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The Plain Dealer Cleveland, OH

Group's Roots Grow Deep In Cleveland Young Latino Network Sets Goals For Future

By Robert L. Smith

September 16, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Plain Dealer Cleveland, OH. All rights reserved. 

Jose Gonzalez's slender path to a career paralleled that of many of the Latino men and women gathered at a West Side nightclub on a recent Friday night, except that he started a bit deeper in the woods.

Like many of the other young professionals trading memories and business cards at Touch Supper Club, Gonzalez grew up on Cleveland's near West Side and attended city schools.

But home was the housing projects. And his only guide past the men drinking and drug dealing was a single mother of four children.

"Mom always said, 'The key to everything is your education,' " Gonzalez recalled.

"She said, 'You take that key and put it around your neck.' "

Ten years after graduating from the University of Notre Dame, he sees a chance to share his key with younger Latinos, and the thought stirs his blood.

Cleveland's newest young professional group may also be its most deeply rooted, certainly its most street savvy.

So many members of the Young Latino Network, or YLN, grew up on the near West Side that organizational meetings resound like a reunion.

Most were the first in their families to go away to college. And most, upon graduation, came back home - often to the same neighborhood and sometimes to the same house.

"We all know each other's families," said Guillermo Torres, 31, a public relations specialist for the county Department of Children and Family Services. "Some of these families knew each other back in Puerto Rico."

He laughed at the thought, but then his gaze turned serious.

"We want to tell our young Latinos, 'There's more to do. There's more to life than the neighborhood,' " he said. "We've got fire."

The Friday social drew about 40 young Latino professionals and several older, established leaders in the Latino community. They had come to bless the effort.

"We want your talent. We want your energy. We want you involved," Jose Feliciano, a partner in the law firm of Baker & Hostetler, told the group.

YLN took its cue from a new group of young Asian professionals, many of whom had moved to Cleveland from other cities. But while MotivAsian leaders hope to convince young Asians to stay, members of Young Latino Network would not live anywhere else.

"We're comfortable here," said Ricardo Pena, 28, who grew up in Ohio City. "We started thinking, 'Maybe we can do more, make more of a difference.' "

Pena, the executive assistant to Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora, began talking with newly degreed friends like Torres and Evelyn Sanchez, an outreach worker for West Side Ecumenical Ministry.

After an inaugural gathering in late June, the group chose an executive committee and adopted some goals, paramount among them the mentoring of younger Latinos.

In the short term, they plan to paint and roof the house of a struggling Latino mother in Tremont. Long term, they see the chance to shape their city.

"We've all seen the census numbers and the fact that Latinos are the fastest growing group," said Maria Haller, a Mexican-American and a law student at Cleveland State University. "It's just what we need in Cleveland to keep the city young."

Greater Cleveland's Hispanic population jumped by 51 percent last decade, becoming 7 percent of the city. The 2000 census counted nearly 80,000 Latinos across the seven-county region, but it also found a community characterized by poverty and low education.

In April 2000, only 13 percent of the region's Latino adults held a college degree, and Latino school children in Cleveland had one of the worst dropout rates in America.

Jose Gonzalez knows a way up and out.

Good grades at Urban Community School and a shove from mom got him into St. Ignatius High School, where he now works as an administrator and counselor.

"I didn't have that professional to look up to," Gonzalez said. "I grew up in the projects. I went to Notre Dame. I can say, 'Look at me.' "

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