Friend Indeed

Tony Villegas lends a hand and a voice to needy Latinos

When a distraught caller making a minimal salary contacted him to say that the Internal Revenue Service had recorded his annual earnings at more than $100,000, it was Villegas who turned investigator and found that the man's Social Security number had been stolen and was being illegally used by several undocumented co-workers. With Villegas serving as interpreter during a visit to the IRS office, the matter was soon on its way to being resolved.

Over the years, he's helped negotiate child support payments and arranged for everything from prenatal care to toys to go under the Christmas tree. "When people are having difficulties," Villegas suggests, "they rarely think about degrees. A problem is a problem. Some are just harder to resolve than others."

Oftentimes, he says, the solutions he's asked to find are simple: "One evening, my wife and I were on the way to dinner and I got a call on my cell phone from a young woman who sounded very despondent. The tone of her voice was such that we immediately drove to where she was. It turned out she was suffering from postpartum depression. All she needed was a Spanish-speaking doctor who would agree to treat her."

Historically, the most serious problems he encounters involve what he believes are the inequities that remain in the criminal justice system. "Over the years, I've seen example after example of poorly informed, poorly represented Hispanics being told by their lawyers to plead guilty to charges or pay fines just to get the cases resolved as quickly as possible."

He points to the recent dilemma of a young Salvadoran store clerk who was convicted of assault and given a 10-year probated sentence. "A customer came into the store," Villegas says, "and got into an argument with one of the workers. Shortly, they were out front in the parking lot, fighting. The store owner asked the Salvadoran to go out and break it up. As he was attempting to do so, the police arrived and arrested everyone, including the young man who was attempting to serve as the peacemaker. Despite having witnesses who testified that he was doing nothing but trying to break up the fight, he was found guilty."

Which is to say not all problems that come Villegas' way are satisfactorily resolved.

Only rarely, he says, does he involve law enforcement in situations he's attempting to resolve. "When someone wants me to call the police to report some kind of illegal activity, of course, I will do so," he says, "but in most instances things can be worked out once a line of communication has been established."

And despite Dallas' reputation for fractured racial relations, Villegas sees signs of noteworthy progress in the dozen years he's labored as a community service volunteer. "Today," he says, "the city is far more accepting of the Hispanic community. You see it in businesses, in the school system and at City Hall. Accessing health and human services is much easier than it was 10 or 12 years ago. There is still improvement to be made, but we're moving in the right direction.

"For a long time, the problem was just not knowing what door to knock on for help. More and more, I now see those doors opening."

As examples, he points to a growing list of local attorneys who have agreed to work pro bono or set up some manner of time payment for clients he refers and doctors such as Galindo, who has been instrumental in organizing the Association of Latin Americans for Mental Health in Dallas. "Now," he adds, "you can walk into virtually any hospital or government office and find someone who is bilingual and ready to help." With federal funding for social services dramatically reduced in recent years, local organizations like Catholic Charities and Casita Maria and various food banks help fill the void.

And what's the payoff for Tony Villegas? "From time to time," he says, "I'll get a call from someone who'll remind me of some situation I tried to help them with years ago. When they say that things have worked out and they're now doing well, it makes it all worthwhile."

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