By Diana M. Alba DALBA@LCSUN-NEWS.COM
LAS CRUCES - The Obama administration played upon a spicy Las Cruces love in hosting an all-day conference Thursday aimed at the local Hispanic population.
Various corners of a Las Cruces Convention Center auditorium were assigned labels borrowed from chile peppers - bhut jolokia, Big Jim, cayenne and haba-ero, among others.
And some 200 attendees at the White House Community Action Summit wandered from corner to corner throughout the afternoon, brushing elbows with federal officials and hashing out policy topics assigned to each chile pepper.
Las Crucen Rose Ann Vasquez, 44, told one group about the struggle she's facing as her house is being foreclosed upon. Vasquez, a recent graduate of New Mexico State University, said she never expected to be in the situation. She said she was hopeful the event would prompt discussion about the foreclosure problem, which is heavily impacting Hispanics, and policy changes that will help people.
"I'm glad to see policymakers from Washington, D.C., in the same room as community members and families, and I hope there is a dialogue around community concerns," she said.
The format was unique because audience members set the agenda, not the federal officials, said Juan Sepúlveda, executive director for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. The aim is partly for policymakers to hear directly from constituents, a process that will result in policy changes, he said.
"Las Cruces is telling us: 'This is what you need to be talking about," he said.
But Sepúlveda said another goal is to connect people with one another to find ways to solve community problems.
The session is the fourth in a tour that has so far included Orlando, Las Vegas and New York, Sepúlveda said. Denver is next.
Asked to respond to a criticism that the events are part of pre-2012 campaign activity by President Obama, Sepúlveda contended the events are a continuation of work begun soon after the president took office in 2009. Since then, the administration has sent administrators to visit communities and get input, he said.
"This is not the first time I've been in Las Cruces," he said.
Sepúlveda said the group of officials was invited by New Mexico State University President Barbara Couture and Do-a Ana Community College President Margie Huerta.
In addition to a growing home foreclosure crisis in New Mexico, an educational achievement gap between Hispanics and other races and adult education for immigrants were among the issues discussed.
Attendees - who had to register in advance - included public school and university officials, local residents and state lawmakers.
Robert Lozano, who oversees English instruction for second-language learners in the Las Cruces Public Schools, said he attended to hear firsthand about Obama's plans for the No Child Left Behind Act and how they might impact students.
Former Las Crucen Michael Camu-ez, assistant secretary of commerce for market access and compliance, attended part of the afternoon session.
Officials started the day by giving overviews about Obama-backed policies, including immigration reform and health-care reform legislation.
Spencer Herrera, assistant professor of Spanish at NMSU, expressed concerns about the lack of Hispanic representation among faculty at the institution and lagging pay levels for faculty. Though the student population is around 40 percent Hispanic, the faculty population is much less.
"Eventually faculty are going to leave, little by little," he said. "We want to keep talented faculty - we want to keep talented Hispanic faculty."
Diana M. Alba can be reached at (575) 541-5443.
On the Web
•The White House: www.whitehouse.gov
Friday, October 28, 2011