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The number of Hispanic first responders in KCMO is growing and that allows better communication between the Hispanic community and those who serve there.
Hispanic and Latino individuals make up 15.9% of workers in jobs like firefighters and police officers, according to 2020 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The workforce is largely comprised of White people (74.5%), while Black people make up 19.4% of police and firefighter jobs.
In Jackson County, 1st District Legislator Manuel “Manny” Abarca identified 165 Latinos working in public safety in Kansas City, Grandview and Raytown. He then honored each by passing a resolution in the Jackson County Legislature.
Abarca introduced the resolution on Oct. 2 and offered certificates of achievement to the departments present, including the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department and the Kansas City, Missouri, Fire Department.
“Even if it’s a small certificate of appreciation, it’s still a small form of appreciation that I think goes well beyond just a ‘thank you’ that we may get on the street here and there,” Abarca said. “And so, that’s why I wanted them to come down in their dress uniforms and acknowledge them for all of the work that they do.”
One of the officers front and center was Deputy Chief Luis Ortiz of the KCMO Police Department.
“The fact that Jackson County Legislator Abarca took the time to recognize the work and the efforts that we have, or that we're making in this police department, is remarkable, and we appreciate that,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz has been working for KCPD for 23 years. He was born in El Salvador, which is where his public safety seed was planted.
“At that time, the country was going through a civil war,” Ortiz said. “And I saw many atrocities at that time. Unfortunately, and fortunately, that was what motivated me to become a police officer.”
But it was not until years later when Ortiz was living and working in a completely different industry in Miami that he caught the bug to serve again.
“I got to meet many police officers with many backgrounds,” Ortiz said. “And we began by having a short conversation. And pretty soon, they're the ones who started getting me back into, ‘Hey, we're gonna be hiring, and we're gonna be having a test next month,’ and so on. And that's how I applied in Miami and many other police departments.”
Eventually, Ortiz landed in Kansas City.
Despite living in the area for the past two decades, he’s only held his new role as deputy chief since January. Ortiz is only the second Hispanic to serve in this role in KCPD history.
“I do have that sense of responsibility, not only for the Hispanic community, [but] for every member of this department and the community,” Ortiz said.
The same feeling resonated with Xavier Loya, another honoree.
Loya, a firefighter with KCFD, said in addition to the external, ethnic tie all the honorees share, it’s their intrinsic values that make them ideal for a public service position.
“Your character and are you willing to put a stranger before you? That is our job," Loya said. "You know, you have to be willing to do that."
He said his workplace is an ideal space — one where he’s not judged for being Mexican-American, but one where his colleagues expect him to operate as part of a unit, treating him just as fairly as anyone else.
Loya appreciates the playful jokes and banter, too.
“Having people from all different walks of life and all different backgrounds coming together for one goal makes it the type of fun place to be and to work at,” he said.
Representation matters and Loya and Ortiz believe finding common ground can make a difference when police and fire crews connect with the Hispanic community.
“When they see another police officer that looks exactly like members of a community, it can enhance the trust that the community has with our police department,” Ortiz said.
Especially when that police officer not only looks like them, but talks like them.
“Communication is crucial when we go into a crime scene or when we want to talk to members of the community, either to see how they're doing or to gather information. It is crucial to communicate effectively with them,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz decided to take his skills in both English and Spanish to La Mega radio station, a Kansas City-based station founded by a husband and wife duo, Yvan and Ana Duin, eight years ago, to serve the Latino community.
“Bringing someone who speaks their language — a Latino — who's got this awesome position here to help us, I think it means a lot to the community and they feel like, ‘Okay, I can trust this person," Duin said.
Duin said La Mega fills a gap that was left by the absence of a local Spanish radio station in Kansas City for many years. Not only does the station have music, but there are on-air guests like Ortiz.
In April, he was joined by KCPD Chief Stacey Graves and two other officers.
Addressing the distrust that her community has with law enforcement is important to Duin, who hopes to aid in the healing process.
“One of the things that we have come across by talking to other police officers is the communication,” Duin said. “You know, when they tell someone to do something, sometimes they don't understand it. It's not that they don't want to do it, it's just that they don't understand it. So starting having someone like Mr. Ortiz, you know, come up and talk to the community, it means a lot.”
One of the most interesting things Duin said she’s found is how simple some of the questions are.
“Some of the questions that our listeners have to ask is, okay, ‘What do I do if the police knock on my door? What do I do if I get pulled over?" Duin said. “Little minor things that you usually wouldn't think about. Those are the questions that our community has because you've got to understand the laws are so different here than they are in our country, you know in Mexico or South America, it's just different.”
As someone from Mexico, Duin said she personally did not grow up fearful of police, but she did see community members who did. Her family was involved in politics, so she was in a different circle than a lot of her peers.
Duin used her knowledge of politics, alongside her journalistic background, to inform her community here in Kansas City.
“I just don't like when people take advantage of other people, especially because of their language barrier or because they get threatened, because ‘Oh, you're not a citizen or you're not a resident,' that needs to stop,'" she said.
While on and off the clock, Duin strives to normalize the idea of asking questions.
“I think we just need to learn about each other a little bit more,” she said.
La Mega is a fully online radio station that can be accessed via app in the Apple App Store, on Google Play and on Facebook and Instagram at @LaMegaKC.