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Latino Youth Worker Steers Teens Away From Violence and Gangs


Immigrants in the greater Washington area who are struggling to adjust to their adopted country are finding a variety of institutions and individuals eager to reach out to them. Jose Vanegas, an independent TV producer, is the executive director of one such organization that works with Latino youth to help steer them away from violence and gangs.

Barrios Unidos, or United Neighborhoods, of Northern Virginia is part of a country-wide network that reaches out to young people - particularly the children of immigrants from Latin America - and tries to provide positive alternatives to violent or illegal activity.

"Right now I'm working with at-risk youth in Barrios Unidos,” says Jose Vanegas. “We have a variety of services for kids from eight to twelve, for teens in high school who might have the possibility of getting into trouble, gangs, problems at home, things like that, we have prevention, intervention, and other alternative programs for them."

Forty-year-old Jose Vanegas says his organization tries to give young people a positive view of themselves, and an alternative to gangs and the street as a source of status, respect and a sense of accomplishment. It provides courses, mentors, and role models to encourage young people to achieve their full potential, and it stages fun events like dances and culture festivals. The young people are expected to participate in the committees planning and organizing all these activities. Barrios Unidos hopes this will lead to bonding, and develop self-respect and a sense of community.

"I've been able to establish a leadership group of Latino high school students,” says Mr. Vanegas. “They have a lot of issues, at home, at school, but I notice that they are lacking not only guidance but also they lack participation in their community. So I told them that I would like to do activities with them, once a month, one social and one community service. And the first thing that we did was make food for the day laborers, and they helped me give out the food. And I told them, when you give out the food I want you to talk to one person, I want you to find out where they're coming from, what's going on with them, why they're here. And they did, and they found it very beneficial."

Northern Virginia is home to many immigrants from Latin America who have no full-time jobs, but gather each morning on busy street corners or in vacant lots, waiting for employers to pick them up for whatever work they have for them that day. These day laborers take jobs that American workers often disdain: they lay brick and tile, they paint, they dig, they haul, they clean, they cut down trees and rake leaves, they build, they demolish -- whatever comes their way. Jose Vanegas's involvement in the Hispanic community actually began with an interest in the problems of day laborers.

"I started working with the Hispanic community of Virginia, and part of my work was working with the day laborers,” he says. “I saw their needs, that they don't really have too many people they can trust or talk to, they're very marginalized, so when I started talking to them they saw me as their friend, so that kind of enticed me to start to work with them as much as possible."

Jose Vanegas immigrated to the United States from Colombia with his parents when he was 10 years old. He says his father had a catering business, his mother, a nurse in Colombia, became an accountant in America. He studied radio and TV production in college, and now free-lances, producing everything from documentaries to wedding films and commercials for local businesses. But he admits he once lived a lifestyle much like that of the troubled young people he's now trying to help.

"I had my trials and tribulations, you know, I had my ups and downs,” he says, “substance abuse, here and there, treatment, knowing what it is to be treated for something that is an illness but people look at it as something criminal. So I had some experiences that have shown me what it's like. And based on those experiences I've learned how to deal with people who have those same issues."

Most of Jose Vanegas's professional activity, like his community service, is bilingual, and based in the Latino community. Tied as he is to his Hispanic roots, Mr. Vanegas tries to instill in the young people with whom he works a similar respect for their cultural heritage.

"I tell people that you have to always see the whole picture, and take the best of everything, you know. Latino culture is unique. You take the best of both worlds, put them together, and it's like dynamite. That's what I tell people. Every culture, every race, everybody has something to contribute."

Jose Vanegas believes he practices what he preaches, and that in his own life he brings together the Hispanic and the American worlds. And he considers himself fortunate to be able to do something positive for both Latinos and the broader community through his work with United Neighborhoods - Barrios Unidos.

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