Friend Indeed

Tony Villegas lends a hand and a voice to needy Latinos

Twice in the life of 60-year-old Jose Antonio "Tony" Villegas there have been epiphanies that pointed the course for the mission he now religiously pursues.

First, had the man in the leather coat not fired a shot that shattered his car window on that Chicago night back in 1979, he might never have considered moving to Dallas.

He was an up-and-coming union rep for a food processing plant back then and had just left a meeting where employees, many of them fellow Hispanics, had voiced complaints about their working conditions. "I'd walked into the parking lot and just gotten into my car," he recalls, "when this guy walks up with a sawed-off rifle and blows my window out. He told me there were people upset and that things might get rough for me and my family if I didn't back off."

Villegas, a man with an elementary schoolteacher wife and two young sons, needed little time to judge his priorities. A native of Mission in the Rio Grande Valley, he and his wife, Linda, had already been discussing a return to Texas anyway. Dallas, they agreed, offered the opportunities and educational environment they wanted for their children.

Then, in the late '80s, there was his recovery from a series of frightening bouts with thyroid cancer. It was then, he recalls, that he began earnestly searching for some way to acknowledge his good fortune; to, as he puts it, "give something back."

By then he was working as a case manager for Dallas County Community Corrections, assigned to do pretrial release interviews. "Much of my job was to make people aware of the help the system had to offer, things like bond reduction and proper legal assistance," he says. "Later, I was given the responsibility of overseeing the program that allowed those in jail to be released during the day to work."

What he didn't see during the course of his daily routine were many Hispanics appearing before judges for bail hearings or being released to work at day jobs. "They were just sitting in a cell somewhere, marking time," he says. The reason, he discovered, was because many of them spoke no English and were unaware of the complex workings of the judicial system.

And with that an idea began to form. It was not, however, until he took a position as bilingual service director with Addicare, the marketing arm of Delta Health Care, which sought out those in need of help with drug and alcohol addiction, that he became fully aware of the foe he would ultimately vow to battle.

He's now been at it for more than a decade.

"As I responded to calls," he says, "I met people living in sub-standard housing, heard stories of employers who were dealing unfairly with workers, realized that families were having difficulties getting the most basic social services--all because they spoke no English."

Thus Villegas set out to convince his partners at Addicare to add a service to its program, a free lineayuda--help line--for non-English-speaking Hispanics. Soon, on Spanish radio stations, Addicare commercials offered not only help with addiction problems but with any language-related difficulties families were experiencing.

And with the unique offer, Villegas' already busy days grew longer. The pleas for help ran the gamut, from a mother having a hard time communicating with her children's schoolteachers to those needing help paying rent and feeding their families; men looking for employment or legal aid; day laborers who told of working for weeks without being paid promised wages; people calling to complain that the quality of their neighborhoods was being destroyed by crack houses. Soon, judges and lawyers were in touch, asking if he might volunteer as an interpreter during court proceedings.

Overwhelmed by the response, the energetic Villegas began networking, knocking on doors of those he felt could help. "I realized right away," he says, "that I was not going to be the solution to all problems. I'm no lawyer, nor do I have formal training as a counselor. My role is simply that of an advocate, someone who tries to put people together with the right organization or person who can get things done." Today, his address book is filled with names and numbers of Dallas charities, lawyers, doctors, ministers and people in law enforcement who have expressed a willingness to help in his cause.

"There has been a long-standing myth," says Dr. Linda Galindo, a Dallas psychologist, "that Hispanics, even those in need, don't seek help. What I've seen Tony do over the years is give them a voice so they can. He's a living example of what a real community service volunteer should be." Not only has he sent people to her for counsel, but on numerous occasions she's directed people to him. "Every time I've ever called on him," she says, "he's come running."

Working quietly and behind the scenes on evenings and weekends, Villegas, now a caseworker for Buckner's Children's Home, often simply plays the role of mediator. To wit:

He recently received a call from a woman who had purchased a new car. She had agreed on a monthly payment schedule that she thought she could afford, but when her payment book arrived she learned that it included a final "balloon" payment of several thousand dollars, which she knew she wouldn't be able to pay. She immediately placed her first call to the lineayuda number she had carried in her purse for nine years. "The salesman had obviously taken advantage of her, duped her," Villegas says. Once a car salesman himself, he took the problem directly to the manager of the dealership and negotiated a revised payment plan.

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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