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INTERVIEW: Minerva Perez On OLA Of Eastern Long Island And "Caliente"

Nicole Barylski

Minerva Perez, Executive Director of OLA of Eastern Long Island, is being honored.

On Saturday, July 8, Minerva Perez, Executive Director of OLA of Eastern Long Island, Paule Pachter, CEO of Long Island Cares, and artist and activist April Gornik will be honored during the inaugural Caliente - a fundraiser for Long Island Cares and OLA of Eastern Long Island - at the Bridgehampton home of Maria and Kenneth Fishel.

"It will be the hottest event in the Hamptons because it's Caliente!" shared Perez. "The dancing is going to be off the hook and the food! The energy around it is wonderful!"

The multi-chef event will include delicious signature dishes and a full open bar, as well as Latin rhythms of Tito Puente Jr. and his eight piece band.

We recently caught up with Perez about OLA and the not to be missed Hamptons event.

Before joining OLA of Eastern Long Island as Executive Director, you started out as a volunteer. Why did you believe OLA was an important cause to support?

MP: I don't like bullies and Steve Levy was a big bully. When I was learning about some of the anti-immigrant resolutions that he was trying to put forward in the legislature, I just started asking around who was involved in the Latino communities - I had no idea. I had only recently moved to the East End from Brooklyn. I started getting involved a lot and speaking out as a legislative body. I think that year was the year I had curated the film festival - it had been going on long before me, but I jumped in.

When did you officially join as a staff member?

MP: As the only and first ever full time paid Executive Director, I started February 1st 2016.

Why is an organization like OLA important for the East End community, especially now?

MP: Even before this particular time, I was amazed at how much was going on - much on the positive side in terms of the cultural riches that we have on the East End that aren't being maximized or fully celebrated as they should be. That's an important reason for OLA to exist, even before these times. The not so positive side is that even before this time there was a lot of and continues to be and it's worsening now, a lot of exploitation of members of the Latino community - whether it be in the workforce, or other aspects. So there was a lot going on before the election, so we found ourselves involved in retaliatory evictions, in issues around education of Latino children. Recent times bring us to some of the same, but another level. The good piece of that, I guess, is that there seems to be a lot of support - non-Latino and Latino - to make sure that we're aware, there's some sort of protection. Many people want to see the right thing happen.

How has the organization changed throughout the years?

MP: It's been amazing since 2002 that it has remained a strong organization on the support of a volunteer board and making sure that classes are always happening - whether it be English classes or computer literacy classes. They always found a way to keep that going, with really, really little. It's grown a lot since them being able to have a full time Executive Director because grants were written, we got grants from LICS. We have some small, but very important grants from Southampton for computer literacy and for an arts workshop we do for children.

Could you tell me a little bit more about some of OLA's more recent programming?

MP: We've stepped it up. The film festival this year is going to be at three different venues - that's an important aspect of the organization - it's art education and advocacy. Each of those pillars have been held up pretty strongly, even though advocacy likes to take the front stage, the others are very, very important as well. We'll have one in Riverhead, at the Parrish Art Museum, and at Guild Hall. As for other programming, we did a major Pechanga this past winter. We're probably going to do another one of those, keeping the tickets super low and using that as a bridge event because that brought in people of all different backgrounds. Also, this is the second year we're doing our summer sunset cruises out of Sag Harbor. Then we have some of the serious offerings in terms of advocacy - the legal clinics that we've offered. We've put together them as needed. We got some funding to do legal clinics, as a result of that big thing that happened in Bridgehampton we realized what people really need is to feel secure in a one on one basis with an immigration lawyer, family lawyer, and potentially even a criminal lawyer because criminal could mean that you're caught driving without a license a few times. So OLA's not working with murderers and rapists - that's not our mission. We are looking at all these different aspects of what makes someone a "criminal" in the eyes of immigration.

Will additional panels be held in the future?

MP: Yes. We got another round of funding, and one of the panels we did focused on what would happen if the only family member available to children was either detained or had some sort of deportation proceeding, what would happen to the children? It's a horrible thought, but we got the paperwork from family children services that doesn't require a lawyer to execute because so much of this ends up being expense after expense. Families still want to know they have some sense of security so we brought lawyers in to teach what this document was. I talked with all East End school superintendents to make sure I could try to get some buy in for this documentation so that if a family that doesn't have access to a lawyer can say this is who I want to take care of my children if I'm detained and not able to do so for a limited time. So really involving the schools and hospitals - Bob Chaloner from the hospital is amazing - he'd do whatever it takes. Moving forward, we're going to do a series of mental health workshops for strengthening families. Pediatricians are telling us that children as young as five are internalizing all this anxiety and it's manifesting. We're partnering with CMEE (the Children's Museum of the East End) to do this, so we can offer tools for families.

What are your hopes for the future?

MP: It's interesting, I've been holding back on our brochure - we don't have one yet - I'm now realizing there's a reason for that. As this has been developing, the difficult times we're in, I'm seeing so many people come forward and how vested they are. OLA is representing a much broader thing, not just this pocket of Latino focus, certainly not a pocket of undocumented focus, it is sort of a cultural hub that is also a broader implication. For a strong OLA, it is going to help the community in that we are already having an impact on certain institutions. We're looking at what's happening in the schools, in the municipalities, in the police force, so that any way we can help offer information, link people together, we can show a broader understanding of what the Latino community is and extrapolate beyond that in terms of what's best.

One big thing, an example of the collaborations, is that we were able to and granted the access to give Latino diversity training to all Southampton Police personal. I did a series of six trainings with a different group of police personal at every training so that we had touched everyone - dispatch, detectives, trainees, police, marine - on the topic of Latino diversity and what that means here and now and what are some of the concerns and what are some of the attributes on how we can make this work for everyone. I was also able to link Latino members of the community to the newly reinstated citizen police academy - that was a 12 week class and we did everything - firearms training, learning about every aspect of Southampton Police. It was a tremendous experience for everyone. Going forward, that's it, having OLA seen as a value to the entire community through pieces like that - training. Even right now with the hate crime that happened, making sure we can have that conversation with the police and the victim. I met with the victim the day after it happened, just to make sure that the process was understood, which is not to assume it's not a good process, but if it's not communicated enough in a certain way, it can lead to confusion, upset. There's a pretty significant role we're playing already, but I want to see that role broadening and I want to see a lot more happy things happen where we're pulling people together.

What was your reaction upon learning you were being honored at Caliente?

MP: This is the kind of work you do because you love it. I was humbled and honored.

For more information on Caliente, visit www.licares.org. For more information about OLA, visit www.olaofeasternlongisland.org.

Nicole is the Editor-in-Chief of Hamptons.com where she focuses on lifestyle, nightlife, and mixology. She grew up in the Hamptons and currently resides in Water Mill. www.hamptons.com NicoleBarylski NicoleBarylski

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