Irene’s Story LUCHA reunites Peruvian woman with family

“I can’t imagine being in another country without any family, with no one caring where I am. I can’t imagine being that alone in the world.”

-Sue Smith, Director of LUCHA Ministries, Inc.

Irene Calderón is 78-years-old with a face full of sun-warmed wrinkles and a voice that lilts like music.

“Ma-mitaa, cómo esta niñaa,” the words moved up and down when she laughs.

The small Peruvian grandmother is wearing frayed camo pants that don’t reach all the way to her ankles and has dark hair covered by a bright blue cap. Upon meeting her, the community falls in love with her open smile and dark eyes tinged with indigo, lines crinkling the corners.

Many community members have never met anyone more animated—or more lost.

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Irene, an immigrant from Peru, was living with her son when he was deported several years ago. Her job was to care for children as a nanny, but from there, her story trails off in diverging, jumbled directions.

Her employers discarded her after their children grew up, forcing her to live on the streets. Although multiple Latino families took her in, Irene had the beginnings of dementia and became confused. She’d wake up, not remember where she was, think she wasn’t being paid and run away to find a better job.

“And she can really run. Have you seen her run? Like a child,” says Sergio, a member of the community who cared for her while she was homeless.

The police picked Irene up on one of Fredericksburg’s coldest nights and took her to Micah Ecumenical Ministries, a nonprofit partnership of over 10 churches helping the chronically homeless.

“She showed up to our shelter on a snow day. She spoke no English and was clearly confused, which put our staff in a panic about how to help her,” says Meghann Cotter, executive servant-leader at Micah Ministries.

This is where LUCHA came in. The homeless shelter called Sue and Greg Smith, directors of LUCHA Ministries, an organization providing holistic care for Spanish-speaking immigrants.

“While Sue was reaching out to the Hispanic community to figure out where she belonged, a number of our clients took her under their wing to make sure she was ok,” Cotter says.

Despite only speaking a few phrases of Spanish, members of the homeless community cared for Irene in the cold weather shelter. Substance abuse counselor, Darrell Chavez, who had just finished an overnight shift, volunteered to drive Irene to back to the Latino grocery store where the owner and waitresses had been caring for her during the day.

LUCHA and the owners of the Panaderia-Aury bakery discovered Irene had family members in Virginia who were unable to care for her. With the help of the Latino immigrant network and Facebook, they were able to track down her family in Peru. Some of Irene’s documents had been stole n and her passport had expired. LUCHA suspects it was a labor trafficking situation: a family had hired Irene to be a nanny then took away her documents forcing her to work for them. After a visit to D.C. and several phone calls, LUCHA worked with the consulate of Peru to secure the necessary materials to reunite Irene with her family.

An entire community comes together

Members of the community loved Irene, from the homeless volunteers who rallied around her when she was lost to the various Latino families who housed her at no cost to themselves. This is where cultural norms became apparent. In immigrant culture, it’s uncommon to see people who are homeless.

“We don’t have anyone on staff that speaks Spanish because we typically don’t see clients from the Hispanic community,” Cotter says. “Generally, they are a culture that takes care of one another and will have someone sleeping on the couch [or] the extra bedroom …before letting someone sleep on the street.”

That’s why Irene’s case is so unusual. Family is paramount and to see someone, especially an older woman, living alone was an anomaly for the Smiths.

“I can’t imagine being in another country without any family, with no one caring where I am, “ says Sue Smith. “I can’t imagine being that alone in the world.”

The situation caused LUCHA to question their preconceived notions about mental illness, immigrants and homelessness and to remember to never assume when it comes to their diverse and varied clients.

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On March 4, Greg, Sue and  Rodrigo Boluarte, Peruvian Consul, accompanied Irene to the airport and saw her off as she flew for Lima and ultimately Arequipa, Peru. Micah Ecumencial Ministries organized their Fredericksburg partner churches to raise funds to buy her ticket. It was hard for many to see Irene leave, especially since she was still confused about where she was and what she was doing.

“It’s a hard situation, but I believe being with her family is what’s best for her,” says Smith.

As she was wheeled down the runway, Irene turned and waved to the Smiths and the Peruvian ambassador with both hands, smiling the entire way to the plane.

