Santiago Marquez, CEO of the Brookhaven-based Latin American Association. (Joann Vitelli)

Over the years, the Brookhaven-based Latin American Association has become a staple in the metro Atlanta community, offering a multitude of services to the area’s growing population – and growing it is. 

According to the 2020 U.S. Census, the Hispanic and Latino population in Georgia is about 10.5%, or 1,123,457 people. That number represents a 31.6% increase, or an increase of about 269,768 people, since 2010. In DeKalb County, where the LAA is based, the population grew by 20.1% – or 13,647 people – since 2010. 

When the LAA began in 1972, the state’s Latino population wasn’t nearly this size, said CEO Santiago Marquez. 

“There really weren’t that many Latinos in Georgia in 1972,” Marquez said “So, the idea that this organization was created with a vision of what was coming, to me, is incredible. It says a lot about the founders.”

While on the road in Dalton – where the LAA has another center – Marquez spoke with Reporter Newspapers about what the LAA has to offer, what the organization learned during the pandemic, and why he believes it is the premier organization for Latinos in the state. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

How did you become involved with the Latin American Association? 

Santiago Marquez: I actually started my nonprofit career at the LAA like 20 years ago … I was there four years, then did Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and spent five years traveling the United States working in communities all over the country. I was leading a Latino outreach initiative, and I was doing some fundraising.

During that period, I got really inspired to be a nonprofit executive … So from there I went to the Georgia Hispanic Chamber [of Commerce], and I went to Notre Dame and got a master’s in nonprofit. One of my goals was to come back as the CEO of the LAA, or the executive of the LAA, because I always have seen the LAA as the premier Hispanic-serving organization in the state. 

I was able to go back last year as the CEO – right in the middle of the pandemic – and I saw it as a great opportunity. I started July 6 of last year. It really had to do with the person who was the executive when I was there, and my mentor and my inspiration, Maritza Keen. She’s now at the UGA Fanning Institute. 

(Joann Vitelli)

You mentioned that in your opinion, the LAA is the premier Hispanic organization in the state. Can you elaborate on why that is? 

SM: Look, I’m biased – that’s my perspective. I believe that because, first of all, we’ve been around 50 years. Next year is our 50th anniversary … Two, is we’re facility-based, and we actually own our main building on Buford Highway/North Druid Hills. We have an office building here in Dalton … And then we have an office in Gwinnett. So part of this is actually having facilities and offices, which I think makes us unique. 

The main building on Buford Highway kind of serves as the community center for the community. This year alone, we’ve had Gov. [Brian] Kemp twice. Sen. [Jon] Ossoff, Sen. [Raphael] Warnock, Secretary [Janet] Yellen, all have come to our building to meet with Latino leaders. So it’s really seen as a community hub. 

Then, I think of the services that we provide, from social services, to economic empowerment for women. There are youth services, immigration services – really critical services to stabilize the Latino family and the community and integrate them. I just think the LAA is kind of one of those standards. A pillar almost.

You started as CEO in the middle of the pandemic. Can you talk about some of the challenges that came along with that? 

SM: We were serving clients. We never closed. But most of our employees were working remotely. The building, for the most part, was dark. It felt desolate. So, my first challenge was let’s turn the lights on. Let’s get at least our management staff in the building three days a week. We did that, and then started to sprinkle more employees back in to the point where now everybody’s there at least three days a week. The building is open, the lights are on, people are coming in. They’re not coming in at pre-pandemic numbers by any means, but it’s open. You can walk in and get served. That was really the biggest challenge.

The second challenge was keeping your workforce healthy. It’s one thing to say, okay, we’re client-centered. We’re here to serve the community. We have to be here, and I think everybody agreed with that. But then … we’re in the middle of the pandemic. And last year, there weren’t any vaccinations. And I want you to come, and I want you to be here and … risk your life, essentially. So keeping our workforce safe was another huge challenge. 

Dealing with all the workforces issues – you know, people having kids, and kids being at home – just everything that everybody had to deal with while trying to serve the public … We serve a community that’s already vulnerable, that already has great need. Then you throw on top of that a global pandemic. And the one thing I saw from this pandemic was the people that were suffering before were suffering a thousand times more.

(Courtesy of the Latin American Association)

Can you elaborate on the challenges the Latin American community faces, and how those were compacted by the pandemic?

SM: So, let me talk about the community that we serve. Because I want to differentiate. I don’t want to just generalize the Latinx or the Latino community. Specifically the community the LAA serves tends to be single mom, two kids – average client, that’s who it is. Obviously they need help, that’s why they’re coming to us. So already, again, we’re dealing with a vulnerable population looking for help. By that I mean, it could be anything from needing help to pay rent, needing help with groceries, needing help with facilities, needing help with food stamps, SNAP benefits, Medicare, WIC. They might be a victim of domestic violence. They might be a victim of violence, period. Immigration status. They may be undocumented. They may have mixed status. So all of that comes into play. [Also a of] lack of knowing the language and culture. 

