The struggle for Spanish speaking social workers, bilingual pay and mental health services
By Maria E. Garcia
In the late 1960s a small but active group of people formed an organization known as Trabajadores de la Raza (TR). It started with social workers but soon included probation officers and community members. Various members of Trabajadores took the lead on issues and worked together to accomplish their goals. Trabajadores were on the front line whenever there was an important issue for the Spanish speaking community in the areas of mental health or social welfare.
The organization’s most important accomplishments in my opinion were revealing the lack of Spanish speaking social workers serving the Spanish speaking community and securing compensation for Spanish speaking social workers using their bilingual skills.
Today the bilingual additive pay is still in place for those City and County employees who use an additional language in the course of their daily duties. In retrospect, the City and County’s failure to see the need for bilingual personnel is shocking. Compensating employees for using an additional skill (bilingualism) should be an expectation, but in the late 1960s and early 1970s that was unheard of. If you are one of the employees receiving this additive pay you can thank Trabajadores for leading the fight to achieve it.
I recently interviewed Mateo Camarillo, Gloria Serrano and Dr. Maria Zuniga, all past members of Trabajadores, to discuss how the group was formed and their perception of the successes that the group had achieved. All three agreed that if it weren’t for Dr. Maria Sardiñas their success would have been limited or at least not as productive.
Not wanting to write this article without speaking to Dr. Maria Sardiñas, Mateo, Gloria, Maria Zuniga and I went to the assisted living facility where she lives. Dr. Sardiñas’ memory is not what it once was but she has maintained her sense of humor. One of her favorite pastimes is going with other members of the facility to one of the local casinos. She informed us that she likes to play all the games at the center but she prefers gambling. She also advised us “no te pongas vieja”— Don’t get old, adding “yo no estoy vieja.”
Dr. Maria Sardiñas
Dr. Sardiñas was born August 9, 1925 in Cuba, where she was raised. She received an MS in Chemistry from the University of Havana. One of her classmates was Fidel Castro. Even though her family was quite wealthy she was a supporter of Castro. In Cuba her father was a highly respected doctor and secretario del departamento de salud. (Secretary of the Health Department) He was a very intelligent man who also suffered from depression and ultimately took his own life.
It was at this point that Maria’s interest changed from chemistry to mental health. In 1957, after immigrating to the United States, Dr. Sardiñas received an MSW from Columbia University. During my conversation with Dr. Sardiñas she said, “That’s right, I’m an Ivy Leaguer.”
Those who know Dr. Sardiñas recognize her work in the area of adults with mental illness. She is recognized nationwide for her contributions in the mental health field. In San Diego she is also known for the many contributions she made to the education of social workers and her role in establishing Casa Familiar in San Ysidro. Dr. Sardiñas is one of the founding members of TR. In 1989, she was awarded the professor of the year at SDSU.
The Maria Sardiñas Wellness Recovery Center provides multi-disciplinary psychosocial rehabilitation that emphasizes recovery, rehabilitation and community integration.
Mateo Camarillo says that without Dr. Sardiñas’ guidance he would not have been able to achieve anything. He says she taught him to look at every aspect of a problem. She was Mateo’s field instructor who assigned him to work at the YWCA in San Ysdiro. His assignment at the YWCA would affect his role in the Latino community for the rest of his life. Dr. Sardiñas says of Mateo “he was my student and he fought for the rights of people.” She was a role model not only for Mateo, Gloria and Maria but for the hundreds of students who interned through the School of Social Work at SDSU.
Our country as a whole was experiencing social upheavals during the 60s and early 70s. Demonstrations, pickets and concerns were being expressed in every community. Those who had been in positions of power and decision making were faced with trying to justify or at least explain why the Latino community was under-represented in every position in City, County and State government. Whether it was racism or lack of knowledge about the needs of the Latino community will be left for others to debate. The lack of services to the Latino and Spanish speaking community was indisputable.
Trabajadores took on many issues that affected Chicanos in San Diego. Maria Zuniga says they were a small group yet when they would have a picket line they would attract a very large group of supporters. To understand the significance of having a large group support your cause at that time you had to understand the culture of the majority community and the response it generated in the Latino community.
