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Villanueva builds a bridge to help fellow Latinos cross

By Justin Boron

Orlando Villanueva is a bridge for immigrant Latinos who face a gulf of cultural variation once they arrive in Georgia.

Along with the rest of metro Atlanta, Clayton County's swelling Hispanic population has created a large need for mediators to mend a cultural gap created by contrasting customs and values.

Villanueva provides works as a conduit of information through his job at the Latin American Association (LAA), where he manages translations, educational seminars, and even gives fellow Latinos a ride in his car to help them set up their utilities.

He carries these tasks out as daily gestures of kindness. But he said his more important mission is to help Latinos adjust to Georgia's social norms in areas like childcare, workplace behavior and the law.

"When someone comes to Atlanta from a Latin American country, they often come from rural areas. There it might be OK for them to leave their children at home alone. Here it's not. Neighbors will call the Department of Family and Children Services," Villanueva said. "I want them to integrate into society. I want them to have a say."

While a level of cultural assimilation is important for Latino immigrants, he said Georgia natives also must share in the adjustment process.

"It's important to communicate to Americans how Latinos are as well," Villanueva said.

Villanueva's efforts in the community emanate from his own experience of Georgia when he arrived for from Vega Baja, Puerto Rico to study Art at Georgia State University.

With little experience in English, he said he struggled to understand his fellow students at first.

The communication barrier made it difficult to make necessary connections at school.

Getting directions produces the sharpest memory of his adjustment to the race conscious South.

"My father and I were looking for an apartment and we got kind of lost. So we asked for directions at a gas station," Villanueva said. "He told us to take a left at a black church.

Confused he said he asked his father "Why would they want to paint a church black."

The encounter was the first step in an attitudinal change for Villanueva as he began to realize the importance of race in Georgia.

The strife of entering a new culture was the challenge he said was looking for when he decided to leave Puerto Rico.

He said it has allowed him to identify closely with the social work he does in the county.

By his co-workers account, Villanueva's work adds up to more than a job.

"He has a genuine interest in helping the community," said Patricia Hoyos, director of human resources at the LAA.

"He has gone the extra mile to organize English classes for the community," she said.

Marissa Pinchon, the executive director at the LAA, said the organization is fortunate to have a staff like it does in Clayton County.

"Orlando has the background to resolve issues important to Clayton County," she said.

Applying his painting experience to his work, Villanueva treats the community like his canvas.

"Main thing we do at LAA is try to bring some color to the community," he said.