Growing up, Aldo Rosales Salazar didn’t think going to college was an attainable goal for him.
“My dad worked in construction so you know, I grew up thinking that, I would one day, just go work with him,” the 24-year-old, who grew up on Indianapolis’ east side, said. “I thought that would be my life. Waking up, you know, five, six in the morning and not coming home until eight. It was something that I had already kind of accepted as a kid.”
And school was isolating. He didn’t see many other kids who looked like him.
But the summer leading up to him entering the sixth grade at Fall Creek Valley Middle School, his mom signed him up for La Plaza‘s Leadership Institute for Latino Youth Program— a summer academic, leadership and career camp.
Rosales Salazar said at La Plaza and through the summer program, he found mentors and other young Latinos he could relate to.
The mentors he found at La Plaza guided him through each step of the college application process; helped him apply for scholarships; proofread his essays and helped him practice for scholarship interviews.
Rosales Salazar is the first in his family to graduate from college. He has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in kinesiology from IUPUI. And he’s debt-free.
For decades La Plaza, a Latino-led nonprofit organization, has been providing education and health resources, social services and empowering Latino families, youth and young professionals in Indianapolis. The trusted community hub, on the city’s east side, most recently has also played a critical role in keeping Latinos and Spanish-speaking Hoosiers informed during the coronavirus pandemic.
In August, the organization celebrated its 50th anniversary.
“(La Plaza) changed my life, I honestly don’t know where I would be today if my mom would have never signed me up for that program,” Rosales Salazar said. “They truly want to see people in our community succeed and exceed their own expectations.”
La Plaza’s presence in the community
Latinos have been calling Indiana home as early as the late 1800s, according to research by the Indiana Historical Society. Many lived in Northwest Indiana. In Indianapolis, the growth of the Latino community became evident in the 1940s and 1950s. Some families lived on the city’s east side.
La Plaza was established in Indianapolis as El Centro Hispano in 1971 to address the needs of the growing Hispanic and Latino community. In 2004, the organization merged with The Hispanic Education Center, FIESTA Indianapolis, to create one nonprofit, La Plaza Inc.
That same year, Miriam Acevedo Davis became president and CEO of the organization, located at 8902 E 38th St.
Although there are still misconceptions that Latinos are new to Central Indiana, the longevity of La Plaza speaks to how long Latinos have lived and contributed to the state, she said.
The Latino population makes up 13.2% of Marion County’s population, according to 2020 Census data.
“Fifty years speaks to the longstanding presence of Latinos and It also speaks to the growth of our Latino community,” Acevedo Davis said. “Latinos are a vital part of our city contributing to business, food, culture, education, so we’re very excited to talk about this milestone.”
La Plaza was a trusted hub for Latinos during COVID
La Plaza helps Hoosiers find jobs, find housing, get access to healthcare services; find emergency assistance for rent and utilities; how to enroll kids in school; domestic violence advocacy and provides mental health resources.
The organization can also help Spanish-speaking Hoosiers with interpretation and translation services. Staff can help Hoosiers enroll in English classes and computer literacy classes.
“La Plaza is here with bilingual staff who helps newcomers in our community, people who’ve been here a while, or who maybe are going through a rough patch,” Acevedo Davis said. “We want them to have access to essential health and social services, as well as resources in economic development. We’re here to help our families and to empower them so that they can become vibrant members of our community.”
When the coronavirus pandemic struck Hoosier communities, the Latino community in Indianapolis was disproportionately impacted. La Plaza played a key role in keeping the Latino community informed and in providing access to COVID-19 testing and vaccines.
The organization created a Facebook group to share news related to the pandemic and other resources for parents and families in Spanish. During the public health crisis, La Plaza also offered tutoring and mentorship for students and webinars on social and emotional learning for parents. Through a partnership with Gleaners Food Bank, La Plaza has been able to give out hundreds of food boxes to families in need. The boxes are distributed every Friday at 10 a.m.
Typically, La Plaza serves about 1,400 people (who seek services once) every year, but the pandemic increased the need for health and education resources, so those numbers have gone up, Acevedo Davis said.
“Last year, that number was well over 2,000 and people who visited several times, that number was 7,000,” she said.
What’s next for La Plaza
As the community grows, the need for services increases, too.
La Plaza is seeking a bigger location to keep up with the demand, Acevedo Davis said.
“So in hiring staff to meet the demands of COVID, provide those essential services, we literally have run out of space,” she said. “We’ve put together a task force to help us look at additional space or facilities or something but that’s a big need, as well as something I think the community needs: a central place for Latinos to gather.”
Acevedo Davis said that during her time as a leader of the organization, she has seen Latinos in Indianapolis play a bigger role over time in leadership, both in government and private business and in other sectors of the community.
As a way to continue empowering people in the community, La Plaza has also played a role in helping Latinos and immigrant entrepreneurs find the resources they need to start a business.
In March, La Plaza, the Hispanic Business Council and LISC Indianapolis partnered to host 10 free workshops to help Latinos and immigrants navigate the process of starting a business in the United States.
“Our community has some fears, cultural and language barriers and many times they do not know where to go or who to ask for help. That’s how we came up with the idea to collaborate together with LISC Indianapolis,” said Dolly Serrant, Hispanic Business Council director. “La Plaza has always had credibility, a good reputation and trust with the Latino community. It has distinguished itself as a center of help and resources for the community.”
And there’s still more work to do.
With the growth of the Latino community and their contributions to the Hoosier state, more Latino representation is still needed, Acevedo Davis said.
“It’s not enough to have one or two representatives in different organizations,” she said. “We’d like to see equal representation, we want to see more elected officials and more people in the upper levels of foundations, businesses, or elsewhere. So while certainly there have been gains. I think there’s also room for growth.”
La Plaza will commemorate its 50th anniversary with a series of events.
On Sept. 17, La Plaza will be recognized during Victory Field’s Hispanic Heritage Night. The organization will also host the annual FIESTA Indianapolis, a celebration of Latino culture, virtually Oct. 2. And on Nov. 5 the Night of the Americas (NOTA) Annual Dinner will be at the Indiana Roof Ballroom. For more information go to https://www.laplazaindy.org/events/
IndyStar reporter Natalia Contreras can be reached at 317-518-2829 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @NataliaECG.