Minerva Perez, seen here at Organizacion Latino-Americana's Pachanga in June, is the group's executive director.
July 7, 2022
Thanks to a wide base of community support that its leaders say has allowed it to grow into a strong local nonprofit, Organizacion Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island is marking its 20th anniversary this year. It originated with the East Hampton Town Hispanic Advisory Board, whose members found themselves in a difficult position. They were appointed by the town board as a liaison between the town and its burgeoning Hispanic and Latino community, but there wasn’t much understanding between that community and the town’s non-Hispanic and non-Latino residents. “We were the ‘middle person.’ It was volatile,” recalled Isabel Sepulveda de Scanlon, a member of the advisory board who was a founder of OLA and served as its president for 14 years. Eventually, several members resigned from that board “to create an independent organization to represent the interests and serve the needs of the Latino/Hispanic community,” she said. They were later “joined by members of the nascent community who shared a desire to found something of their own.” The group reflected the diversity among distinct Hispanic and Latino cultures — people from Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia, and Puerto Rico, to name just a few — even as others, outside those cultures, failed to understand that diversity. And the journey was not always smooth; there was still some discord among members who thought only Spanish should be spoken at events and meetings and those who lobbied otherwise. It soon became apparent, Ms. de Scanlon said, that the group “had to build a bridge . . . We knew that something had to be done. The Latino community was growing so fast.” “We had the first meeting in October 2002, and we invited the whole community.” She recalled putting up fliers from Hampton Bays to Montauk. “We had a very good turnout. It was very mixed — both communities were there. It was really, really nice. It was so long ago — there wasn’t Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, so it was real outreach and networking.” Enter Minerva Perez. She joined as a volunteer in 2006, but it was in 2016 that she was hired as OLA’s first executive director in a paid position, and quickly established a reputation as a dynamic leader unafraid to take on new challenges. “There is a way for everyone on the East End to feel that this place is safe and equitable and as healthy as possible,” Ms. Perez said in an interview. “People want to see that happen. They’re engaged with the mission. Understandings have grown there. . . . It helped other institutions to see that we truly are committed to the entire community. We have a Latino focus, but none of it is going to work unless everyone is doing all right.” OLA has evolved into a group that serves both Latino and non-Latino community members. It continues to run a film festival that started 18 years ago and put on concerts and events like the Pachanga. But now it’s about providing education and resources as well — in both Spanish and English — including mental health support, access to healthful food through a pantry and grocery dropoffs; connections to legal experts on immigration, housing, and employment; transportation to doctor appointments; interfacing with law enforcement; sex education for teens, and more. During the height of the pandemic, OLA had a role in educating Spanish-speaking people about the virus, and when vaccines were in short supply, it organized one of the first clinics in East Hampton. After receiving a donation of 2,000 Chromebooks, OLA put them right into the hands of children who needed them for at-home schooling. A fund-raiser for OLA at The Church in Sag Harbor is planned for July 28. Its website is olaofeasternlongisland.org. It’s fair to say that OLA has made a difference in many lives. Juan Chavez of Springs knows this firsthand: The organization connected him with an attorney who is helping him recover overtime wages that his former employer illegally withheld. He also got the Covid vaccine at its clinic. Mr. Chavez learned about OLA through a neighbor who happened to be an OLA employee. “They do a very good job with people — not only Spanish, but most people,” he said. “I’m very grateful for OLA.” It currently has an office in East Hampton Village, but Ms. de Scanlon said she would love for someone to donate a piece of land or building for an OLA community center. There could be meetings, performances, English classes for Spanish speakers, and Spanish classes for English speakers. “I know OLA is strong right now,” she said, “but we have to make sure OLA is strong for the next 10 to 15 years, and more.”