Reading nonprofit steps in to deliver news, information to Spanish speakers

Centro Hispano Daniel Torres evolves its community outreach

Screenshot from Centro's Zoom meeting

Berks County Commissioner Michael Rivera, center at top, shows COVID-19 information cards that will be mailed to every home in Reading. The presentation was during Centro Hispano Daniel Torres’s virtual town hall Thursday. The town hall featured Centro CEO and president Michael Toledo, City Council Woman Johanny Cepeda-Freyiz, Dr. Demetrius Bravidis of the Berks Community Health Center, and Dr. Luis Murillo of Reading Hospital.

On Facebook feeds across Berks County, a recent post written in Spanish carried a “Breaking News” label. The video associated with it begins with a television news-style intro, featuring a spinning globe graphic and the fast-paced percussion music synonymous with broadcast journalism.

A woman announcer appears on screen and reads information about a statewide coronavirus relief program to offset lost wages for low-income households.

The woman in the video is not a news anchor. She is Ineaville Ruiz, director of social services at Reading’s Centro Hispano Daniel Torres Inc. The video is part of Centro’s ongoing efforts to reach the area’s Spanish-speaking community who have only limited local news options.

“There are no Spanish newspapers in our area and there is only one televised source and that comes on at 11 p.m.,” said Michael Toledo, president and CEO of Centro Hispano. “We believe there is a disconnect between our Spanish-speaking community and the information they need.”

The 54-year-old Centro is a $1.5 million-a-year operation that, before the coronavirus outbreak, already had its hands full helping people navigate safety net services and feeding hundreds of seniors across the city on weekdays. But in response to the pandemic, it is transforming how it operates to become the COVID-19 information hub for Berks County’s Spanish-speaking community — one of the largest in the state at an estimated 61,000.

Screenshot of Centro Hispano video

Centro Hispano has been broadcasting informational videos on Facebook that look and function much like news reports to inform Berks County’s Spanish speakers of local developments.

Centro does not do the work of journalists but rather is translating information shared by local governments and reputable news outlets, according to Toledo.

While mainly focusing on the virus, Centro is also sneaking in reminders for residents to fill out their 2020 census forms and for citizens to register and vote in the upcoming primary. (The great majority of Latinos in Berks are citizens by birth or naturalization, according to Census estimates.)

After Gov. Tom Wolf issued his statewide shutdown in mid-March, Centro began collaborating with local government and community groups to broadcast bilingual press conferences, produce Spanish-language informational videos and a virtual town hall.

Dr. E. Liliana Kim

Screenshot via Centro's Facebook page

Dr. E. Liliana Kim of Reading Hospital answers common questions about COVID-19 in Spanish in a video posted by Centro Hispano.

A May 14 town hall was actually two sessions: one in English at 7 p.m. and one in Spanish 45 minutes later. Speakers included two local physicians, Reading City Councilwoman Johanny Cepeda-Freytiz and Berks County Commissioner Michael Rivera.

Rivera, a Republican, is Berks County’s first Latino commissioner and served as the Centro’s board president in the early 2000s. He has been at the forefront of the county’s efforts to promote COVID-19 awareness and prevention among Spanish speakers and worked with Centro to organize a joint press conference last month. Mostly in Spanish, the press conference featured other elected officials, including Cepeda-Freytiz and County Commissioner Chair Christian Y. Leinbach. Reading School District Superintendent Dr. Khalid N. Mumin was there, along with Reading City Managing Director Pedro Cortés.

The video of that press conference has more than 1,300 views and 16 shares on Facebook. It was also broken down into shorter videos of some speakers.

The Spanish language “newscape” in Reading and Berks is not desolate, but it’s by no means robust. While Spanish speakers may be able to catch regional news programs, sources for local news are more limited.

WFMZ’s 69 News airs its nightly Spanish edition at 11 p.m. Its nightly broadcasts combine Berks and Lehigh Valley news and stories are about 2 minutes in length, according to WFMZ Spanish edition reporter Luis Matute.

The Reading Eagle, Berks’s legacy newspaper, has not had a regular Spanish-language publication since the early 2000s. Hola, Berks, was published twice a month for several years before folding due to advertising troubles, according to former editor of the tabloid, Felix Peña.

The Reading Eagle printed voters guides in Spanish during primary and general elections for several years in the past. Centro translated those guides until the newspaper went into bankruptcy and was later bought by MediaNews Group last year, according to Michael Toledo, CEO and president of Centro Hispano Daniel Torres, Inc.

Palo Magazine is a monthly bilingual magazine and website that features some community news, but presents itself as a lifestyle publication. Quisqueya Peach is an online news source that aggregates and translates local news articles. It focuses heavily on affairs in the Dominican Republic.

