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PERSPECTIVES: Angelica Perez-Delgado

The new Ibero president on serving Rochester's Latinx community

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Angelica Perez-Delgado's path to CEO and president of the Ibero-American Action League was challenging. And it certainly wasn't something she could imagine was possible for her when she was a young Latina growing up in the North Clinton neighborhood.

Perez-Delgado had her first child at 16. Though she says she came from a "good home," she went through a period when she didn't make good choices. But Perez-Delgado describes herself as one of the "lucky ones" from the city's northeast neighborhoods. Even though she experienced poverty and trauma, she had the support of some family members who helped her transition from welfare to college and a career in health services management.

And so when Ibero's longtime leader, Hilda Rosario Escher, stepped down last year, Perez-Delgado was chosen as her successor. Now in her early 40's, Perez-Delgado has a master's degree in health administration from Roberts Wesleyan College. Before becoming Ibero's CEO, she was chief compliance officer at Villa of Hope.

Ibero, the lead agency serving the Rochester region's Latinx community, works with about 16,000 people annually. And it offers a wide range of services and programs: a senior center, an elderly abuse hotline, early childhood development programs, support for children with developmental disabilities, youth and family services, social justice and advocacy, housing development, and PODER 97.1, the only 24-7 Latinx radio station in the state outside of New York City.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in late 2017, thousands of families left Puerto Rico and the devastation it caused, and many of them resettled in the Rochester area. Ibero became the center of a massive undertaking that helped new arrivals from the island find housing, jobs, clothing, and food.

The organization was established in 1968 to serve the Rochester area's growing Latinx community. The City of Rochester has the largest Latinx community in the state outside of New York City – about 30,000 people, according to the most recent US Census. That figure climbs to about 76,400 when the nine-county metro is taken into account.

Initially, much of the area's Latinx population came from Puerto Rico. But during the last decade in particular, Rochester's Latinx community has become more diverse, drawing people from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, and Honduras. Ibero will always have roots in the Puerto Rican community, Perez-Delgado says, but it also needs to retool and expand its reach into the broader Latinx community.

Perez-Delgado is injecting a mix of clinical and business knowledge into Ibero at a time when non-profits everywhere are in a maddening search for funding. At a conference she attended several years ago, she says the event's leaders put it this way: Non-profit human service agencies have "gone from doing God's work to doing government work to running a business."

During the 1980's and 1990's, money flowed to non-profits, Perez-Delgado says. "Our environment now is very different," she says. "Funding is limited. It's very competitive."

Agencies like Ibero need to be able to prove that their outcomes and results are real and impactful. Communicating that clearly to government officials, foundations, and other non-profits that can provide funding is essential, she says.

"Hilda did an amazing job at growing programs and creating our mission," she says. "I come in with my eyes on how can I build the infrastructure to support that mission?"

One of Ibero's offerings is activities for seniors, says Perez-Delgado. - PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • One of Ibero's offerings is activities for seniors, says Perez-Delgado.

While Perez-Delgado comes to Ibero with executive experience, she also knows the community and the challenges it's facing on a personal level. As one of her colleagues put it, "Angie is from North Clinton."

Perez-Delgado was born in Rochester and was raised by her grandparents, who she says were nurturing providers. When a family member still living in Puerto Rico became ill, they moved back to the island to care for her, and they took Perez-Delgado with them. She lived there until she was 13, and life there with her grandparents was good, she says.

But when she returned to the States, things made a sharp turn for the worse.

"I came to live with my mom, and unfortunately I came into an environment that was just very different," she says, "not from my mom, but some of the partners she had. I think just the trauma of going from a very loving environment to chaos, my life just spun out of control very quickly."

She came back to the US as an innocent young girl, her hair pulled back into two pigtails, she says. "I just changed," she says. "I don't know what happened. Life really happened to me."

For a while, Perez-Delgado was a runaway, living on the street and moving from one friend's house to another in the North Clinton neighborhood. An uncle took her in for about a year, she says.

"I fell in love with this young man on North Clinton Avenue," she says. "I got pregnant at 16, and my whole trajectory just changed." When her grandparents returned to Rochester from the island, she says, "the little girl they had sent here was gone."

Perez-Delgado dropped out of school and tried to raise her baby with her young husband. "It was really rough," she says, her eyes welling up. "I came from a really good family. Eventually, I had to reconcile with some of my own struggles and how I was behaving."

