On Tuesday afternoon earlier this month, Minerva Perez was in full work mode — which was unexpected, considering it was her birthday.
She had a technology workshop to lead that evening, one in the six-part series “Your Path to Success,” helping Latino immigrants on the East End build skills and become the best versions of themselves they can be.
And she wouldn’t miss it for anything.
This should not come as a surprise to those who know her. Her friends, co-workers and even acquaintances describe her as driven, committed and an utter powerhouse, with a signature mane of curls that matches her personality — vibrant, energetic and fierce.
But above all, they know her as a staunch advocate for the Latino community, serving as executive director of Organización Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island, locally known as OLA. The Latino community she first met on the East End almost 15 years ago is vastly different than the one she works with now.
“I found people hiding in the shadows and living good lives, but just wanting to disappear from the rest of the community,” Ms. Perez said, taking a break from gearing up for the workshop. “I just was so shocked. I was like, ‘What in the world is this?’”
Born in Manhattan and raised in Miami by her grandparents, Ms. Perez grew up surrounded by strong female mentors, who happened to be Latinas from Chile, Cuba and Colombia. They were big, loud and fun, she recalled, with endless charisma and confidence, at least outwardly.
“In Miami, Latinas, there is not a lot of backing down that goes on, so then coming to the East End and experiencing people in a very different way, that was weird enough and I had to find a way to connect with them,” she recalled. “My father was Puerto Rican, but I never even knew my father. I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish. My Spanish is not great and I apologize in front of everyone and they keep telling me, ‘Shut up, stop apologizing.’
“So OLA, it’s not an internal thing, necessarily,” she continued, though it is worth noting she was in the Spanish National Honors Society and even furthered her studies in Spain. “I think it’s about wanting to take care of people and I just don’t like bullies.”
Ten years ago, there was no bigger bully on Long Island than Steve Levy, according to Ms. Perez. Just prior to the fatal stabbing of Marcelo Lucero — killed in 2008 by seven teenagers, who hunted down Latinos as a weekly sport in Patchogue — the then-Suffolk County executive had tried to stir up white voters, spouting anti-immigrant sentiments and rousing hatred.
The community flooded the Suffolk County Legislature and even a decade later, Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman — who was a legislator at the time — will never forget Ms. Perez.
“I remember Minerva coming in and speaking, which could be intimidating, honestly,” he said. “It’s a very formal body and I remember how strongly she spoke, how passionately she spoke, and how I could see lawmakers being swayed by the arguments that she was making. It was a really tense time, and the legislature did back away from some of these laws that were being considered.
“Largely, a lot of this came after the brutal beating in Patchogue of that Ecuadorian immigrant, and I do remember how effective a public speaker Minerva was in that setting,” he continued. “I think she’s an important voice in the community for those who sometimes have very little voice.”
Ms. Perez was acting under the auspices of OLA, a nonprofit agency that promotes social, economic, cultural and educational development within the East End’s Latino and Hispanic communities, according to its mission.
“I had no background in this kind of thing,” Ms. Perez said, “but the lesson over and over again has been, basically, ‘Don’t wait for someone to give you permission to do the thing that you know you’re called to do.’ That’s an important lesson that I learned. Don’t wait for someone else. If you know you’re compelled and you know what you’re doing, what your intentions are, do it and learn as you go — and don’t completely mess things up.”
She stumbled across the organization while, initially, searching for theater funding — following her studies at New York University and a seven-year stint with her own theater troupe in Manhattan. She had noticed a dramatic lack of Latino leadership on the East End, and asked the likes of Mr. Schneiderman, New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and then-U.S. Representative Tim Bishop for direction.
They all pointed her to Isabel Sepulveda-de Scanlon, the president and founder of OLA.
“If you would have asked me then, ‘How do you see OLA in 20 years?’ I had not a clue,” Ms. Sepulveda-de Scanlon said. “The only thing we knew is we wanted to help people. We wanted to help Latinos and empower the Latino community, and Minerva does that.
“Minerva is a very strong woman and she can speak to the Anglo community with no problem — which, many of us, we do have that problem,” she continued. “I don’t know we would be here, like this, if it weren’t for Minerva. OLA has grown so much in every single aspect since then.”
First a volunteer and now OLA’s first-ever paid executive director, Ms. Perez has quadrupled its staff — recently adding its first human rights attorney Andrew Dunn, to the mix — and has kept longstanding traditions alive, such as the annual Latino Film Festival.
Chief among the organization’s new initiatives were successful reform to the Suffolk County bus route in Springs and East Hampton — which was initially met with doubt by the Latino community, who had been advocating for 20 years — and a free medical van service.
Perhaps the largest victory is working with Southampton Town to implement LanguageLine, an on-demand, telephone-accessed translation service that police can access to communicate with non-English speakers, Mr. Schneiderman said.
“It’s a big deal, and OLA actually raised the money to help implement it. Typically, we’re the ones giving grants, but not this time,” he said. “It shows that Minerva is very passionate about protecting people and working in the public interest.
