival of hundreds of Puerto Rican evacuees since Hurricane Maria decimated the island last fall.

“The issues of transportation, education, housing, employment were all talked about,” the legislator said. “There were times when people were critical of things the state has done or not done, and maybe that’s why the  press was not allowed, but I think that’s an important message to get out to a larger audience.”

Longtime social activists and Latino leaders Orlando Isaza and Miguel Arce said they read a formal statement to the commission touching on issues of poverty, racism, education and more.

“As individuals, as families and as a community, Latinos face extremely distressing life circumstances and events,” they wrote in the statement. “Being born Latino in Hampden County creates a life trajectory with a profound and detrimental effect on overall quality of life.”

Isaza said while he is grateful the commission has been created, he hopes it will bring about real policy change.

“The demographics demand that Latinos become intimately included in all political processes and be represented everywhere in the most significant organizations and institutions, and that of course is still a problem that we face today,” he said.

Isaza said having the media present would have expanded the message to a larger audience.

“I think it would just provide more awareness and a better understanding of the problems facing the Latino community here in Holyoke,” he said.

Community member, mother and lifelong Holyoke resident Gloria Urbina said she was proud to see a council made up of Latinos from across the state listening to the concerns of Latinos in Holyoke.

“There were people here tonight who have been fighting for this community and dealing with issues of injustice, poverty, food insecurity, transportation — all of it — for 40 years, and oftentimes they feel defeated,” she said. “It’s great to take notes and listen to our ideas, but if we are not allowed to see what’s being made into reality through policy, then it will be like us looking in from the outside once again, so I hope we will be part of that process going forward.”

As for the media being barred, she said sometimes people are more comfortable when they feel they are among family.

“You speak your mind more freely, I think, knowing that your words aren’t going to be changed or omitted or for lack of time in a newsreel, the message is skewed a certain way,” she said.