In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, the City of Huntsville is highlighting the work of volunteers, leaders and organizations that have made a significant impact on the City’s Hispanic/Latino populations.
Huntsville, now the most populous city in Alabama, is also becoming increasingly diverse. According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data, Huntsville’s Hispanic/Latino population is nearing 8% of the total population of 215,000.
As more Hispanics/Latinos migrate to North Alabama in search of a better quality of life, they are helped by people like Rosa Maria Toussaint-Ortiz, a native of the Dominican Republic. Toussaint-Ortiz, a Huntsville resident since 1985, is a passionate volunteer, coordinator, minister, author and advocate for Hispanics who need assistance with immigration information or legal issues.
When asked what feeds her passion for helping others, Toussaint-Ortiz simply said, “God has been very good to me.”
Coming to America
Toussaint-Ortiz first came to the United States in 1978 after enlisting in the U.S. Army. Though a native of the Dominican, Toussaint-Ortiz was raised by an aunt in Puerto Rico. She ultimately ended up in an orphanage.
Her reason for enlisting in the Army was simple: “I was starving.”
After finishing high school, Toussaint-Ortiz got factory job but was laid off. She was on the verge of homelessness when she saw an advertisement for the Army.
“I called the number, and they said they would give me a place to stay and take care of me,” she said.
Toussaint-Ortiz could barely speak English, but recruiters worked with her and other Spanish-speaking recruits to ensure they completed and passed their exams. Still, her lack of English comprehension made basic training at Fort McClellan in Anniston difficult.
“We didn’t know our left from our right,” she said. “When the drill sergeant said, ‘Go left,’ I went right. I was so lost.”
When I compare with other cities, I really love what we’re doing to engage with other cultures.”
In 1985, Toussaint-Ortiz was reassigned to Redstone Arsenal and ultimately found her calling. Huntsville’s Hispanic/Latino population wasn’t plentiful then, but she connected with those on base, particularly relatives of service members.
“I was able to help folks inside and outside Redstone as an interpreter,” she said.
Her success in bridging the language gap would later make her a valuable commodity as an employee at the Madison County Mental Health Center, National Children’s Advocacy Center and Social Security Administration. Along the way she also earned her bachelor’s degree in mental health counseling, an associate’s paralegal degree and became an ordained community pastor.
Because of her experiences helping Hispanics and Latinos acclimate to North Alabama, she has a unique perspective on the challenges they face in their home countries and as migrants to America. She’s saddened by the border crisis but said if countries could work together to improve conditions abroad, people would be less motivated to leave.
“They are desperate and have an idea that the United States is so peaceful and easy, and it’s not,” Toussaint-Ortiz said.
Around 2005, she began seeing a greater influx of Hispanics and Latinos into the Huntsville area, many of which heard there were high-paying jobs available. For the most part, she said, Huntsville residents have welcomed new cultures. Some Hispanics and Latinos, however, are forced to defend their status as American citizens because they choose to speak Spanish.
“Some in the community think if you communicate in Spanish, then you are undocumented,” she said. “We have Puerto Ricans who are U.S. citizens who have to say, ‘I am not undocumented. Spanish is our first language and we want to speak Spanish.’”
Later this year, Toussaint-Ortiz will travel to Higüey in the Dominican Republican as part of a mission trip to offer aid to impoverished Haitians and Dominicans living on the island of La Espanola. She’ll be serving with the ministry of Ministerio Restauracion Internacional/Huntsville Alabama Blessing La Espanola, or MRI/HABLE.
Their mission is to help impoverished Haitian and Dominican children but Toussaint-Ortiz hopes to build a bridge between the country and Huntsville so leaders can exchange ideas. She hopes Higüey can learn from Huntsville’s successes and put some of the Rocket City’s strategies into practice.
“I have so much respect for Mayor Tommy Battle because I’ve seen what he’s done with this City,” she said. “He’s very inclusive.”
She also praised the outreach efforts of District 4 Council Member Bill Kling and Kenny Anderson, director of the new Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. Anderson recently introduced the latest members of Huntsville’s Hispanic/Latino Advisory Council (HLAC), a group which works to improve communication between the City and Hispanic/Latino community. Toussaint-Ortiz previously chaired the group and was the first woman to hold the title.
Despite Huntsville’s multicultural gains, Toussaint-Ortiz said more outreach is needed for those who can’t speak English and don’t know how to find essential services. She said the HLAC should consider organizing meetings in areas where there are larger concentrations of Spanish-speakers. She also suggested HLAC meetings be bilingual to support inclusiveness.
“When I compare with other cities, I really love what we’re doing to engage with other cultures,” she said. “I’m very proud of this City.”