Monthly Spanish publication La Voz Latina Central began publishing in Berks just two months ago and covers local news.

“We really need to reinforce [recommended health guidelines],” Rivera said last week. “Is it harder to get the Hipanic community at times? I believe it is.”

During last week’s town hall, Rivera showed off bilingual informational cards about the virus that the county, city government and Centro are planning to deliver to as many homes in Reading as possible.

“I think if it’s a message that’s coming from another Latino talking to them directly, geared towards ‘family is important, this is what you need to do for your family,’ it’s something we need to keep hitting on,” Rivera said.

Yoheli Ortiz, 32, of Shillington, watched the virtual town hall and submitted some questions to the participants.

Ortiz follows Centro on Facebook and having spent her life in the Reading area, she is familiar with organization. Her parents currently work at the Casa De La Amistad senior center.

Ortiz, a bilingual employment specialist at Pennsylvania CareerLink, said many Spanish-speaking households rely on non-local news sources, such as Telemundo’s affiliate in Philadelphia.

“The problem it presents is the community isn’t aware of the issues that are happening in the communities that they live and work in,” Ortiz said. “So if I didn’t know both languages I wouldn’t be able to call my mom and tell her ‘hey mom, this is what’s going on.’”

Ortiz’s parents, originally from Puerto Rico, have been in Reading for more than 30 years but still have some difficulties with English.

Ortiz said she feels Centro is doing its best to fill an information void that exists for people like her parents.

“I think they are fulfilling a need because the Latino community, there is a major need in that area for them to get information, and given to them in their language,” Ortiz said. “[Spanish-speakers] shouldn’t feel like they have to go to somebody and say ‘hey, can you translate this for me.’”

Ortiz did express concern that Centro may be missing some seniors who don’t have smartphones or folks who are not active on social media, Facebook in particular.

Screenshot via Centro's Facebook page

Guests took questions from viewers during a May 14 virtual town hall hosted by Reading’s Centro Hispano. As of Sunday night, the video had more than 2,300 views, 33 shares and 50 comments.

Toledo said Centro’s expansion into an information clearinghouse began in 2017 after Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico. Centro and other community members launched the first iteration of the #ReadingCares initiative, which welcomed new arrivals displaced from the island, gave them coats to weather the Pennsylvania winter and hosted a job fair.

Last year, Centro also supported and helped organize Berks County’s first ever bilingual mayoral and county commissioner forums. Both of those forums were translated for Spanish-speaking audience members via headsets. The event also received thousands of views on Facebook in English and Spanish.

Late last year and early this year, the second iteration of #ReadingCares consisted of a donation drive that hand-delivered thousands of pounds of supplies to Puerto Rican residents who dealt with catastrophic loss in the wake of earthquakes late last year.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Centro helped launch a virtual tip jar initiative that allows service workers to set up accounts where the public can send money to struggling service workers.

The initiative was brought to Centro by local entrepreneurs who wanted to help others. The idea of the tip jar was introduced to Centro by the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance, according to organizers.

Toledo livestreamed a ZOOM call with the entrepreneurs as a way to debut the project.

Anthony Orozco / PA Post

Centro’s offices are closed to public visits, though it is still feeding seniors. The windows of the center’s building in downtown Reading are filled with informational posters.

Though Centro aims to connect with Reading’s Spanish speaking population through its Facebook page, its 2,000 followers on the platform means the organization must continue delivering information in-person.

A day after the virtual town hall, Mirqueya Cepeda, pulled on the doors of Centro and peered into its windows. Centro has kept its doors closed since the coronavirus shutdown began, with staff helping the public connect to social services over the phone by appointment.

“I came to see if they have a program to help pay rent,” Mirqueya Cepeda, 31, said. “I’ll have to call the number another day.”

Centro’s windows are filled with informational posters about hygiene and the coronavirus.

Cepeda apologized for not wearing a mask and said she is lucky that she does not personally know anyone directly affected by the virus. Cepeda gets her news from television, but admitted it usually is not local news.

She also said she gets news about COVID-19 through WhatsApp and Facebook. Centro does not come up on her feed, she said, but she has only lived in Reading for the past year.

“I think they should send out pamphlets in many different languages, not just Spanish to every home,” Cepeda said, unaware of the county’s plan to deliver information cards. “It’s difficult for people here to get information about what’s going on, especially if they don’t have cable.”

*Editor’s note: Anthony Orozco moderated the bilingual candidate forums organized by Centro Hispano Daniel Torres. Orozco also previously worked for Reading Eagle. 

Report for America is a national service program that places talented emerging journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered topics and communities.

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