Resources Access Services Association (RASA)
Organization aims to help Latino residents
When he was 16 years old, Gabriel Balderas arrived in the United States – from Mexico – with little more than the clothes he was wearing.
“I came here with no money in my pockets. Zero. Most people tell you they came here with $100 or $1,000. I came here with zero money and zero knowledge of what the culture was.”
Now 41, Balderas – make that Chef Balderas – has a little pocket change. He is the owner of two successful Shreveport restaurants – El Cabo Verde and Zuzul Coastal Cuisine. He has his own farm. He’s a member of the Shreveport Metropolitan Planning Commission. He is a part of new Shreveport Mayor Tom Arceneaux’s transition committee.
And now, Balderas and local journalist and activist Mario Villafuerte are starting a non-profit organization to benefit our area’s Latino community.
The Resource Access Services Association (RASA) aims to help Latinos in four areas: health, education, lifestyle and culture.
“We are currently building partnerships with community organizations and civic groups to expand our reach and provide necessary services to our growing community,” Villafuerte said.
While RASA is new to Shreveport-Bossier, its purpose is not new to Balderas. He was part of a similar organization while living in Birmingham, Ala.
“I volunteered my time,” Balderas said. “(We) worked with immigrants from all over the world, with any need they had, whether it was a medical need or an after-school program. We had medical fairs. We had doctors come in and volunteer their time once a week. We had immigration attorneys do consultations. We had religious groups come in. We had people come in and teach English classes. Through (RASA), we are trying to replicate that work here in north Louisiana.”
Balderas credits his time with the Birmingham non-profit – and all he learned – for making him the person he is today.
“I was able to be who I am,” Balderas said. “It shaped me. It taught me the things I should be doing at an early age, and have an assimilation process to the (American) culture. Learn the language. Learn the rules. Learn the laws. It gave me direction. To me, that was a huge part of my migrant story – to be there and learn from the other people who volunteered there as well. We had people from all ages and all walks of life.”
Balderas and Villafuerte are part of a large – and getting larger – Latino population. They are well aware of their brothers’ and sisters’ need for help.
“The Latino community in Shreveport- Bossier and northwest Louisiana is growing because of immigration,” Villafuerte said. “Caddo and Bossier have 14 distinct populations from Latin America. Bossier has two languages. The second-most spoken language in Bossier is Spanish. I would say that’s true for Caddo as well. There is a need for representation for Latinos of all nationalities in these areas, because the population is growing.”
As RASA ramps up, one of its goals will be to bring better health care to Latinos.
“We have a lack of health-care professionals here who are bi-lingual,” Villafuerte explained. “On our board (of directors), we have a couple of doctors, health-care professionals and educators. As a beginning program, we’re trying to develop bi-lingual translators with a medical certification … We’re going to establish funding for these programs to pay for each individual’s training (approximately $2,500). After the program is finished, we’re going to write a contract with them so they have a job and they can be gainfully employed.”
Imagine moving to a country where you don’t speak the language, don’t know the culture and don’t know basic things like how to open a bank account or buy a home. Villafuerte and Balderas don’t have to use their imagination. For fellow Latinos, it’s real life.
“They are already taxpayers in this community,” Balderas said. “We just need to, if you want to be a homeowner, say, ‘This is what you have to do.’ We have to guide them – walk them through the process – so they can participate in this community and in this economy. The Latinos are renting out an apartment. They go to the grocery store. They’re buying cars. They’re all participating in our economy. The biggest thing is we want them to stay here and not go anywhere else. We want them to be homeowners. Our community needs people who can come in, who have the work ethic, who can assimilate, that want to pay the system and grow their family here.”
To learn more about RASA, you may email NWLARASA@gmail.com, or call 318-215-5271.