WALLA WALLA -- Among the questions Gilberto Mireles hears on the state's Commission on Hispanic Affairs, is the one from people wondering why the state needs an agency dedicated to one minority group.
Mireles would agree that many of the social problems he explores as part of his appointment apply to many groups, not just Latinos.
But often, issues that come before the state Legislature -- such as current efforts to reform payday loans, or increasing awareness of consumer fraud -- affect the state's Latino population in large proportions.
"This is the sort of stuff that is disproportionately used by low-income, and particularly Latino individuals," Mireles said of the payday loan business, one of the issues that is being brought to the Legislature in bills seeking limits and more consumer protection.
Mireles has just wrapped up his first year as a commissioner on the state agency, representing Asotin, Columbia, Garfield, Walla Walla and Whitman counties. Mireles' volunteer service makes him a liaison for local Latino communities. His work includes reaching out to Latinos, and hearing their concerns while also informing them of political decisions, legislative actions or local issues that could impact their lives.
The post has helped Mireles learn more about the types of problems and concerns the state's Latinos share. Payday loans are just one problem that is crippling low-income residents, he said. Consumer fraud in general, whether identity theft or other schemes, is also a plague.
Yet targeting or reaching Latinos is often a task in itself.
"People talk about the Latino community. Yet it's a very fragmented community. There's a lot of subgroups, and some are hard to reach," he said.
In a more informal capacity, Mireles has helped people navigate what might be simple tasks for others, like filling out citizenship applications, or helping them fill out forms for the Department of Licensing.
At the moment, Mireles is helping create and organize an assessment of the socioeconomic and political conditions affecting the state's Latinos. The report will look at trends like rates of home ownership, instances of dealing with fraud, youth, gangs, and educational attainment.
In the end, the report will serve as a resource on the state's Latino population, a body of work that could potentially help dispel stereotypes or assumptions but also serve as the framework to bring about change, he said. Mireles, a sociology professor at Whitman College, said the data could help lawmakers and other groups make sound policy decision that will bring positive impact to area Latinos, and the state's residents in general.
"As a social scientist, I'm always focused on hard data, and that good data shapes public policy, as opposed to personal beliefs," he said.
While he serves out the rest of his three-year term as commissioner, Mireles hopes to continue hearing from local residents on concerns, while also communicating to them about the positive and potentially negative decisions being made in Olympia on their behalf.
He believes more can be done to reach those fragmented Latino groups, which are increasingly being made up of indigenous immigrants who speak other native languages.
"Spanish is their second language," he said.
He said weekly radio addresses, or more public service announcements going out in Spanish, could help bring area Latinos into the mainstream and bring their voices to the decision-makers.
"Things that happen in Olympia, it's kind of removed, but it does affect us," he said.
Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8317. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/schoolhousemissives.
Who: Washington Commission on Hispanic Affairs Commissioner Gilberto Mireles is a professor of sociology at Whitman College. As the region's commissioner on Hispanic affairs, he serves five counties: Asotin, Columbia, Garfield, Walla Walla and Whitman. He will serve as commissioner, a volunteer post, through July 2011.
Hometown: Coalinga, Calif.
Education: Mireles earned a bachelor's degree in sociology from Swarthmore College, and a doctorate degree in sociology from Yale University.
Contact: Mireles can be reached by calling 527-5259.