In the late 1960s Mateo Camarillo and Maria Zuniga were part of a handful of Spanish speaking social workers. This deficiency was especially obvious in the Welfare Department, which provided a variety of services. A very important service was a program that would enable people, mostly women, to be trained for employment. If these services were not provided in a language they understood they could not successfully apply for jobs and get off welfare.
Worse than not providing bilingual service was the fact that Welfare Department administration was ambivalent about the very need for bilingual personnel. The issue of bilingual social workers became one of the hot topics followed by the need for additional pay for bilingual skills. To this day the bilingual differential pay exists for those workers who carry a high case load of Spanish speaking clients.
Access to State and Federal funding for programs was critical. Proposals were written for a variety of programs through the advocacy of Trabajadores. Often a small representative group would meet with a person that was in charge of funding a service and obtain approval of funds. People such as Juan Ramos director of Minority Affairs for the National Institute for Mental Health would advise grant writers on the requirements.
This mentoring helped a rather inexperienced community understand the requirement to qualify for the grant. The proposal would then be written to meet the requirements of what had already being agreed upon. The need for social services and social workers across the country was evident and supported in various manners.
The only Spanish speaking school of social work at the time was located in San Jose. This school was brokered with the help of Mateo Camarillo from San Diego and the late Simon Dominguez from San Jose. Three educational centers were set up in San Jose, California, Houston, Texas and New York City to focus on social work. Mateo and Maria both feel that the New York center never did take off but the other two centers serving Mexicans and Mexican Americans in Houston and San Jose were very strong.
What Mr. Dietrick did not count on was that the kitchen help, which was predominately Mexican, was more than willing to open the doors to allow the protesters to come in and make their case.
In 1969, a joint meeting between all the directors of social work in California and all of the deans from the schools of social work in California was held at La Baron, a hotel in Mission Valley. In order to highlight the lack of services to low income Spanish speaking families, Trabajadores had planned a protest. At that time the director of the San Diego Welfare Office was Homer Dietrick and fearing a protest he had requested that the doors be locked and that only those people involved in the meeting be allowed to enter.
This was to assure that TR would not be allowed to come in. What Mr. Dietrick did not count on was that the kitchen help, which was predominately Mexican, was more than willing to open the doors to allow the protesters to come in and make their case. Protests such as these advanced the services for Latinos and enhanced the reputation of TR.
After a few of these protests and demonstrations Mateo says that Homer Dietrick told him he would never work as a social worker in San Diego. Mr. Dietrick was embarrassed that the employees he was responsible for supervising were protesting at various meetings and conferences. Mateo says Mr. Dietrick followed through with his promise that Mateo could not find work in this county. This was true for a period of time however with the help of Ruben Domiguez, Mateo was able to change this situation. To know more about how this problem was solved I recommend you read Mateo’s book “An Immigrant’s Journey In Search of the American Dream.”
Mateo’s intern assignment was at the YWCA in San Ysidro. This assignment enabled him to become familiar with various members of the community. Many of the women in San Ysidro, most of whom were mothers, would sit on the steps of the civic center and discuss their concerns about the San Ysidro community. Mateo began working with these moms and asked what they wanted in the community.
The women had a very simple request– they wanted a class in cake decorating. The class was arranged through adult education. This class became the roots for much of the activism in San Ysidro and would be the foundation for forming Casa Familiar. An article on Casa will be written at a later date with detailed information about those activities.
Dr. Maria Zuniga
Maria Zuniga was working as a psychiatric social worker at a satellite clinic located at the old State Service Center located at 43rd and National Ave. This clinic was part of the County’s Mental Health Service. It certainly helped to have various services located in a community location and in one building. The head of the clinic was Dr. Keiger.
When the request was voiced, the psychiatrist refused the request with the comment “You’ll have to wait like the Blacks waited.”
Today, Dr. Maria Zuniga is a highly respected professor emeritus from the SDSU Department of Social Work. In those days Maria Zuniga was a young twenty something year old women who was seeing the needs of the Spanish speaking community through the eyes of someone working directly in the community and not from a theoretical and classroom point of view. The importance of being assigned to a community location cannot be emphasized enough.
