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From Small Beginnings

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

Southampton Press Editorial

Often, great things come from modest beginnings.

What started out 20 years ago as a small advisory board to the East Hampton Town Board blossomed over the decades to become the preeminent voice for the East End’s Latino community.

The Organización Latino Americana, or OLA, is celebrating its 20th year serving the community and shows no signs of slowing down, as the group provides more and more services every year: stationing advocates at the various justice courts on the East End to help with language and cultural barriers; crisis management; health and wellness education; mental health support; a growing food pantry that was launched during the pandemic; offering transportation to medical appointments; working with law enforcement to help officers better interact with the Spanish-speaking community; offering sex education to teens; and providing legal advice on housing, immigration and employment issues.

The organization works daily to create systemic change to what in the past has been — and is still, on some levels, today — a poor relationship between native Spanish speakers and the other segments of the community.

The East End saw an explosion in the Spanish-speaking population in the decade before the group was formed, from about 5 percent in 1990 to about 15 percent a decade later. The population has continued to grow by leaps and bounds since then, to about 23 percent currently.

When the group was formed in the early 2000s, blatant racism and violence against immigrants was fairly common, making the headlines frequently. Anti-Latino sentiment and violence was rampant. The killing of Marcelo Lucero in 2008 by seven teenagers, who hunted down Latinos as a weekly sport in Patchogue, drew national attention and outrage, but it was by no means an isolated event.

While the worst of the vitriol — or at least the outwardly open nature of the anti-Hispanic rhetoric — has dimmed, an undercurrent of racism certainly remains. Yet the work OLA has done in the community has, in no small part, worked to bring Latino residents into the mainstream, highlighting the Hispanic culture and providing fuel for the melting pot that has made our country what it is today. That’s evident in a lot of the organization’s recent work, which focuses not just on providing services to the Latino community, but to the community as a whole.

While it’s important that the organization today focuses on its core purpose, if OLA continues on its current path, perhaps one day the distinction between Latinos and non-Latinos will become so blurred that the difference will be negligible, as the focus becomes simply protecting the rights of everyone.

After all, that’s one of the greatest tenets of American culture, that everyone is equal and should be afforded the same rights and benefits of society as every other person. And growing from the kernel of that small advisory committee 20 years ago, the mighty organization that is OLA today has certainly put the East End on a path to make that credo a reality.

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