He's Spent 11 Years Advocating for Nebraska's Largest Minority, Now Lazaro Arturo Spindola is Ready to Pass the Torch
By Melissa Rosales , Reporter/Producer Nebraska Public Media
Nov. 24, 2021, 7 a.m. ·
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Every morning for the last 11 years, Lazaro Arturo Spindola, wakes up at 5:30 a.m. in his Columbus home and drives for over an hour to the Nebraska State Capitol. There, he serves as the executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Latino-Americans. He's retiring from the role on Dec. 31, 2021. It’s the latest stop in his life that started in Cuba, then to Venezuela as a trauma surgeon, and to Columbus, Nebraska as minority health coordinator.
"We are in the building [Nebraska State Capitol] where things happen. Any law in Nebraska that affects you, at a personal level, or at a population level is written here," he said. "It is in this job where I can promote laws that favor Latinos or oppose laws that I consider harmful for Latinos. And that's what my job has been for all these years."
Nebraska's Latino population has grown in the time Spindola has held the role. In the 2010 Census, 9% of Nebraskans said they were Hispanic or Latino, in 2020 that number increased to 12%.
However, Spindola faced challenges when he started the role in 2010. There was a lot of open animosity against Latino-Americans, he said. People who came to testify against Latinos would argue they’re undocumented and came here to take jobs away.
"From the very beginning, I realized I had a challenge ahead of me not only dealing with Latino issues, but also with dealing with the very personal issues that there were people that wanted to eliminate this commission," he said.
An Arizona-style law that would require local police to act as immigration officers was proposed in the Nebraska Legislature. Another bill was introduced to remove both Latino-American and Indian Affairs commissions in favor of a multicultural one.
"So I had a dual role, I had to protect the commission and I had to protect the Latino population in Nebraska," he said.
Neither bill passed. But other proposals supported by the commission did. Like a law that provides prenatal healthcare for Latino women, regardless of their immigration status. They also supported legislation allowing driver’s and professional licenses for so-called “dreamers," young people brought to this country illegally when they were children. During debate on that measure, former State Sen. Bill Kintner referred to the Eisenhower-era crackdown on illegal immigration known as “Operation Wetback.”
Spindola wrote a letter, published in the Lincoln Journal Star, calling the senator out.
"We try not to get into conflict with senators or with the governor, but we got to live by our principle. There are some things that we cannot let go by," he said. "So, that one in particular, if we allow that to be openly discussed in the chamber, then what's the next step?"
One of his most important jobs as director of the commission for Latino-Americans, is educating legislators about the Latino experience. For example, when funding for The Nebraska Hispanic Latino Youth Summit was at risk, Spindola helped save the money. He explained to senators that it was one of the only ways Latino high school students in Nebraska could learn about their college opportunities.
"They did not really understand the fact that most Latino high school students deal with the issue that the school has very low expectations of them," he said. "Many of them do not get appropriate counseling. Many of them are seeing us [as] individuals who will graduate from high school and go to work in a meatpacking plant."
Spindola has spent years protecting the commission and Latinos in Nebraska. But at 69, turning 70 in December, the daily commute takes a toll on him.
"Am I going to miss this job? Absolutely. I will miss it a lot. But, I think it's time to let a younger generation take over," he said. "I am very optimistic about the younger generation. I've noticed that they are more open minded, that they are more willing to see things in a different way. They're more open to change. So hey, all good for the better."