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Fifth Latino Day on the Hill highlights gaps in Iowa's response to Latino needs

Kassidy Arena
The Iowa Commission of Latino Affairs has planned five Latino Day on the Hill events. From left to right: Jose Ayala, Louis Moreno, Dalila Avila Sajadian, Himar Hernandez, Marlú Abarca, Caleb Knutson. (Commissioner Lorena Gingerich not pictured.)

The fifth annual Latino Day on the Hill, organized by the Iowa Commission of Latino Affairs, focused on its theme of mental health and access to mental health resources in Latino communities. Organizers canceled last year’s event due to COVID and said they are excited to start up again.

Near the entrance of the first floor rotunda of the Iowa State Capitol, commissioners offered attendees food, coffee and little slips of paper that checked in with how people were feeling. Attendees chose the slip of paper with an emoji that best represented how they were feeling and dropped it into a sparkly mug.

Commission vice-chair Marlú Abarca led the event and said she wanted the commission to provide a safe space for mental health conversations.

“It's common across a lot of different marginalized communities. But it is something that's very stigmatized in the Latino community. So we want to be able to have a safe space where we can talk about it and talk about the intersections of our mental health with our advocacy," she said.

This is the first time the commission is full in several years. Since it just recently reached full commission status, and therefore a voting quorum, it did not yet have official legislative priorities.

Kassidy Arena
New commissioner Himar Hernandez participates in the Civics 101 session at the Latino Day on the Hill. They discussed how a bill becomes a law and how to communicate with lawmakers.

So commissioners are partnering with the nonprofit Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice for their legislative priorities. These include following two bills that may ease the so-called "English-Only" law as well as three other topics: creating a worker bill of rights, a statewide standards for people who are applying for U visas and more funding for new arrivals.

“We need to be figuring out ways to come together and build policies and systems that are welcoming and inclusive for all communities," Erica Johnson, founding executive director of Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice, said. "And if English is creating a barrier for some members in our community, it really has the potential to impact all of us...We think that it's a really harmful and fundamentally racist bill that shouldn't be on the books at all because of those reasons and the impact it's had."

The 2002 English Language Reaffirmation Act requires all official state documents to be published only in English.

The day also marked the first day for the two newest commission members, Himar Hernandez and Jose Ayala. According to Iowa Code, the governor must approve appointments with commissions within the Iowa Department of Human Rights, which the process current commissioners attribute to the wide gap of unfilled positions.

"One of the perks of having a full commission is being able to vote on what our legislative priorities will be, so that we can communicate them throughout session, and be in communication with the governor's office," Commissioner Abarca said.

Other speakers at the event continued on the theme of mental health care and shared their individual stories and provided multilingual resources.

Kassidy was a reporter based in Des Moines