Imagine yourself as an immigrant in another country where you may not even be seen as a person, because you may not have documents. You’re seen as something less than a person. You don’t exist. And then you throw on top of that a global pandemic where you have no access to healthcare. And now all of a sudden, you’ve lost your job because you weren’t an essential worker, or you had to be somewhere in person and that job has gone away. So you have no money. And if you find a job, chances are the job you’re going to find is you have to go be there, so you may get sick. You don’t have a doctor. Your kids have to stay home because there’s no school, it’s all virtual. But you have to go work. 

At first it was job loss, then it was sickness. And then it was all that comes with that … all the arrearage with rent, and the utility bills, and getting stabilized. So that’s what we have seen with COVID and in the community that we serve. 

Now, let me say this. We’ve also seen a tremendous amount of resilience. And it’s beautiful, right? You know, I always get inspired with the immigrant population. Just the fact that the most American thing that anybody can do is be an immigrant in the United States. Because you believe in the American dream so much that you’re willing to leave everything that you have behind to go to a place where you don’t speak the language, you don’t know the culture, you have no family, you have no money. If you believe in the freedom and the dream, you’re willing to take that risk. 

So what we have seen is tremendous amounts of resilience – and mostly from the women. So we’re seeing women that have adapted – have learned how to use technology, have learned how to start selling goods or products or services. Our entrepreneurship program that we have for women, our economic empowerment entrepreneurship program has taken off, has gone through the roof.

Did that start in the past year? 

SM: We’ve been doing it for five or six years, but we’ve seen tremendous interest and growth in the past year, and we’ve seen tremendous stories of success during the pandemic. Some women who were doing businesses on the side but had a job, made a decision that, you know, I want to be home with my family. I don’t want to return to a job that may not pay me well, I may not get treated well. I can make, maybe not as much, but almost as much doing this. 

That’s why we have these programs, to help women create businesses. And now we have an incubator in our building, where women can rent office space from us for a very affordable rate, and also get the tools that they need to be able to grow their business. That really helps us.

It’s not all doom and gloom. We’ve seen some amazing stories of rebuilding. 

Can you talk about some of the other services that the LAA offers? 

SM: We have family well being and stabilization. So those are our social workers, and we help with SNAP benefits, which are food stamps, rental assistance, Medicare, WIC, domestic violence. We actually have a caseworker trained … with victims of violence. So we do a lot of that kind of work. 

We have immigration services. We actually have immigration lawyers on staff that help with cases that are not employment related or student related. These are cases where we will defend asylum seekers, refugees, the lower income-spectrum. We also have youth services, where we provide mentoring, academic tutoring, leadership development for middle school and high school kids.

Then workforce development, some of it is economic empowerment around entrepreneurship for women, but the other side of it is workforce development trying to help people find jobs, upskilling. We have certified English teachers to help teach them English, teaching them skills that are marketable and employable, like computer literacy. So all of that easily goes into that workforce development. 

Over the course of the pandemic, are there things you’ve had to change or shifts you’ve had to make that you’ll keep employing even after the pandemic is over? 

SM: One hundred percent. We’ve learned how to do a lot of case management virtually. Instead of forcing clients to come into our building – many of which don’t have transportation – and pay a lot of money to get to our building and then sit and wait all day to get something done that takes 30 minutes. We’ve learned how to do a lot of that on [an online] platform. And we’ve learned how to do a lot of cases that way, to the point now where clients are preferring [online] in many cases. I think that’s number one.

Two is we’re learning what works well on a virtual platform and what doesn’t. Not everything works. When you’re learning English, it’s much better in person. But the Latina empowerment program, it’s an eight-week course teaching women how to build a business, seemed to work pretty well virtually. So we’re looking at a hybrid model – some in-person, some virtual. What’s come out of all of this is how do we serve the community more efficiently, making sure that we’re not losing that connection – that human connection. 

Looking forward, what are some of your goals for the LAA over the next few years? 

SM: We’re looking forward to growing. The LAA – even though I consider it the premier organization in Georgia for Latinos – I want to grow our reach and deepen our impact. I think that we have an opportunity to grow up here in Dalton, where we are in this northwest Georgia territory. We have a real opportunity to grow our footprint in the metro area. This is a great time for us. We’re planning right now. We’re looking at revamping our strategic plan, looking at how do we one, have more reach, but two, make sure that there’s impact. We’re not just focusing on activity, but we’re actually transforming lives. Having a job fair and putting somebody in front of five or six potential employers is one thing. Making sure that those people get jobs, that’s a whole different story. 

Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers.