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Though Grantless, Hermandad Presses On

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The class coordinator is owed money, the executive director admits he hasn’t drawn a salary for months, and now the state says no grant money is forthcoming--but with crowds of people showing up hungry for English and citizenship instruction, the classes at Hermandad Mexicana Nacional went on as usual Thursday.

Adela Montano, 77, clutched her rhinestone Jesus pin and struggled to remember the name of the first president of the United States.

“Jorge, Jorge . . . ai!” she exclaimed, and her eyes brimmed with tears of frustration. Montano, born in El Salvador, fled to the United States 25 years ago after guerrillas dragged her 18-year-old son into the street and killed him. Now, barely able to read and write Spanish, she faces the daunting task of learning American civics so she can become a U.S. citizen.

Otherwise, even though she is here legally and worked a quarter of a century as a packer in a perfume factory, Congress has decreed she will lose the $175 in monthly Social Security benefits on which she depends.

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Montano was among nearly 300 people crammed into classes Thursday at the Los Angeles offices of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, just as the organization fills similar classes in Orange County and 70 other locations across the state.

On Wednesday, the nonprofit agency with headquarters in Santa Ana and North Hollywood learned that it will not receive $2.1 million in federal funds from the state Department of Education for English and citizenship classes for immigrants. State officials said Hermandad had not filed an audit that has been due for the last nine months, and that they had not proved they were financially sound.

On Thursday, Hermandad’s executive director, Bert Corona, said the classes will continue even if the funds don’t come in.

“We cannot stop. There is too great a need,” he said. “We will find a way.”

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Corona said he still hopes to receive the state money, because Hermandad is one of the largest, most thorough providers of the classes.

“I hope the state bureaucrats will remember that we provide these classes to 20% of all people who are eligible for them across the state.”

State Deputy Supt. of Education Gabriel Cortina could not be reached Thursday, but earlier in the week he also noted a pressing need for citizenship classes because of pending cuts in benefits to legal immigrants. He said that was part of the reason why he had directed staff to reallocate any remaining funds to other organizations that were conducting classes and had submitted the required audit to show they were fiscally sound.

Corona dismissed findings by a state auditor that Hermandad did not have enough revenue to meet its expenses, that its staff was not being paid, and that there were insufficient monitoring and sign-in procedures for the classes.

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All the students at Hermandad are required to pay $50 for the classes, Corona and class coordinator Stella Cantu said. Those class fees now pay teachers and other class expenses, Corona said.

He provided records for last week’s Los Angeles classes showing that 663 new students had been signed up, that $4,725 had been collected, and that all but $829 of that had been spent on salaries and expenses. He also produced folders full of sign-in sheets.

Corona admitted that neither he nor his wife, Angelina Casillas, had been paid for five months, and that there were large loan repayments looming. Nevertheless, he said, the money would be found.

“We are stretched tight right now,” said Casillas, who said she was worried but confident that Hermandad would continue to provide some if not all of its services.

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Class coordinator Cantu said she had been paid some but not all of her salary, and she noted that there was no money for a microphone for the teacher, who struggled to be heard by several hundred students. But she blamed the state.

“We work, work, and then maybe they pay,” she said.

Corona also disputed concerns expressed by state officials that public funds might be used to pay for the nonprofit’s bills, rather than for the classes.

“That’s our money!” he said of the $2.1 million, which Hermandad applied for last May. “Of course when they send us that money we would pay bills, like rent and phones, and lights, that we have had to pay with other money while we hold these classes.”

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Montano and other students said they came to Hermandad after receiving a letter from the Los Angeles Department of Social Services telling them they risked losing benefits if they did not become citizens. The letter included the names of several organizations that could help, including Hermandad.

Maria Magdalena, 32, a native of Mexico, said she wanted to become a citizen so she could vote. She said she was not fazed by news of the cuts or publicity surrounding a criminal investigation into whether Hermandad illegally registered noncitizens to vote from its Santa Ana classes.

“I don’t believe anything I read like that,” Magdalena said. “They are honest people, dedicated to helping the community.”

Also contributing to the report was Times staff writer Henry Chu.

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