Wendy Mateo-Pascual: Advocating for Latino Civic Engagement in her Community

Wendy Mateo-Pascual is passionate about helping Latino immigrants.

She understands how difficult it is to move to a new country and adapt to the culture, because she herself is an immigrant from the Dominican Republic.

Over the last two decades, Wendy Mateo-Pascual has worked in the Charlotte, N.C., area by leading several organizations and committees all with the goal of promoting equity and strengthening the Latino voice in her community.

In October 2020, Mateo-Pascual was awarded the Dogwood Award, a prestigious award presented by North Carolina’s Attorney General to North Carolinians who are “dedicated to keeping people safe, healthy, and happy in their communities.”

Much of Mateo-Pascual’s work centers around getting Latinos involved in civics and politics. Even though the 2020 presidential election is over, much work remains.

Immigrating from Dominican Republic to North Carolina

Mateo-Pascual is from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

She grew up there and attended Autonomy University of Santo Domingo, where she studied social communication. She later went on to obtain a post-graduate degree in Community Development and Human Rights.

While working in Santo Domingo, Mateo-Pascual advocated for women’s rights and immigrant rights. Then in 2003, she immigrated to the U.S.

She found one of her first opportunities for civic engagement through a church in her community.

“When I moved to Charlotte, I had the opportunity to start working with the immigrant community and Latino community through Camino Church,” Mateo-Pascual said.

Together with church leaders, Mateo-Pascual started the Camino Community Center.

They quickly got to work on helping immigrants with health services.

“We started working on opening their free clinic and health center to support and provide access to free medical care for the immigrant community,” Mateo-Pascual said.

Mateo-Pascual worked for several years through Camino Community Center on in the Charlotte area on various health care and mental health programs.

Then she founded El Puente Hispano, an organization that aims to promote equity and uplift Latino families through programs that inform, prepare, and educate Latinos.

El Puente Hispano is an organization that provides support and empowerment to the Latino community in Cabarrus County. It’s the only Latino-led, Latino-focused organization serving the immigrant community,” Mateo-Pascual said.

They mainly focus on connecting the immigrant community to local leadership.

“What’s most important is connecting the Latino community to the local community and to the people that make the decisions so that they can understand more about the Latino situation and the Latino community issues and how they can be integrated in the decisions that the city and county make,” Mateo-Pascual said.

Noticing a Need for Latino Representation

Mateo-Pascual worked in Charlotte through El Puente Hispano and the Camino Community Center for several years, advocating for and creating spaces for Latinos to learn and be healthy.

But later she noticed a disconnect between the immigrant community and local governmental leadership.

“After many years of working in the community and advocating for people’s access to services, I realized that one of the problems that we have is that we don’t have anybody in our position in leadership positions. We don’t have any elected official that is Hispanic or Latino. So I realized that we need to increase the Latino leadership and the Latino political participation and representation,” Mateo-Pascual said.

Through El Puente Hispano, Mateo-Pascual cofounded the Latino Civic Engagement Committee.

“I started the program to educate the Latino community how the government works, and how they can be involved, and why it is important for us to participate in political decisions and be part of the government,” Mateo-Pascual said.

To educate Latino immigrants in the Charlotte area, the committee runs a bilingual six-week class that explains the different levels of government, how positions are elected, and how the US election system works.

This class is particularly impactful for immigrants coming from countries with different governmental systems. According to Mateo-Pascual, the Charlotte Latino community is very diverse, with many immigrants from South America.

“It’s a lot of immigrants that have come from everywhere, and in this area, we have a lot of people from South America, mostly from Colombia, Venezuela, and we have a lot of Puerto Rican and Cuban people,” Mateo-Pascual said.

Preparing for the 2020 Election

Much of Mateo-Pascual’s work this year with the Latino Civic Engagement Committee has been in preparation for the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

That meant getting Latinos informed and ready to vote.

“We have been doing a lot of work to educate people why it’s important to vote and helping registering people to vote, helping them to understand, for whom to vote, and where all this kind of thing,” Mateo-Pascual said.