Perez-Delgado, with the support of an aunt and her grandparents, was able to get her life turned around, she says. And she was lucky, she says, to have people in her life who didn't give up on her: "My aunt, who I love dearly, she always gave me her last dollar. She was always on my side. And when I was out there crazy on North Clinton, she was always with me no matter what I did. She had my back, because somehow she knew I would come back around."

She's benefited from a similar kind of support in her career, she says. For some reason, she says, people have been willing to give her a chance: "I've just been blessed with people in leadership roles that just changed my whole trajectory."

While attending Monroe Community College, she needed to do an internship, and she approached Head Start: "Back in my day in the 90's, people wore big baggy pants, even the girls. I remember walking in there and saying, 'Well, I'm here for my internship.' And here comes this African-American lady, and she kind of looks at me and goes, 'Not dressed like that, you're not.' I'm thinking, 'Who is this lady?'"

The woman told her to think about coming back the next day dressed like a professional. As she walked all the way back to her apartment, Perez-Delgado says, she cursed the woman the whole way. She took a cab to Kmart, and with what little money she had, bought herself a skirt and blouse and returned to Head Start the following day.

"I walk in, and I'm like, oh my God, it's this lady again, and I don't want to do an internship with her. She gets up from her desk and says, 'I'm the executive director of ABC Head Start, and you're going to be my intern.'"

"When people invest in others, it changes lives," Perez-Delgado says. "She may have no idea how she shaped and impacted my life, but I believe she planted a seed."

Perez-Delgado says she's worried about the current political environment's impact on the Latinx community. - PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • Perez-Delgado says she's worried about the current political environment's impact on the Latinx community.

What distinguishes Ibero from many other agencies in the Rochester area is the importance placed on cultural context, and that goes well beyond being a dual language agency. It involves understanding the importance of the family unit, religion, and the challenges with assimilating in a white European culture while maintaining a rich and vibrant Latin identity.

The Puerto Rican community has had its own unique struggles with this because the island is a US territory. In many ways, Hurricane Maria highlighted the identity issues many Puerto Ricans often experience, Perez-Delgado says. Media coverage of the event revealed that many Americans didn't even know that Puerto Ricans are US citizens.

All of Ibero's work is done within a cultural context. "People think that providing services just means you hire a couple of people who speak Spanish," says Perez-Delgado, "and if that were the case, we would have 20 Iberos. It's really about understanding the cultural context and the implications that culture brings to the programs."

Even discussing things like diet, exercise, and disease prevention has to be done through a cultural lens, she says. Diabetes and high blood pressure are prevalent in the Latinx community.

"We love our foods," she says, "and they're not always the healthiest foods." Helping someone make a lifestyle change concerning something so much a part of their culture is difficult if you can't make a personal connection, she says.

And part of Ibero's job is taking cultural competency to other agencies. "If we can't do it all," Perez-Delgado says, "how do I help Organization B, C, and D understand the Latino community, the challenges that they face, and the needs that they have? How do I help you diversify your staffing?"

Of all of the issues confronting Rochester's Latinx community, none is more daunting than poverty, Perez-Delgado says. The Latinx community is among the city's most impoverished, according to the Census, and Perez-Delgado says there are multiple reasons.

Language is certainly the biggest barrier to student achievement and adult employment, she says. There's an almost endless need for translation services, she says, particularly for older adults and new arrivals.

A long and protracted debate among educators and community leaders over the most effective approach to teaching children English when Spanish is their first language hasn't helped. The problem becomes even more complicated for children who have special education needs, such as speech and hearing or autism. For starters, there's a shortage of bilingual special education teachers in the Rochester school system, as there is in many school systems across the country.

"We're not that far away from our African-American counterparts when it comes to dropout rates," she says. Even for those who make it to college, many Latinx students spend a good part of their financial aid on honing their reading, writing, and English language skills, says Perez-Delgado.

"You run out of funds, because you're spending your first year taking English classes," she says.

The North Clinton neighborhood, which many people think of as the heart of the city's Latinx community, has wrestled for years with poverty and drugs. That's linked to gaps in education and opportunity, Perez-Delgado says.

"It's like any industry," she says. "Where there's a demand, somebody's going to answer the demand. When you have a community that's impoverished, some of it by design, people need their livelihood. Selling drugs becomes an option."

