New business association helps bridge gap
Group works to foster communication within city, bring community members together
By Kelly Lynch | KPC News - The Advance Leader
Ana Fernandez wants to make sure the Hispanic voice is heard in Ligonier.
Her intent is not to drown out or overpower others, but rather to integrate a community that hasn’t yet quite melded, much to the city’s disadvantage. And her ideas are gaining momentum.
A 20-year business owner in the city, whose population identifies as 50 percent Latino, she’s partnered with other business and property owners to found Ligonier’s first Hispanic business association, The Bridge.
The idea came to her after transitioning her and her husband’s general store, La Tampiquena, into a church earlier this year. Thinking of what she could do to help the residents she came to know over two decades of over-the-counter conversations, she realized that there wasn’t someone to act as a liaison between those in the Hispanic community and the city’s leadership, especially when it came to business owners taking advantage of Ligonier’s grant programs.
“I thought about it and dreamed about it and wrote about it, and then I thought, ‘I’m going to do it,’” Fernandez said. “This is not me fighting for the Mexicans’ rights. This is about how we can become a community together.”
Fernandez, a self-labeled talkative optimist, sought a solution rather than dwelling on the problem. She started attending Ligonier City Council meetings and learned of the Redevelopment Commission’s facade grant program, which could benefit those looking to renovate their businesses’ exteriors.
But Hispanic owners didn’t know about it, either because of a language or cultural barrier in the city.
So Fernandez tasked herself with becoming a bridge — hence her organization’s name — between the two parties until a rapport and trust could be established.
“That’s what it’s all about, letting people know that you are here to help. People are so afraid of giving, afraid that they’re going to be asked to give more. But if you have it, why not? If you have a gift, why not use it, pass it on?” Fernandez said. “This is where I fit, what I like.”
It began with an initial meeting in November to establish who would be interested in city assistance such as the facade grant program, and with 12 business owners attending. Fernandez already is in talks with Mayor Patty Fisel to start building the relationship.
Fisel is looking forward to opening a conversation that she said has been needed for a long time.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for us to be able to get an insight into some of the issues,” Fisel said. “We have always wanted this to happen. We always wanted for this time to come.”
With multiple generations of Hispanic families rooted in the city, it’s a wonder an organization of this nature wasn’t formed before. But the cultural divide comes down to a lack of education, miscommunication and a lot of assumptions, Fernandez said.
Residents will need to open their minds and get rid of years of group-reinforced assumptions of one another, Fernandez said. For the Hispanic population, it will mean overcoming any intimidation community members feel regarding their education, religion or status as an American citizen.
“I know it has to be step-by-step. I want to see how much I can do and see how much people support this,” Fernandez said. “This way, I don’t have to be thinking, ‘What can I do?’ Now I’m doing it. I’m getting there.”
Ligonier was just waiting for someone to take the initiative to bridge the gap, and now it’s found that in Fernandez, Fisel said. She had already been helping residents with job applications, translating paperwork and visits to the doctor’s office, but this puts the power back in the individual’s hands.
“We have to be educated. There’s still things that we don’t know. We don’t know it all yet. We’re always learning new things,” Fisel said. “She’s taking the initiative because she has the time, she has the knowledge. She’s been here. She’s been in business … This is the way to get it done. We needed someone willing to step up.”
The group will meet every third Monday of the month, sandwiching itself between City Council meetings, which take place every second and fourth Monday. Fernandez plans to relay information to business owners about beneficial programs and any new regulations and ordinances.
But it won’t be just meetings and informational presentations. Fernandez has plans to bring area churches together in official events to promote local business, as well as establish programs to help youths in the area who may be dealing with mental health issues.
Since she began this process, Fernandez also has been asked to be an advocate for Hispanic patients at Parkview Noble Hospital, and has been in contact with an immigration attorney who wants to speak to Ligonier residents about their rights when it comes to citizenship issues.
“Maybe by starting this, then there will be different ideas that we want to put together,” Fernandez said. “You just have to start. It doesn’t have to be all about the Hispanics, but it has to be about the whole community. It has to be inclusive.”
Fisel couldn’t agree more.
“You can’t have one side of the street be in and have one side of the street not be in. It’s going to take everybody working together to make it successful,” Fisel said. “We need to help her to do that in any way we can.”