Bert Lopez has a full-time job and is involved with more than a few chambers and charitable organizations. He isn’t sure he wants another side project. But as one of the founders of the long-dormant Hispanic Alliance of Atlantic County, he’s been under some pressure lately.
“A lot of people have approached me,” he says, adding that starting the Alliance up again has been on his mind for a while, too.
In June, the television news was filled with audio clips of children who had been separated from their parents at the border.
Lopez talked to his wife about reviving the Alliance. “We thought, ‘Lets give it a shot.'”
In July, the Facebook page for the Hispanic Alliance posted a flyer: “Remember the community impact of HAAC? Let’s once again set a course for our Hispanic Community.”
The last incarnation of the Alliance petered out in 2007, the casino heyday, Lopez says. The Alliance was known for producing an annual festival at Gardner’s Basin in Atlantic City. The festival attracted serious sponsorship, and the organizers could bring in acts like Mark Anthony. Then, the casinos themselves started to bid for the Latino crowd and sponsorship and interest in the festival faded, Lopez says. The Hispanic community, along with everyone else in Atlantic County, suffered as jobs disappeared with casino closures earlier this decade.
But the Hispanic population has increased since the Alliance closed the doors on its last festival. The 2010 Census recorded 46,241 people of Hispanic or Latino race in Atlantic County, about 17 percent of the county’s total population, up from almost 31,000, or 12 percent, in 2000. And with immigration a national issue again, it seemed like the right time to revive the Alliance.
Through Facebook, Lopez has organized two meetings at Atlantic City’s Carnegie Center to figure out a new mission for the Alliance. It probably won’t center around a festival – now there are so many venues to hear Latino music, Lopez says. But there is demand for advocacy to be an important part of the regrouped Alliance. And for outreach efforts such as youth programs, too.
Many of the people that have come out to the meetings so far were graduates of the Alliance’s youth programs, Lopez says. That gives him hope that he might be able to set up a board that would run the group. “I could kick it off, and get more of the people that were involved as youth to be the new leaders of the organization, to make it grow and have an impact,” he says.
Lopez is pleased that the kids that took part in the Alliance’s pageant, or attended its youth retreats, are now the adults asking him to restart the organization. “It had real impact,” he says. “Those kids now want to have an impact on other youth, so that’s very meaningful for me.”
Based on the discussions the newly-reorganized group has had so far, it seems there is interest in restoring the youth programs for career advice and other support. There is interest in community education efforts and outreach broadly, Lopez says. But there is most interest in forming an organization that will advocate for the Hispanic community.
“What’s happening today has encouraged more people to stand up and get involved,” Lopez says. “I’ve seen that when we had the first two meetings, and people speak up about why they’re there, they mentioned more than ever the Hispanic Alliance is needed because of what’s happening – they have a sense that they need to get involved, that Latinos need to have a voice.” At the same time, Lopez said there is concern among the community about those whose visas have expired or who do not have legal status. “It has suppressed the immigrant community and where I think there was [previously] more freedom to be engaged and active, we see a lot more caution [about] being in the limelight.”
Lopez is hoping to help those interested in the Alliance form a board and committees to work on the topics they want to address. Then he’s hoping to hand over the organization to a new generation in the community.
The next meeting will take place on Aug. 23 at 5.30 pm at the Carnegie Center.