“She’s driven. She can be intense. We’ve sat across the table and we don’t always agree on some tense issues, but she fights very hard for the things she believes in and she understands the role of government, the limitations, and that we can’t always do the things she is requesting,” he said. “But she seems willing to compromise.”
Ms. Perez fundraised to purchase all 15 iPhones, which will be placed in patrol cars, though the town is still ironing out the details. Nothing is more valuable to someone in crisis than being understood, she said, which she learned as director of The Retreat, a domestic violence shelter in East Hampton — a post she held for six years before returning to OLA as an employee.
“I remember talking to this one woman who was in a friend’s basement hiding from her husband. He was trying to find her, he had a machete and she had her child who was severely handicapped,” she said. “She only spoke Spanish and, not only any Spanish, she spoke with a very strong dialect from another country that was very hard for me to understand. And she was in full panic mode.
“The fact that I was able to communicate with her and get her to safety, connect all the right pieces with my terrible Spanish, I was like, ‘You know what? I don’t care. I’ve got to get out of my own way with this prideful thing,’” she continued. “If my Spanish can potentially save a life, then it is good enough.”
With a foundation of trust, Ms. Perez has kick-started a privately funded series called “Circulos de Fuerza,” or “Circles of Strength,” led by three healthcare professionals to help take some of the stigma away from mental health, combat stress and fear among the Latino community, and discuss struggles in a safe, appropriate environment, she said.
“Seeing people leave with a little bit of relief in their face, that’s everything,” she said. “They see that they’re not alone — because the self-isolation aspect is huge and really damaging to people. Some people exchange numbers, which is great, because they’ve made connections with people they felt comfortable with.”
Each workshop regularly brings in 50 participants — and half are typically children. Across the East End, the average student body is 45 percent Latino, Ms. Perez said, fluctuating from school to school.
“We have a sizeable Hispanic population here in the Hamptons and they’ve been under threat recently, of all sorts of kinds — particularly deportation,” artist and OLA supporter April Gornik said. “It’s a moment in our nation’s history where each locality, no matter how small, needs to help safeguard their own and every member of their community. Minerva represents safeguarding that community for us out here on the East End.
“I consider her a model of excellence, in terms of commitment and community,” she continued. “And I’m really, really grateful that she is here and doing the work that she does.”
Canio’s Books co-owner Kathryn Szoka has worked closely with OLA on numerous projects, dating back nearly 20 years when she co-chaired the South Fork chapter of the Long Island Progressive Coalition. Now a member of Progressive East End Reformers, she too recognizes the importance of OLA at a time that is more critical than, arguably, ever.
“In the last several years, we have entered a very dark period in our country’s history with regards to immigration,” she said. “I would say that prior to 2016, immigration issues were problematic — they were not being well addressed — but we were not at the moment we are now where it’s a crisis and immigrants, once they open the front door and walk on the street, they’re potentially at grave danger. That’s a big difference from where we were three, four years ago.
“I admire and have deep affection for Minerva as a person and also as a community leader,” she added. “She’s a force of nature and she is indefatigable. I mean, she just has always got more energy than pretty much anyone in the room. This is Minerva. The organization seems to have grown considerably in the last several years and she has been at the helm, guiding that.”
Ms. Perez sees a future where OLA moves past sole crisis management and toward an East End that thrives as a hub for Latino culture and a “treasure trove,” she said.
“The people who are suffering in our community — who are some of the heart of our community — it makes me really, really sad,” she said. “But at the same time, the only thing that keeps me going is knowing that I see help coming by way of other community members, both Latino and non-Latino,” she said. “A healthy OLA is a healthier East End, and there’s no other job in the world I could be doing than this. I couldn’t do a damn other thing.”
OLA Hires a Human Rights Attorney
In face of myriad problems, a commitment to solutions
By Johnette Howard | October 25, 2018
Part of Andrew Strong’s work as Organizacion Latino-Americana’s first full-time human rights lawyer is to deepen the network of immigration lawyers that OLA already calls upon to help people.Johnette Howard
When Andrew Strong was a young lawyer living in the Netherlands and working on United Nations human rights cases in The Hague, or working in Kosovo to help defend a victim of war crimes before that, he said he felt “a bit self-conscious” as an American human rights attorney because, “You’re talking to these people from the Balkans or Africa, and you turn around and think there are some real issues happening in America. There is work to be done right here.”
That conviction, as it turned out, was among the things that moved Mr. Strong to accept a three-year commitment to work as the first full-time human rights attorney for Organizacion Latino-Americana (OLA) of Eastern Long Island in June.
Mr. Strong and his wife, who was born in Sag Harbor, have three children and now live in Springs. He had been working in the East Hampton area since 2013 when Minerva Perez, OLA’s executive director, created his current position. Two donors who funded the job agreed with Ms. Perez that recent changes in both the letter and enforcement of United States immigration laws, especially since the 2016 national elections, have created a climate of fear and need for the Latino community and the East End community as a whole.
“And the need and the fears have only gotten worse,” Ms. Perez said, noting that if even just one member of a Latino family is undocumented, the entire family often lives in fear.
