By ARIEL HERNANDEZ
“I’m too old to open anyone’s eyes, but as long as I have the strength, I will do everything I can to help my people.”
Haydee Zambrana, founder and CEO of Latin Women in Action, Inc. (LWA), was born in Puerto Rico and has dedicated her life to advocating and serving the Latino, Hispanic and immigrant communities.
Her community involvement began as a teenager, working in legal offices and legal service organizations, absorbing the ins and outs of what the people need and how to serve them.
It was in the late ’80s and early ’90s when Zambrana noticed a lack of services for Latino women. She did her own research to find a Latina attorney to help her create a Latina/women defense fund. But due to the lack of funding, she was unable to find one.
Zambrana said that was when she decided to take a leap and established LWA, in Corona. The organization is dedicated to helping the Latina community with whatever issues come up. Zambrana was finally able to find an attorney, Farzad Siman who serves as the organization’s pro bono attorney to this day alongside attorney Thomas Cheung.
“We started seeing so many of the same situations: undocumented people dealing with immigration; divorce claims, where immigrants get married for citizenship and then at some point they need to get divorced in order to be on their own; child abuse; domestic violence,” said Zambrana.
Zambrana said that aside from immigration services—which is the most common issue with which the organization currently deals due to the political climate—domestic-violence claims is one of the top needs.
Although the organization takes all its cases seriously, Zambrana said she only moves forward with domestic-violence claims when a woman enters the office with bruises or marks, because there are those who go to the extent of faking abuse in an effort to obtain benefits and services from the city.
Because of all their work in the community, Zambrana said city agencies such as the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) refer parents to LWA for parental classes, anger-management classes or batterers intervention.
“We continue to hold workshops, but more recently we’ve been so caught up in immigration and legal services, family law, domestic violence, child abuse and helping parents in court,” said Zambrana.
Zambrana said the organization sees between 30 and 50 people a day, and also holds workshops at local schools.
“Our workshops are free, but we have to charge for other things because we don’t receive money from the government,” said Zambrana. “All of our funding is based on the income we are able to generate by the needs of the community.”
Although LWA has been around for almost three decades, it does not receive any funding from the government, much like many of the borough’s nonprofits that were created to focus on underserved communities or issues.
Because of the lack of funding, most of the clients pay for the services offered by the organization, which Zambrana said her clients don’t mind doing because they trust the organization to both help them and protect them from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“They know that when they come here, they aren’t going to be arrested or taken away,” said Zambrana. “They come here because they know we will not refuse them.”
Working for Latin women in Queens wasn’t Zambrana’s only job. From 1999 until 2011, she also worked for the Department of Education (DOE) as a guidance counselor. In that capacity, she helped hundreds of children, many of whom immigrated to the States near the end of their high school years, to graduate.
“In the system, children are coming from high schools in their native lands, but if they don’t know English, they [DOE] hold them back a year,” said Zambrana. “So two years later when it’s time for them to actually graduate, the guidance counselors will look at their transcript and see that they had already completed a number of credits and should have already graduated. In the meantime, the students took things over again because the counselor didn’t have the decency to look over the transcripts at the beginning.”
Zambrana said that many immigrant children become overwhelmed and frustrated with having to repeat classes and remain in high school for the years they had already completed, and they end up dropping out.
“There has to be an awakening of where we are,” said Zambrana. “There is a huge dropout rate in the Hispanic community.”
Just as Zambrana started LWA to assist the Latin women in her community, she said it’s important that someone, whether it be man or woman, start an education organization.
“Who in Queens County is dealing with education?” Zambrana asked. “Hispanics have the lowest graduation rate throughout the nation. Queens has a big portion of Hispanic dropouts in the city but there’s nothing—there’s nothing to help Hispanics. Someone needs to start an education organization to educate parents about their rights in the education system, to educate parents to deal with the issues of their children facing special education. A great number of our undocumented and documented Hispanic immigrants are illiterate.”
Most of the clients seeking help at the organization have no higher than a sixth-grade education, Zambrana said.
“They can’t write letters, so they pay people to write them a letter,” said Zambrana. “Yeah, they know how to use Facebook, but they don’t even have an email. When I do applications for a lot of the clients here, immigration asks for an email and I have to create one for them. It’s shameful that our community doesn’t have those resources.”
In addition to education, the Hispanic community is in need of housing and employment, Zambrana said.
“Immigrants can go out and be day laborers, but how great it would be if the opportunities were there so that they didn’t have to,” Zambrana said. “Immigrants should have employment instead of being exploited.”
Not only are immigrants housing between 10 and 20 people in one apartment, but they are also participating in “hot beds,” Zambrana said.
“You work 9 to 5 so by the time you’re going to bed, the person that was sleeping on the bed during the day is leaving for work, so now you take that bed,” said Zambrana. “This is what’s happening in our communities and it’s a horrendous thing.
Zambrana said some elected officials have neglected much of the Hispanic community and the issues they are facing, which is why she plans to start a political club to inform and educate Latinos about politics.
“I want to start a political club so that both women and men can join me to make elected officials accountable, because we never did,” said Zambrana. “We will empower the Hispanic community by teaching them the ropes of how it works and how to get elected.”
The club will teach Hispanics how to get involved in politics, how to get put on the ballots and how to win.
“Queens is a county that is booming, that people are working, that doesn’t have as much crime as the Bronx, but at the same time, it has a population that are killing themselves,” said Zambrana. “They have found a way to live by renting a room for a family of five and it’s not acceptable. We need to have decent, quality housing and we don’t have it. It’s worse than before.”
Zambrana said the problem is that the community is crying and complaining but not taking enough action.
“We need to get together more than ever,” said Zambrana. “It’s time for us to stand up and make our voices heard.”
Reach Ariel Hernandez at firstname.lastname@example.org or @reporter_ariel.