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In Unity Lies Strength “En la Unión está la Fuerza”

“En la Unión está la Fuerza” (In Unity lies Strength)

Latinos or Hispanics are far from being a homogeneous group.  Immigrants come from different countries and ethnicities, speak a multitude of languages and celebrate diverse holidays and customs. A farmer from the mountains of Honduras will be very different from a businesswoman raised in inner- city El Salvador.  However, there are some unifying factors that contribute to common values for persons of Latino or Hispanic heritage.

One principle is a tendency to embrace a communitarian worldview, to understand the individual as part of a larger system – a family or group. Latinos are taught people are at their best when they live in community and understand their responsibilities to others.

“We [the immigrant community] come together when someone has a problem,” says Hermilindo Roblero, a Guatemalan immigrant.  “We may have our differences, but when we need to raise money for a funeral or help a family when the head of the household has been deported, we do it.”

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Latin America is strongly influenced by this sense of community and still has physical reminders of unity with each other and with God.  Today pueblos, a word that means both village and people, are laid out around a town square that includes a church facing a plaza, park, or common area.  For over 500 years of Hispanic history, this has been the norm.

This is the place where the pueblo, or people, come together to worship, relax and catch up on the latest news and gossip.  The plazas are popular on Sundays, when people gather for mass and spend time with family, sharing ice cream and snow cones or just people-watching.  The plaza is a busy place and the heart of the town.

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In the US, many Latin American immigrants struggle with the emphasis on the individual.  As North Americans, we value independence and celebrate when our children can do things on their own and don’t need us anymore.  We teach our kids to express their opinions and to take responsibility for themselves and the direction of their lives.  And while this is all good, we see fewer physical reminders of our connectedness. There is no plaza where we gather together, and we have the tendency to become isolated and stop seeing the needs in our communities.

Despite the differences among Latin American immigrants, there are times when various groups come together and unite as one pueblo, one community.  Unity comes easily around a common issue, such as immigration reform, or advocacy for DREAMers. This sense of community is particularly strong when someone is in crisis and needs strength to get through hard times.

“They are a culture that takes care of one another and will have someone sleeping on the couch or the extra bedroom before letting someone sleep on the street,” says Meghann Cotter from Micah Ecumenical Ministries, an organization serving the homeless in Fredericksburg.

It’s uncommon to see many homeless and hungry people in the Latino community.  There’s always room for another person somewhere in the house and an extra bit of rice in the pot.  This communitarian worldview is the salvation of many immigrants who feel very alone in the U.S.

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This is also the spirit LUCHA promotes: the idea that we are family in Christ. It takes the pueblo, the many individuals and diverse groups working together, to become a pueblo, the village and community united in solidarity and support.

The Hope LUCHA's support provides encouragement for young immigrants, as seen in this new video

As we complete ten years of work with immigrant families, LUCHA has the privilege of knowing many young adults who have literally grown up with us.  “The Hope” features two of these young people.

We initially focused on the needs of immigrant adults but soon realized that we needed to include the family as well. Immigrants often told us that they had come to the US to give their children a better life, and we wanted to help make this possible. We support families by providing school supplies, offering youth and enrichment activities during the summers, and providing homework assistance to children.

LUCHA helps create a strong, healthy family environment by giving parents the tools they need to be good parents. We guide them through the challenges of parenting bicultural children who are both Latino and American, who share values from both cultures. We help them understand the school system and the role of parents in the educational process.

And these efforts pay off. Watch our new video, The Hope, to see how two young immigrants are thriving in college today, thanks to the sacrifice of their parents, the encouragement of LUCHA, and the willingness of a school to accept them.

Living Latino in the USA: Cultural Values "Why do they come?" - A series by Sue Smith, D.Min., MSW, Executive Director

When asked why she had emigrated to the United States from Nicaragua, a friend once told me, “Someone in my family — an aunt, an uncle, a cousin — has always gone north [to the U.S.] to work, to earn a decent salary and to send money back home to help support the rest of us. Especially the children, so they can stay in school and get a good education, and the ancianos who are getting older and can no longer earn a living. It was my turn, and I came.”

