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Being American by birth didn't stop the discrimination against El Centro director

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    Victor Leandry, executive director of El Centro in Lorain, told his American story from his birth in Georgia to his youth and teens in Puerto Rico to moving to Ohio and experiencing "culture shock" at Tuesday's "Confronting Hate: Creating Community" conference Tuesday at LCCC.


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    Victor Leandry, executive director of El Centro in Lorain, told his American story from his birth in Georgia to his youth and teens in Puerto Rico to moving to Ohio and experiencing "culture shock" at Tuesday's "Confronting Hate: Creating Community" conference Tuesday at LCCC.



ELYRIA — An American citizen since birth, Victor Leandry still experienced “culture shock” upon moving to Lorain County.

Born in Georgia where his father was stationed in the U.S. military, Leandry lived in a “poor, violent” community in Puerto Rico throughout his teens, he told an audience at the second day of the “Confronting Hate: Creating Community” conference held Tuesday at Lorain County Community College.

When he and a friend moved to Ohio, Leandry said he carried only his luggage and less than $300 in his pocket.

His friend lasted only three days. “He said to me ‘Victor, this is not for me! Who invented the four-way stop?’” Leandry said, to laughter.

Ohio’s gray skies and the idea that plants go dormant in winter were foreign to Leandry: He pulled up what he thought were all the dead plants in the garden of his first residence until a neighbor told him they had only gone dormant in the cold.

(“Looking back, I should have done some studying of Ohio,” Leandry joked.)

The executive director of El Centro de Servicios Sociales in Lorain since 2004, Leandry earned his master’s degree in social work from Cleveland State University and for seven years was the Midwest affiliate representative for the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Latino civil rights advocacy organization. He also served as a board member of NCLR, now known as UnidosUS, from 2011 to 2014.

Other laurels he received included being recognized both by the Governor of Puerto Rico for community outreach as a teenager as well as a Distinguished Hispanic Ohioan Leader award from the Ohio Commission on Hispanic/ Latino Affairs in 2008. His presentation Tuesday was part of a day in which guests, on the final day of the two-day conference, heard all about the Latino experience in Lorain County through the lens of prejudice and misunderstanding.

Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since 1917, 20 years after Puerto Rico was invaded and taken over by the U.S. during the Spanish-

American War. Though Leandry is and always has been an American citizen, even now his accent gets him questioned about his origins, he said.

“I’m not an immigrant, but I do experience what other immigrants experience,” he said. That includes having his patriotism questioned by white people while watching the fireworks at Crocker Park on the Fourth of July, even as he held his hand over his heart and even as other white people passed by, unmolested as they ignored their national anthem.

A worker at an unnamed hospital who believed Leandry didn’t speak English also confronted him once, apologizing only after Leandry protested at the poor treatment and disrespect the man showed him.

“This has happened often, in Massillon, Ashland and Lorain County,” he said. “People say ‘You’re overreacting,’ when you’re not.”

Leandry said he no longer reads the comments on news stories about himself, his agency and its work, including efforts to assist migrant worker families caught up in last year’s immigration raids on the Corso’s nurseries in Sandusky and efforts to reach out to Puerto Ricans affected by Hurricane Maria — “I know who I am. I don’t even bother with it,” he said.

El Centro gets hate mail, too, and Leandry asked a friend at the conference to read out loud to the audience one particular letter. Laced with slurs against people of Latino descent and profanities, it showed “the reality of hate in Lorain County,” Leandry said.

Before Tuesday, the letter had never left El Centro’s offices. “My first instinct (this morning) was to put it in my jacket pocket. But I found a better pocket for this,” Leandry said, holding up the letter before stuffing it in his right rear pants pocket.

Leandry said he knows it’s too much to ask for everyone to get along all the time. “We don’t all have to be friends, but we should respect each other,” he said.

Over fears of deportation or other legal trouble, immigrant communities live in the shadows, suffering from traumatic stress, depression and fear while working difficult, labor-intensive jobs most native-born Americans refuse to do, Leandry said. Their children, American citizens born on U.S. soil, fear coming home from school to find out a parent has been arrested or deported, he said.

Anabel Barron, an immigration specialist and translator with El Centro, said she knows the fear that goes with being undocumented. Currently in the U.S. on a U visa — reserved for crime victims who assist American authorities in investigating or prosecuting criminal activity and due to a domestic violence incident involving her ex-husband holding her at gunpoint — she said she “had to live through that traumatic event for Immigration to say ‘You can stay here.’”

Barron came to the U.S. from Mexico at age 16, got married and had children, all of whom are American citizens. One of her daughters will soon join the U.S. Army while another is in her final year of a master’s degree program in criminal justice and hopes one day to join the Lorain Police Department.

After several years of living in San Antonio, Dallas and Georgia, Barron said she came to Ohio and was immediately charmed.

“Here in Lorain, the people of Lorain County make me feel welcome,” something she said she didn’t feel in either Texas or Georgia. “We are not criminals. We were brought here when we were children and we fell in love with this country.”

Barron also facilitated a panel including retired Oberlin College professor Steven Volk, community organizer and labor activist Deb Kline and Jimmy Rodriguez, a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient caught up in last year’s Corso nurseries raid who said federal agents “traumatized” him and other non-American nursery workers.

Volk said such raids are simply an attack on “non-white, non-European immigration” from the kinds of places President Donald Trump once labeled “shithole countries.” Kline said some employers also engage in “labor trafficking” and hold migrant workers hostage to low wages, poor treatment and long hours as a result of their immigration status.

When an employer doesn’t want to pay those workers, he simply “calls ICE and has them deported,” she said.

Conference co-chair Jeanine Donaldson, executive director of the Elyria YWCA, compared the secrecy of immigrant communities that Leandry described with the history of the Underground Railroad that brought African-Americans out of slavery to freedom.

“Regardless of your views on immigration, people are human,” she said.

“This is about families, this is about individuals, this is about communities, this is about human beings,” Volk said.

Francisco Dominguez echoed Leandry’s American experience. An elected state judge in El Paso, Texas, he lived in the poor Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from the West Texas city, until age 6 when his family brought him and his siblings north.

A 1989 graduate of Oberlin College, where he now serves as an alumni-elected trustee, he said Volk and other Oberlin community members mentored “a poor kid from the border” who was “an angry young man” but “motivated to work hard to learn more.”

Coming from south of the border, “nobody was gonna out-Mexican me,” Dominguez joked. Taught to “accept people for who they were,” he said people of color need to stop having competitions around authenticity and stop taking part in what he called “the ‘Oppression Olympics.’”

“Even white folks have struggled,” he said. “Even white folks have been persecuted and oppressed.”

Dominguez said to confront hate and create community is simple, though “the application is one of the hardest things for humans to do: Love.”

Showing love through mentorship, being bold, healing and empowering others and building relationships, we can learn to “transcend our own victimization, not be selfish and narrow-minded,” Dominguez said.

“We are all capable of love and capable of accomplishing great things,” he said. “Don’t let anger overtake the love and kindness you have to give.”

Contact Dave O’Brien at (440) 329-7129 or do’ Follow him at @daveobrienCT on Twitter.

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