The Latino Academy of Workforce Development:
In Service to All of the People
Upper left: Isabel Rodriguez, Coordinator of Education (l-r) and Margarita Avila, Director of Workforce Development Above: Elizabeth Lorenz, Director of Operation;
Cecilia Ruvalcaba, ESL Case Manager and Baltazar De Anda Santana, Executive Director
By Jonathan Gramling

Editor’s Note – The following article is based on an interview conducted with Baltazar de Anda Santana in late March.

The Latino Academy for Workforce Development has always focused on community development even as it focused on individual skill development. There were
many an Academy class graduation that was celebrated in a park with some of the students preparing the food and families came out in celebration. And for many
years, the Latino Academy prepared lunch for the hundreds of families who would attend Día de los Niños each May at the Goodman Community Center.

The Latino Academy had been forging ahead when COVID-19 this year when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Madison and Wisconsin.

“We had about 200 people coming to the Latino Academy learning English as a Second Language, GED, computer classes, and commercial driver’s license
programs,” said Baltazar de Anda Santana, the Latino Academy’s executive director. “Right now, we are in Fitchburg, Sun Prairie, Marshall and Waunakee. In Sun
Prairie, we partner with The Sunshine Place. We have one of our GED classes there. At Waunakee and Marshall, we partner either with a local church or a library.
And in Fitchburg, we do some work with the Latino Chamber of Commerce. But we also have some of our GED and HSED classes at Leopold Elementary School.”

For the first time in their history, the Latino Academy decided to institute a spring break like other educational and training programs. It turned out to be the last time
that the Latino Academy’s classes met in person.

“When Madison College decided to close on March 16th, we still had classes scheduled for that weekend,” Santana said. “We kept looking to see what other folks
were doing. But when President Trump declared this an emergency, that’s when we decided that we needed to close and not have classes the following day. We
contacted students via phone, email and Facebook just to make sure that the students knew that we weren’t going to have classes. Social distancing wasn’t an
issue. But we just decided it would be better if we just didn’t have classes because of the virus. We didn’t know what was going on. I had to make the hard
decision that we weren’t going to have classes that week.”

The Latino Academy has always been about the students, particularly because they are often at the bottom of the wage scale with few, if any, fringe benefits, and in
the case of undocumented workers, ineligible for any kind of relief that directly or indirectly contains federal funds. It wasn’t just a matter of closing down classes
and going home. The Latino Academy needed to be there for the families it serves.

“One of the things that was a priority for us was to make sure that we provided information to the students such as where they could find food and other
resources,” Santana emphasized. “And the last two weeks, we also sent our students a needs assessment form to find out what their biggest needs were. I
wanted to make sure that we contacted all of the students just to see how they were doing. One of the questions we asked was, ‘Do you still have employment?’
That’s when they reported that they lost their job. We had to create a specific form where we had the name of the student and how many work hours they lost. The
last time that I checked, it was 104 students who have reported losing any type of employment. It varies. Some of the students lost full-time work. Others lost part-
time work.”

While the large majority of workers are covered by the worker safety net that provides benefits while the workers are out of work, that is not the case for
undocumented workers.

“Many of them don’t have documents,” Santana said. “So it’s not like we can say, ‘Can we help you file for unemployment compensation?’ They don’t have
documents. That’s not something we could do for them. Since we are the Latino Academy of Workforce Development, we are calling to see how we can help them
with employment. We ask if they can apply for unemployment and a majority of the time, they say that they can’t. And many of them are afraid. I’m very concerned,
obviously, about the ones who do not have documentation because they cannot apply for any support right now.”

Those undocumented workers will not be receiving a $1,200 stimulus check even though the large majority pay federal income taxes using a TEIN number. They
won’t get the added $600 unemployment compensation benefit. They are afraid to request any kind of social service benefit for fear that it will be used against them
when applying for permanent status in the United States. They are at the very bottom rung of society.

“Many of them don’t have documents,” Santana said about their students. “So it’s not like we can say, ‘Can we help you file for unemployment compensation?’ They
don’t have documents. That’s not something we could do for them. Since we are the Latino Academy of Workforce Development, we are calling to see how we can
help them with employment. We ask if they can apply for unemployment and a majority of the time, they say that they can’t. And many of them are afraid. I’m very
concerned, obviously, about the ones who do not have documentation because they cannot apply for any support right now.”

While these are very stressful and challenging times, Santana and the Latino Academy work to be optimistic and view the COVID-1 pandemic as just another
barrier that they will overcome in the fulfillment of their mission.

“For Latino Academy, I don’t want to take the position as to how miserable we are,” Santana said. “I want us to take the position as, ‘This is what is happening.
This is how difficult things are. But yet, our students continue coming and learning.’ I never believe in using bad situations like this so that folks can feel pity as
community members. What we want to say is, ‘Yes they may have lost their job. Yes, maybe they are undocumented. But this is what they are doing. They are
working hard for their education.’ And I think that really represents our Latinx community. I always tell people that leaving our country was the most difficult thing
that we did. We just have to continue to work hard and keep on going.”

And so, the Latino Academy continues to provide training to its students through the virtual classroom.

“We started that yesterday, Monday March 30th, “ Santana said. “It was the first day of virtual classes. We’ve been in communication with the students. We have
created a number of Facebook groups. We’re using Zoom and Web-Ex. We want to make sure that everyone joins a Zoom class. And the rest of the people who can’
t do that, we working to make sure that they speak with the instructor once per week to ensure that they continue learning. We are doing this because we need to
bring some normalcy to our students and create a regular schedule. And we want to ensure that they continue learning. I cannot control COVID-19. I cannot control
what Washington, D.C. does. But we can control having classes. They always say that when they push you down, you get up. We are trying to get up and stand up
and move forward. We can move forward by offering these classes to our students. We miss our students.”

Perhaps due to their commitment to getting ahead in the labor force and maybe due to having the continuity of classes and seeing classmates — even if it is
remotely — the students have taken to the new format.

“Our first class was our GED class using Zoom,” Santana said. “We had eight participants. This is the class over in Sun Prairie. It was a three-hour class and the
students were very, very good with that. They really enjoyed the fact that they can have that opportunity. We were worried that it was going to be too long. But those
students liked it. Today we have another one of our classes, our CDL, commercial driver’s license, class. We are going to be learning. It’s going to be a learning
opportunity for all of us. One of the things that we are trying to do when we have these classes is during the first hour of the class, we are asking the students how
they are doing. Many of them are coming from losing their jobs. Many of them are going through the whole panic. We want to make sure that we have that
conversation with the students.”

And in keeping with Latino Academy tradition, they plan to celebrate with their students.

“We are trying to find a DJ and we are going to be inviting our students to join us through Zoom,” Santana said. “We might do some raffles. Our community is
suffering and everyone is suffering right now. But I think it is time for us to move on. It’s time for us to continue the coming together. Yes, we are going to be doing
that next Friday. We still don’t have the right title, but it’s going to be something like ‘Latino Academy Fiesta Online.’”

Virus or no virus, the Latino Academy for Workforce Development is always going to be about community.