VIRGINIA COALITION OF LATINO ORGANIZATIONS
Leni Gonzalez has served as a voice of the people for years, both literally and figuratively. As a former hospital interpreter, she used her translating skills to communicate for non-English speakers, and as one of the founders of the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations, Gonzalez works to represent the interests of the state’s Latino community.
Gonzalez first moved to the area from Mexico over 30 years ago to get her master’s degree in education from Catholic University. Living in NoVA, Gonzalez witnessed an exponential growth of the local population of minorities: “The Latino population in Virginia has grown steadily and is now almost 9 percent of the whole population—we’re of good size now, but we need to keep working toward better treatment in a lot of areas, as well as being contributing members of the commonwealth.”
This need for Latino representation led Gonzalez and her colleagues to form the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations 14 years ago. “I realized it was my passion to provide a voice for those who don’t have one,” she says. Gonzalez now acts as secretary of the VACOLAO, as well as working with the Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights, which she also helped create. The group assists not only Latinos but all immigrant groups in Virginia and seeks to improve the quality for life for low-income and often undocumented immigrants. Gonzalez says the need for this group became apparent when immigration reform was much-discussed in the political sector: “We continue to fight, advocate, organize and mobilize the community for immigrant rights, as well as civic engagement. We also provide immigrants with correct and truthful information so they cannot be taken advantage of.”
Gonzalez enjoys the hard work in all aspects of these groups, but she particularly enjoys VACOLAO’s annual advocacy day, in which the organization brings students to Richmond to present Latino issues to legislators, teaching young people that their voices can make a difference. She looks forward to continuing her work with these organizations for as long as possible. “I hope to be able to continue working and contributing, whether as a board member or just a regular volunteer,” she says. “Giving information to and empowering the immigrant community benefits the entire community of Virginia, making the commonwealth a better place.”