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RACINE - Ask any of the large number of "Tejanos" who moved here from Texas like her parents, Yolanda Adams says.

"They'll all say the same thing: 'We got our first beds from the Spanish Center,'" says Adams, who was on the center's board for 10 years.

Beds and blankets came first, but inside the grey building at 720 17th St. with the Spanish-speaking receptionist, Racine's newest Hispanic arrivals could get help looking for work, permanent shelter and schools, Adams and others close to the center say.

But in 1995, after nearly three decades, center officials closed its doors and sold the building after financial issues led United Way to pull its funding. A version of the center still exists in Kenosha, but its services are mostly restricted to Kenosha County residents, said Executive Director Ben Ortega.

So as organizers move forward with plans for a new Hispanic community center to be up and running by 2012, they're planning in part to provide what the Spanish Center did before it left town, such as job training and help with court documents. "We're filling that gap that was left, and yet adding more to it," said Marie Black, one of the new center's two project coordinators.

Between the classes on the second floor, and the youth programs and the education programs, the old Spanish Center was always busy, Adams says. It would stay open until 7 or 8 p.m. some nights - later during tax period, says

Art Gonzales, a co-


There was the job training - help filling out applications, designing résumés and learning work English - but there were also the interpreters who would tag along to visits to the doctor. Judges used to know her by name, said Anita Herrera, executive director during the late '70s.

The center also served as a hang out spot. Tejanos used the place to meet other Tejanos, said Dolores Hernandez, health manager for the Racine Head Start program, whose parents moved here from Texas in the '40s. They'd hold dances, have parties and get together on weekends. "It was a home away from home," she says.

"Tejanos," Spanish for Texans and used to describe a Mexican-American from Texas, came to Wisconsin following the migrant stream looking for farm work, Adams said.

Herrera remembers having a staff of 15 and a solid budget. But at least a few years before 1995, finances fell apart, say those close to the situation at the time.

Adams, who's now executive director at Racine's Urban League, remembers an accountant messing things up, skipping town and never being heard from again. The center had a few directors who didn't stay for too long, making it hard for the new ones to make sense of the money coming in from various places, said Paula Castillo, who was on United Way's allocation committee at the time.

In 1995, United Way sent in an auditor, who found a $100,000 debt, according to Journal Times articles at the time. On July 26, United Way pulled its $90,901 in funding. "They had financial issues, compliance issues, they had governance issues," says Dave Maurer, United Way's executive director. "We just didn't think we were getting bang for our buck."

Then-Executive Director Juan Mireles protested, saying he had a debt reduction plan that would raise $100,000 over two years via bingo receipts and other fundraisers.

But in November, the center shut its headquarters' doors and put the building up for sale. The Kenosha satellite remained, and the center managed to get out of debt, largely through bingo revenue, Adams said. United Way gave an emergency $6,000 as a short-term stopgap to Catholic Charities, which has since hired two outreach


Fourteen years later, Hernandez said there are all kinds of services for Hispanics in Racine.

But as a health manager, Hernandez gets a lot of different questions from her Hispanic clients, like how to find a job, or how to get around the city.

One woman recently brought Hernandez a bag of corn, just for finding her a place to get dental work done.

Hernandez would refer her and other new Hispanic arrivals to a Spanish Center-type place, "if I had a place to direct them to."

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