2021 | News

During Hispanic Heritage Month, a focus on student achievement, empowering businesses

Local leaders weigh in on priorities

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In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 to Oct. 15), Bethesda Beat reporters invited some local leaders to tell us what issues they think are priorities for Hispanic residents in Montgomery County.






Diego Uriburu
executive director of Identity Inc., a group that helps Latino and other underserved youths

Uriburu said schools need to focus on “finding innovative ways” to help Hispanic students — who have historically struggled more than their white peers to get support they need to meet proficiency benchmarks — “catch up on the tremendous learning loss they have experienced” during virtual classes.

Recent data released by MCPS showed Hispanic and Latino students among the hardest hit by pandemic learning, showing drops in math and literacy proficiency.

Uriburu urged the school district to ensure Hispanic students have access to high-quality, certified educators who can provide one-on-one or small group instruction, and provide rigorous tutoring and supplemental education.

“We’re worried about the broad implications of this — older students who may drop out and young students who might not catch up again if we aren’t facing this head on with intentionality,” Uriburu said. “It could have catastrophic implications on our entire community if not addressed very, very quickly.”

— Caitlynn Peetz


Karla Silvestre
Montgomery County Board of Education vice president

Silvestre emphasized the need for federal immigration law reform.

By policy, MCPS does not ask for students’ citizenship status, but Silvestre said some families are less likely to fill out necessary forms or engage with their child’s school for fear of repercussions if they are not legal citizens of the United States.

For Hispanic children who aren’t — or whose parents aren’t — legal citizens, it is more difficult to find work and they are “always in fear of being deported.”

“They wouldn’t have to live in the shadows,” Silvestre said of the importance of creating more citizenship pathways. “They would be more willing to participate and … knock down one of those barriers to family engagement.”

Silvestre said school district employees must value and set high expectations for Hispanic students, too.

It’s important, she said, for the children’s teachers to embrace their diversity and experiences, rather than bemoan their needs.

— Caitlynn Peetz


Carmen Larsen
Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Montgomery County president

Larsen said her organization represents more than 200 Hispanic-owned businesses in the county.

Larsen said there are many second- and third-generation Hispanics in the county, and although they’ve lived in the United States their entire life, they’re still considered “newcomers.”

“I think for us, Hispanic Heritage Month is a time for that reflection and a time to build bridges and become more one people no matter what our backgrounds are,” she said. “And I would love for this opportunity to be a bridge between Hispanic-Americans who have been here a while … and those who have come here recently.”

She said the community should support Hispanic-owned businesses because it’s a way for people to learn about other cultures.

She said the restaurant Casa Oaxaca in Bethesda is an example of a restaurant that features foods from different parts of Latin America.

“It educates our people about how rich within each part of Latin America there are different cultures and different traditions,” she said.

— Dan Schere


Raul Medrano
founder and president of Kensington-based coffee company Café Medrano

Medrano said his three-year-old business imports coffee directly from family members in Copan, Honduras. Most growers are women, and the business uses practices that are environmentally sustainable, he said.

“That was something that appealed to me in that aspect of the business model, when we were exploring and talking about our own family brand,” he said.

Café Medrano sells its coffee at farmers markets in Montgomery County and throughout the greater Washington region.

Medrano said coffee is a “social beverage” meant to stimulate conversations, and he hopes that by selling coffee produced by family members in Honduras, it can serve as an educational tool.

“It allows you to educate the non-Latino about culture, about climate change, about gender equity, sustainability, globalization, entrepreneurship. It allows one to touch on all these different aspects,” he said.

Medrano said he thinks his business stands out from other coffee companies because it emphasizes which specific farms in Honduras the beans come from.

“People want to know sourcing. Where is it coming from? And as close as you can get to the farm, the better. And we’re able to speak to that,” he said.

— Dan Schere


Gabe Albornoz
Montgomery County Council vice president

Albornoz said the Hispanic community has many of the same concerns that others have: recovering from the coronavirus pandemic, ensuring good educational opportunities for children and young adults, and empowering Hispanic-led small businesses.

But given Montgomery County’s location, there can be more of a focus on federal immigration law, Albornoz said.

There needs to be “comprehensive reform” that leads to full citizenship opportunities for more Hispanics, he added. The wrong policies can affect families both socially and emotionally, Albornoz said.

“It’s not at the top of the list for most people, because by-and-large, our Hispanic population is here with some permanence or partial status,” Albornoz said. “But there are unquestionably a number of our residents who do live in the shadows because of the broken immigration system that we have here.”

— Steve Bohnel


Nancy Navarro
Montgomery County Council member

Navarro agreed with Albornoz that the issues important to the Hispanic and Latino communities mirror those that other county residents face. They include good health care, education and job opportunities and safe communities.

The county has room to improve, Navarro said. For example, the school system could hire more bilingual employees. The county could have better health access in ZIP codes where Hispanics are most affected by the coronavirus pandemic, particularly through higher case rates.

There’s also the Latino Civic Project, which Navarro helped launch. She said its goal is to better civic education in Latino and Hispanic communities.

“I’m a firm believer that you need to empower people with the right set of information and tools, so that they can themselves be participants of the decision-making process,” Navarro said. “We have seen a really incredible increase and members of the Latino community coming to testify, becoming involved in their civic associations.”

— Steve Bohnel