Through the committee, Mateo-Pascual led a campaign called “Latino, Tu Voto Cuenta!”

For the past three years, including the most recent presidential election in 2020 won by Joe Biden, the campaign has helped get Latinos out to vote in Charlotte.

“As I have been leading that campaign, I made sure to educate people on why it’s important to participate in both local and presidential elections,” she said.

“For the presidential election, people hear a lot on the media about it and they want to participate, but we are also encouraging people and educating them on how it’s important to participate in local elections and be part of the local government.”

But despite their interest and involvement, it has been difficult to connect Latinos to the Charlotte community as a whole.

Barriers to Integration

One of the most difficult parts of getting Latinos in Charlotte involved with local politics is the language barrier, according to Mateo-Pascual.

Many of the immigrants speak limited English when they first arrive.

“Language is one of the main barriers to integration,” Mateo-Pascual said.

Beyond language, other difficulties stem from misconceptions that people have about Latinos and immigrants.

“It is important to have an understanding of the reality of the community, why people immigrate here and what their situation is, and also to understand the diversity of the community,” Mateo-Pascual said. “We have a diversity of backgrounds and points of view and we participate in different ways.”

Many have the misconception that Latinos are uneducated, according to Mateo-Pascual, but they are wrong.

“We have a lot of professionals. We have a lot of people that have documents that they have experience working at a high level on their country. When people think about the Latino community, they only think about the undocumented community and also people working in construction. They don’t think that we have a lot of doctors and a lot of professionals that are also a contributing to the community and doing different work and supporting the community in a different way,” Mateo-Pascual said.

These misconceptions, along with a lack of awareness of the diversity and cultural differences, make it difficult when city officials want to reach out to the Latino immigrant community and get them involved in politics.

People who want to engage with the Latino community should pay special attention to these cultural differences, according to Mateo-Pascual.

“When somebody wants to reach out and work with the Hispanic community, they have to have in mind that we are diverse,” Mateo-Pascual said. “They have to think in different strategies to reach out to the community, to be able to engage and to be able to understand the culture and differences inside of the Latino community, so that they can encourage people to be a part of the community at large. They have to recognize the contribution that we are doing on a different level.”

The best way to do this is to make sure Latinos are represented fairly.

“The only way that you really can integrate people is when they are sitting on the decision-making table. Somebody that knows the culture and the way that the community works and how they live is the one who can really make programs and services that will impact that community,” Mateo-Pascual said.

Her work is challenging, but Mateo-Pascual continues to push forward.

Something that pushes her forward is her Christian faith and her belief in a mission to serve her community.

“I am a Christian. I think that God has a plan in writing a mission and you have a mission in your life. I think my mission is empowering and supporting people, and that drives me every day to do what I’m doing,” Mateo-Pascual said.

She is also driven by the hope of creating a better community for future generations.

“I think when people get together and when people have hope that it is possible to make change in the community, I can pass that idea down. We can make a better community for everyone, especially for the next generation, for my children, and for children in the community,” Mateo-Pascual said.

Looking Forward

Even after the presidential election in 2020 that drew record numbers of Latinos, there is still plenty of work to be done when it comes to Latino civic engagement.

“We’ll continue doing the job that we were doing before the election, because nothing has really changed. Even though we can say that a lot of people came out to vote, that was a presidential election and we have to see the same thing at the local level when we have local elections,” Mateo-Pascual said.

Much of the work to be done focuses on encouraging Latinos to run for local office positions and increasing Latino representation in local government.

“We also have to encourage more people to run for official positions and to be able to have representation. Our work will continue the same as before the election. The only thing that is different now is that we have more of an opportunity to tell people, ‘You see? Your vote counts and your vote matters. You have to continue doing that and you have to continue educating yourself and participating in making the difference,’” Mateo-Pascual said.

She hopes that everyone will keep the momentum going for the overall community.

“It’s not only work for the Latino community. It’s work for everybody in the community to make sure that we are represented and that we are participating,” Mateo-Pascual said. “It enhances the opportunity for development and for growth for the whole community if everybody is integrated.”

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