Maria remembered a meeting that was held with the head of the County Mental Health unit whose name goes unremembered. What is remembered is that he was a psychiatrist and that he was leading the meeting. The focus of that meeting was to request more Spanish speaking social workers based on the need they had discovered while working at the National Avenue location. When the request was voiced, the psychiatrist refused the request with the comment “You’ll have to wait like the Blacks waited.”
Overcome with with anger, Maria Zuniga literally jumped into action. Wearing a mini skirt, the current fashion of the day, she leapt onto the chair seat and yelled “You son of a bitch!” When this moment was over Maria was sure that she would be fired. Her supervisor Joe Pollock assured her however that without documentation she could not be fired.
It was at this point that Maria decided she needed to further her education and obtain her doctorate. She said she believed that she needed that title to have a greater credibility. Maria Zuniga went to Brandeis University. Later she returned to SDSU and continued her social work by teaching others how to become social workers as well as being involved in the Latino community.
From 1966 to 1970 Gloria Serrano was one of four Employment Development Department (EDD) employees working at the State Service Center. Trabjajores had been advocating for Spanish speaking EDD employees to be assigned to community agencies located in the Latino community. In 1970 Gloria was assigned to work at the Chicano Federation. One of her duties as job agent assistant was to recruit Latinos for job training and employment.
At one point, she and another employee were walking in and out of bars on Imperial Avenue looking for possible clients.
In 1968 while working at the State Service Center, her immediate supervisor was Chaka a young militant African American man who would later be elected to the City Council under the name George Stevens. Chaka was known for his outspokenness. Gloria will be the first to tell you that she was overwhelmed with the amount of work.
In addition to the office work she had the duty of looking for possible clients in the community. At one point, she and another employee were walking in and out of bars on Imperial Avenue looking for possible clients. At that time it was an acceptable practice.
Even though she was responsible for taking job applications she did not have time to find jobs to place these applicants. The highest percentage of her clients were parolees who were especially difficult to place. Because of her Spanish speaking skills, she was often pulled by other agencies to help with whatever case they were working on. Gloria helped Child Protective Services, welfare applicants and any other task that was needed to help the community. She was a member of Trabajadores and would help with any of their issues as well.
Gloria remembered that she once went to Tijuana to find a young mental health patient. This was certainly not part of her job description but nevertheless she and another employee not only went to Tijuana in search of this girl but found her and returned her to San Diego. This was done in the middle of the work day. This is another example of how people did a variety of tasks that supported the needs of the community but that were certainly not part of their assigned duties. This was facilitated because so many agencies were located at the State Service Center.
In 1974 Gloria went to work for the County of San Diego. She served for several years as Chairperson of the Chicano Federation Board. Recognizing that voting is power in the Latino community, one of her biggest passions is voter registration. Even after her retirement Gloria Serrano remains active in the Chicano community.
In the 1990’s Trabajadores decided to rename itself Latino Social Work Network. The name change was to include all Latinos and not only Mexican Americans. At this time the only active chapter of TR is the San Diego Chapter. The night before our interview a group of social worker students had met at Maria Zuniga’s house to prepare 75 Christmas food baskets for the families from Barrio Logan Child Development Center. These baskets are prepared with the financial support of the Chicano Federation under the direction of Maria.
TR also networks with Cuidad de Los Niños in Tijuana to provide support to their center. Trabajadores also raises money to provide scholarships for those students who will be the first in their family to attend college.
This article has focused on only three members of Trabajodores. There are many other members who worked and made a difference in the Latino Community: names such as Sonny Romero, Garl Hudson, Esperanza Garcia, Joe Bonilla, Yolanda Lenier, Martha Soto-Mayor, Lelia Maestras and Rosina Becerra to name only a few.
Mental health issues, identified so many decades ago by Dr. Maria Sardiñas, are still often ignored and this is especially true in the Spanish speaking community. But now there are Spanish speaking service providers. Trabajadores de La Raza can look back at many hard won victories. Today they continue to shine a light on needs within the Latino community that continue to go unmet and rise to the challenge.