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Lucas Díaz’s Puentes organization helps Latinos thrive in New Orleans

After raising funds for many local nonprofit groups, Lucas Díaz created Puentes in early 2007 to address the “needs of the growing Hispanic population of metro New Orleans.”

What does Puentes do?

It’s a community development organization. Housing is one component. At the moment, that is homebuyer training given in Spanish.

Why focus on buyers instead of renters?

To create more middle-class, long-term stakeholders. We have middle-class Latinos who have been renting for many years.

What is the other focus?

Public safety. We have a grant in partnership with the United Way and Catholic Charities to do relationship building between the police and the Latino community.

What does that entail?

Educational outreach to the community and to the police. Developing a cultural sensitivity workshop for the police. It also involves developing an interpreter pool.

Is the police force receptive?

It is, because they recognize that they don’t understand the cultural differences and can’t deal with the language barrier.

What is the purpose of LatiNola, your civic-engagement program and third major focus?

It’s targeting mostly young people. Through LatiNola we have the voter registration, the volunteerism and the leadership training.

Have New Orleans politicians reached out to the Latino community?

Arnie Fielkow and James Carter are working to change the dynamics of our racial dialogue. Both are interested in what the Vietnamese have to say and what Latinos have to say. That’s one place where LatiNola can play a role.

Has the influx of migrant workers raised the profile of Latinos who have lived in New Orleans for years?

Absolutely. It changed the understanding of people who didn’t realize that we had Latinos here. We were here before, but now there are more of us.

Historically, what have Latinos contributed to New Orleans?

We can go back to the Spaniards rebuilding the French Quarter. The Spaniards settled and created the urban plan of New Orleans. Did you know that the word “lagniappe” comes from Spanish and Quechua [the Incan language]? The definite article “la” from Spanish and “ñapa,” or “the gift,” from Quechua. We have a French heritage, but we have a Spanish heritage as well. Why not celebrate that and show these new Latinos that this is a place where they can thrive.

What contributions are Latinos making now?

They cleaned up the city. Then they stayed and started doing reconstruction. They accept incredible safety hazards, they don’t get paid sometimes, they are threatened with being deported, and they still come here to work.

You grew up in New Orleans?

Yes, I came here as a kid in 1977. I got into fund-raising in 2000 at Dillard University. Then I did a couple of stints with the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court, the African American Museum, the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and Loyola University, my alma mater. Sometime in 2006, I thought, “I need to do what I do for Latinos.”

What keeps you going each day?

It’s all about education. I’m educating people about how to work in a nonprofit. I’m educating people on how to be leaders. I’m educating people on how to participate. We want Latinos involved in the nonprofit sector.

How can people help Puentes and LatiNola?

At the very least, find out what we’re doing and participate. Come to our events and show support just by being there. Beyond that, give us time on an event, help with planning an event or contribute funds.