Perez-Delgado says she is not proud of some of the things she did as a teen, but she's candid about the choices she made.

"I remember in my early teenage years, I held drugs for some of the boys because I needed to figure out how to take care of my family," she says. "The boys figured out that when they were running up and down Clinton, they got pulled over. But when the girls were running up and down Clinton, they didn't."

"Here I am with a stroller and a couple of 8-balls in the back of my stroller, and the guys would whistle and I would go do my thing, and I would get my little payment." Perez-Delgado would use the money to buy necessities like diapers, she says.

She never envisioned that life for herself, she says, but she was intimidated at the idea of going to college. The logistics seemed overwhelming to her at the time.

"How do I get there, and who's going to watch my kid?" she says.

She was able to leave that life behind and enroll in Monroe Community College, she says, only because she had some support: "I was one of the lucky ones. My aunt would drop me off probably every day at MCC. She arranged her life to make sure that I went. She would give me $2 to make sure that I had enough to get back home. Not everybody in that neighborhood has that, so what is the option?"

If you're in a difficult situation and somebody comes to you and says you can make $500 to $600 moving drugs, it seems like an opportunity, she says.

Her husband had it "100 times worse" as a young person, she says. He was the "at-risk youth" everyone talks: "His mom had nine kids. They lived in a cramped up apartment on North Clinton Avenue. He was out at the Super Duper begging people to carry their bags. The way he made money was the hustle, hustle."

And he ended up doing time for it, she says.

"People judge that, but I can tell you how many times that hustle was to help mom pay the rent," she says.

Even though Perez-Delgado's life has changed, she still struggles with what she sees many of the residents coping with in the North Clinton neighborhood. "I get really, really sad," she says, "because I see the residents, and they're angry." 

Some have lived in their homes for years, and they don't want to leave. They want the drug use and sales out of the area, she says, but it's not that simple. The area's problems are rooted in structural racism, she notes. For instance, as far back as the 1930's, maps were drawn in cities like Rochester showing neighborhoods where large numbers of people of color lived. Banks saw those neighborhoods as too risky to offer government-backed FHA loans, which restricted where people lived.

Decisions made years ago have helped to create the conditions seen in North Clinton today, Perez-Delgado says.

"I see an impoverished community seizing the opportunity in an opioid epidemic for their own livelihood," she says. She also sees a generation of young people lost in the streets. "So, to me, they're all victims."

Perez-Delgado is also worried about the current political climate and the impact it's having on many people in the Latinx community. There is fear and empathy in Rochester's Latinx community about events occurring along the US border with Mexico, she says.

"My heart breaks every day when I watch the news with these holding centers," she says. She checks the US Department of Health and Human Services website and press office every day to see if more funding will be made available for shelters. If funding were made available, what should Ibero do? Should it answer the call?

"That's a leap for us," she says, "because that's not anything we've ever been a part of. But when I hear the administration say things like, 'We're going to dump these children and families in your sanctuary cities,' my mind as CEO of Ibero says, 'I'll answer that call.' If we can figure out the funding, I'm there."

"Immigration laws aside, whether they came here legally, illegally, asylum-seeking, not asylum, who cares?" she says. This is about treating human beings humanely, she says. "We treat rescue dogs right now better than we do children that are crossing the border. I know how important family is to the Latino people."

In one sense, Perez-Delgado says, she's blessed to be a Puerto Rican American because she has citizenship, while many people in the Latinx community aren't as fortunate. Yet the way the Trump administration treated Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria made her feel almost as ostracized as non-citizens, she says. At the end of the day, it was almost as if it didn't matter that she was a citizen.

"That Puerto Rican card didn't take my island as far as it needed to," she says, "so I think for me, as a Puerto Rican-American, it was very humbling. In an environment that is full of racism and bias, that didn't matter. I was just another Latina, no different than a Mexican, no different from a person who came from El Salvador."

Perez-Delgado says she doesn't want to interfere with the work other agencies are doing, but the time is right for Ibero to take a hard look at what it can bring to the conversation about immigration. What kind of grassroots work can Ibero do with the migrant workers in Sodus, for instance? Should Ibero be part of a coalition of agencies focused on immigration? Do the other agencies even think of Ibero as a partner?

"This administration has shown us that Latinos are Latinos," she says. "It doesn't matter if you were born on the island. If we don't advocate jointly, this is how we're going to be treated. So how do we join forces and take this on?"