Mr. Strong, speaking last week over coffee at the Springs General Store, gave an example of the domino effect that can happen after that. Maybe such individuals are afraid to seek even basic medical care at the emergency room or go to the police if something happens. Maybe their children begin doing poorly at school or succumb to the stress in other ways.
“It’s hard because immigration on the federal level is broken, and it’s been intentionally broken,” Mr. Strong said. “And so, for one of the first times in American history, you can’t change your status. You can’t marry an American and become a citizen. You can’t live here peacefully for 10 years and pay taxes and have a path to citizenship anymore. So, there’s no way that people can adjust their federal status.”
“Then, on a state level, since 2007 you can’t get a driver’s license [in New York] without having documented status,” Mr. Strong continued. “And then, on a local level, you have a geography out here that requires a car and a transportation system that doesn’t really work well enough. But you need a car. So what do you do?”
Such problems don’t affect only the Latino community. This summer, numerous East End business owners were again unable to get work visas to bring foreign-born workers here legally, leaving their businesses handicapped and short-staffed during the high season.
Undocumented people, even those who have lived here for decades, face other conundrums. They’re vulnerable to wage theft, unsafe work conditions, human trafficking, and other abuses because they feel they can’t report such things to authorities — and their antagonists know it, too.
“We’ve seen instances of mortgage theft where people are saying to them, ‘You own this house,’ ” Mr. Strong said. “So they’re making payments. They put a deposit down. And then all the money disappears.”
Local bus service in this area stops around 7 p.m. (a problem that OLA and other agencies are trying to address). So some undocumented workers without a license may drive to work or elsewhere anyway. They may not be covered by auto insurance. If they get pulled over for violations as simple as failing to signal or driving with a broken taillight and authorities run their name in the system, they can be detained and thrown into jail if the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has issued an administrative warrant on them.
And if they can’t make bail? They may stay in jail for months and get moved to an out-of-state facility as they await deportation proceedings.
Part of Mr. Strong’s work involves deepening the network of immigration lawyers that OLA already has to help people.
Ms. Perez and Mr. Strong are also actively engaging local institutions such as the town police chiefs and town supervisors in East Hampton and Southampton. They’ve asked them to publicly state the town’s policies and/or codify them into legislation that clearly states nonviolent members of the community will not be targeted so the community knows what it doesn’t have to fear, and what it does.
Mr. Strong said officials from both towns have told OLA they don’t actively pursue ICE warrants. But there is nothing to stop ICE from making raids on its own, which is happening.
When Mr. Strong appeared at the East Hampton Town Board meeting two weeks ago, and the Southampton Town Board before that, he urged town officials to recognize that “We need to do something to make sure we are not complicit in harming these members of our community. The moment is here. The moment is now. Cars are literally pulling up to houses and taking people away in the middle of the night. If we don’t do something now, then when?”
Ms. Perez said OLA is not interested in being some “inflammatory” agency that “just wags a finger at people or the authorities and says, ‘Bad! Bad! You’re bad.’ We’re here to help do the hard work it takes to change things, too.”
In addition to working on local legislation and enforcement, OLA is funding the purchase of six iPhones for the Southampton police officers to help with live access to interpreters out in the field if they encounter a non-English speaking person who is a victim of or witness to a crime. OLA provides diversity training to staffs.
Mr. Strong’s hiring is meant to be another piece of OLA’s commitment to creating solutions.
“Nobody here is saying we support something like driving without a license — we agree, give them a ticket, fine them,” Ms. Perez said. “But the rest of what’s happening?”
Mr. Strong said, “I think we’ve got to look at the laws humanely and intelligently and say, ‘What are we really doing here? What are we trying to accomplish when we’re sending somebody to jail?’ Especially when it’s triggering a deportation hearing and separating a family. For what? For a civil offense — not a criminal offense — like failing to signal? That’s not a proportional punishment. And it’s not humane.”
“There’s a vulnerability for somebody who is otherwise contributing to this community in all the ways that we think are important and, in generations past, would have had a pathway to becoming a citizen here. Now, they’re just totally left out to dry.”
Mr. Strong tells a story about meeting a social worker who is working with a young Latino girl. The girl said she wakes up each night and goes in to touch her sleeping parents just to make sure they’re still there.
“There isn’t a silver-bullet solution for everything,” Mr. Strong said, “but there are little concrete steps that can be taken to help, and it’s a matter of doing that responsibly and working with the town and the town structures to do it — but it is doable,” Mr. Strong stressed. “And that — that’s exciting, you know? It’s not like, ‘Well, all we have to do is organize 15 million people.’ No.”
“We can do things. Right here.
OLA (Organización Latino-Americana) was founded in 2002 as a nonprofit agency committed to promoting social, economic, cultural, and educational development within Long Island’s East End Latino and Hispanic communities.
OLA (Organización Latino-Americana) fue fundada en el 2002 como una organización sin ánimo de lucro comprometida a promover el desarrollo social, económico, cultural y educacional de las comunidades Latina e Hispana del Este de Long Island.