It is sometimes difficult for us in the U.S. to understand what compels Latino immigrants to come here, to leave behind their families and everything familiar, to come to a new place and start over. But these decisions are deeply rooted in cultural values and meaning, and a worldview that is often quite different from our own. The decision to emigrate is rarely just about what an individual wants from life. It more likely is made out of a sense of responsibility to do what is best for others, for one’s spouse, children, and parents. For North Americans, what may seem like a selfish decision to abandon one’s family is, to the immigrant, an act of self sacrifice to care for those he or she loves.

A starting point for understanding differences in worldview and culture is to look at the way we raise and socialize our children. As Americans, we value independence and self-sufficiency. White anglo parents emphasize self-esteem, autonomy, and self-confidence, while traditional Latino parents tend to place more emphasis on respect, obedience, conformity, and one’s place within the family. The most important message my parents instilled in me was this:You can go anywhere you want, be anything you want to be. And for my Latina friend, that message was:Never forget where you come from, or who you are.

And so when my friend says it was her turn to come to the US, her decision was not based on a selfish desire to come here and get a good job, buy a car, or live in a nice house. It was made because of her sense of responsibility to la familia, a way of giving back to those who enabled her to finish school and attend the university. Many immigrants cannot find work in their home countries to adequately provide for their families, and emigration is seen as their only hope.

As you hear the stories of Latino immigrants, take a moment to stop and ask yourself how that person fits into the bigger picture, into their familia. Did they embark on the journey to the U.S. as an adventure, an escape, or to get away from home? And what are they giving up? They may never see their parents alive again, and their children grow up without them. What sacrifices have they made, what losses have they experienced along the way?

A Senator’s Aide Comes Knocking By Greg Smith, Administrative Coordinator

On Sunday, September 28, Sue and I hosted Mr. Marvin Figueroa in our home to talk with Latino and non-Latino colleagues and friends about immigration and immigration reform. Marvin serves in the office of Sen. Mark R. Warner (D) of Virginia in the areas of immigration, education and workforce development. Being a senate staffer as well as an immigrant from Honduras, Marvin offered an insider perspective into the challenges that face immigration reform and the immigrant community.

Marvin stated that immigration reform would probably not be taken up again before the new session of Congress in January 2015. But at that point, the Senate immigration bill adopted in the spring of 2013 becomes null and void, and the process requires starting over again. While there is still energy in the Senate for immigration reform, the process during the new session would probably start in the U.S. House of Representatives and not in the Senate. And with the presidential election taking place in 2016, there is realistically little hope that immigration reform will be passed during the next session of Congress.

Marvin addressed President Obama’s upcoming executive order regarding immigration, scheduled to be announced after the 2014 mid-term elections. While the president hasn’t specified what will be included, Marvin indicated that it could provide some relief for current undocumented immigrants. At the same time he cautioned us, explaining that an executive order is very limited in what it can do, and that it can be reversed by the next president. Every president understands that a “going-it-alone” approach can make it difficult to work with Congress, and in this case it could affect real immigration reform. Even Obama’s June 2012 DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) order doesn’t guarantee long-term relief. Only Congress can provide real immigration reform.

The recent surge of unaccompanied minors and family members, almost exclusively from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, hits close to home for Marvin, who emigrated from Honduras with his mother when he was 5. He expressed disappointment that the Lawrenceville, Virginia community did not allow the abandoned facilities of St. Paul College to house some of the children. These recent arrivals are admittedly “resource-heavy,” placing a burden on the services of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and others. He invited us to help Senator Warner find ways to integrate these children into U.S. society smoothly, for the children’s sake.

Several of the Latinos at the meeting said that many immigrants feel attacked by the anger and animosity generated by the immigration debate. One person stated that undocumented immigrants feel as if they are “disposable,” used by the system for what they can provide and then thrown away as unwanted. While immigration has many political, economic and sociological factors that must be considered, above all it is a moral concern, with the dignity of the immigrant as a person being of utmost importance.

Marvin thanked us for advocacy on behalf of immigration reform. While LUCHA’s group represented individuals of all political stripes, we are ready to work with anyone striving toward immigration reform. Overwhelmingly those in attendance felt very positive about their time with Marvin and that it was a constructive dialogue. Many expressed they would welcome future opportunities for such gatherings as we all work toward change.