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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘This is a safe space’: Latinos en Spokane celebrates 1,300-square-foot expansion to meet growing need

The community organization Latinos en Spokane does it all.

It attacks the digital divide, providing its community with free printing and internet; nourishes families with its monthly El Mercadito and its offerings of culturally appropriate food; and translates important documents, including providing the newspaper “La Prensa Bilingüe” to eradicate the language barrier.

“It’s given life to our community because we’re able to bridge access to health care to local and state resources. Not only are we a dance floor at times, we’re also a lab, we’re certified to provide 15-minute rapid (COVID) testing care and we report our results to the Department of Health,” said Jennyfer Mesa, the founder and director of Latinos en Spokane. “We’re welcoming everybody and assisting everybody that walks through our front door.”

But behind those doors on Monroe Street, Latinos en Spokane struggled with its small space, not able to provide services simultaneously.

After being granted funding from multiple entities, such as Better Health Together, All In WA and the Marguerite Casey Foundation, Latinos en Spokane is celebrating the addition of 1,300 square feet to its office, which will sustain its ongoing services and welcome newer solutions for its members and the community. Latinos en Spokane marked the expansion, which doubles its size, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and Taco Tuesday festivities.

“We are not the first Latino cultural center. There was one done with one of our board members, ” Mesa said, referring to Club de Latinas de Spokane. “She did that hard work once, so we’re proud to be the second runner-up. We have our own Latino cultural center now.”

In 2017, Mesa started Latinos en Spokane as a Facebook group looking to connect Spokane’s Latinx and Hispanic community to city and local resources. Since then, the networking, problem-solving and membership has only increased.

Mesa believed that, with the amount of community services Latinos en Spokane provides, all of its work should be able to co-exist to serve the estimated 36,000 people who identify as Latinx or Hispanic in Spokane. The organization went brick and mortar in May 2021.

“We decided it was important for us to add that square footage so that we can continue having that office space for our professionalism and the clients we’re serving, and also have extra space for a dance floor, extra space for a public use of our offices, and continue growing and expanding,” Mesa said.

The pandemic only heightened the need for Latinos en Spokane. Throughout the lockdown, “community comadres” assisted families by translating COVID-19 regulations and delivering food to those who needed to quarantine. Although COVID protocols have relaxed, many of the initiatives were implemented into the organization’s everyday duties.

While the community space was filled with seats, a DJ, a table filled with tacos and enchiladas, and a projector screen, the new space next door is wider, quieter and filled with soft, warm brown office desks and tables.

It is the perfect space for intimate one-on-one meetings to secure health insurance and other sensitive services privately. The four open office spaces are for Guadalupe Gutierrez, Monica Guzman, Karen Zamora and Janeth Angulo, the designated community comadres.

Angulo attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Since arriving in Spokane from Colombia in 1997, she’s been active in the community, starting with Club de Latinas de Spokane, another Hispanic and Latinx-focused community group. The new office space, she said, emphasizes the intimacy of helping the fellow neighbor.

“We have the privacy with clients now,” Angulo said. “They try to express their feelings and important information, and this is a quiet place to do that. Over there (in the original space), there’s a lot of people coming and going, and they can hear everything we’re talking about. This (space) is important in order to have privacy, especially because everything is so organized now.”

One of the prominent helpers of the new space was Mayra Velaquez.

Velaquez is an undergraduate student in Eastern Washington University’s Urban & Regional Planning program. She got involved in the project in January after Mesa reached out to EWU. Velaquez studied U.S. Census data and created maps in the new space that detail Spokane’s Latinx populations, with data that dates back to 2000.

In her findings, Velaquez said the Latinx and Hispanic community, roughly 7% of the population, will be 25% by 2050 if the growth rate continues. Latinos en Spokane’s expansion, she said, underscores the tools and resources necessary to sustain the current and upcoming population tick.

“We’re at those warning signs now that we need to make sure this growing population has enough resources so they don’t fall through the cracks, especially if they’re going to be a quarter of the city,” said Velaquez, who is Mexican. “It’s easier for people to go to an office where they know they speak the language, there’s no danger and it’s completely safe. This is a safe space.”

The additional square footage is just the beginning for Latinos en Spokane. Mesa said there is a three- to five-year plan in play for the organization to receive its own plot of land in Spokane to build a standalone center.

The organization also recently joined the Small Business Resiliency Network, a program funded by the Department of Commerce to provide “culturally relevant assistance for business owners and organizations affected by COVID-19.” It was also a donor in Latinos en Spokane’s office expansion.

“We’re able to manage multiple uses in one space while caring for our community now, but we’re not stopping here,” Mesa said. “We’re going to go bigger and develop our own building to have our community center, our offices and provide housing.”