Since LUCHA began 11 years ago we’ve supplied Latino children with school supplies. With dropout rates for Hispanic youth still more than triple that of white children and 4% more than black children in Virginia, even a simple Spiderman binder or Princess notebook can build kids’ self-esteem and keep them in school.
As a child, Yerendi Roblero looked forward to receiving a new backpack.
“I would always open it up ready to see what was inside,” Roblero says. “That was really exciting for me.”
Today after graduating high school with honors, Roblero is enrolled in Bluefield College where she studies forensics and criminal justice. She was recently invited to the Eisenhower Executive Office of the White House where she advocated for immigrants and people living in poverty. She credits much of her success to being prepared in elementary and high school.
“In some way when you get your supplies, it gives you hope,” Roblero says. “It keeps you motivated to do better.”
Thanks to generous donations we haven’t needed to ask for school supplies for the last several years. However, this year our stock is running low so we’ve made a school wish list showing the average cost per elementary and high school student.
We’re asking individuals, small groups and Sunday school classes to prayerfully consider sponsoring a backpack for the 125-150 children we serve.
In 2012, Maria, an immigrant from Honduras became sick.
No one was sure what was wrong as the young mother began to lose weight, eventually getting down to just 80 pounds. Before hospitalization, Maria worked her day shift at McDonald’s, putting in eight hour days without a break then walking 30 minutes home. She continued to care for her 4-year-old son and sent money to Honduras to support her 7-year-old son and mother. Eventually, she lost so much weight she was admitted to Mary Washington Hospital and was identified as having type 1 juvenile diabetes. The diagnosis came as a shock since Maria had no family history of the disease.
Diabetes is a disease that requires constant upkeep. Maria had to learn how to take insulin shots four times a day, how to check to see if her blood sugar was too high or low and how to use money orders to receive medicine since she didn’t have a credit card.
Because she is an immigrant, it was harder to receive services for her treatments; LUCHA was able to help her find a specialist in Charlottesville about 1.5 hours away and facilitate interpretation and transportation.
Uncertainty about what to do when you get sick can be a big issue for immigrant families. Learning to navigate the intricate bureaucracy of the health care system is difficult enough for native English speakers, but for those who are still learning the basics, the task can seem insurmountable.
Immigrants must find ways to pay for check-ups or treatments since they often are unable to receive health insurance. Just one of the 8 medicines Maria needs for treatment costs $200 without insurance.
Second, they may need reliable transportation. Many of our clients are unable to drive long distances to Charlottlesville or Richmond but cannot find basic services in Fredericksburg.
Finally, without translation services, many of our clients who are still learning English feel uncomfortable speaking with nurses and doctors who use phrases that are unfamiliar or filled with medical jargon.
LUCHA provides services to help immigrants navigate the intricate health care system. We believe everyone should be equipped with the tools they need to know what to do when they get sick. Today Maria is doing well. Although she still has much to deal with from work and motherhood, she is learning how to combat her illness and move forward.
Antonella Membreno is the classic college student. She Snapchats her friends funny photos, studies for classes at Bluefield College and works at her part-time job as a hostess. But, despite seeming like a typical American teenager, Antonella has overcome obstacles just to live a normal life.
When Antonella was 9-years-old she moved to the United States from Nicaragua to reunite with her father who arrived several years earlier.
“I was in 4th grade and didn’t speak English,” Membreno remembers. “It was hard, but you learn.”
Despite getting a late start, Antonella quickly rose to the top of her class, graduating from high school with honors. But when she started looking at colleges, problems arose.
Because Antonella came to the United States when she was 9, she is considered an undocumented immigrant, waiting in a hypothetical line for citizenship. After 10 years, it’s apparent the line isn’t moving.
“We hear all the time about how people should just get in line, “says LUCHA director Greg Smith. “The truth is there is no line.”
Because of her undocumented status, Antonella was unable to participate in important rites of passage like learning to drive or getting a part-time job. Even seeing a movie with her friends could turn her into a criminal since she was unable to receive a license.
“I was raised here. I’ve lived over half my life here,” Membreno says. “It’s weird how you can love a place so much but not fully belong.”
Under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals act, which helps immigrant minors receive several legal benefits, Antonella’s life took a positive turn. She was able to get a social security number and driver’s license, work legally and apply to colleges. But paying for university posed new problems.
“I still can’t apply for state scholarships because it’s federal money,” Membreno says. “But I have a few private scholarships based on academic merit.”
It was especially difficult for Antonella’s younger brother, who started doing poorly in school after seeing his sister struggle.
“He decided to slack off because he thought, what’s the point? Even if I do well in school I’ll never make it anywhere,” Membreno explains. “This happens to a lot of immigrant kids. We feel like we have no future. After I got DACA, my brother is trying harder. He’s enrolled in college.”
In early March, LUCHA Ministries was invited to the Eisenhower Executive office of the White House as part of an Advocacy in Action summit with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Antonella and her friend Yerendi Roblero, a former Student.Go intern who came to the U.S. from Guatemala when she was just six months old, were invited to attend. While in Washington, they met with their Senate and congressional representatives and attended a meeting with special assistant to the president, Melissa Rogers. For Membreno the experience was formative. She and Yerendi were able to share their stories with Senate and congressional aides.
“I was glad we could tell the senators thank you about DACA,” Membreno says. “It was more challenging talking to the congressmen, but it was nice to let people know that there are still people fighting for [immigration reform].”
The girls learned about advocacy issues affecting people in poverty including hunger and predatory lending. Antonella especially enjoyed visiting Bread for the World, a nonprofit dedicated to issues of hunger.
“My favorite part was hearing Melissa Rogers speak on how churches and the federal government can work together,” she says.
Membreno acknowledges the need for comprehensive reform. She is studying criminal justice and journalism and wants to eventually go to law school.
“Everyone, whether you know it or not, knows an immigrant,” she says. “I want to help them receive their rights.”
Antonella says she understands why not every citizen participates in advocacy. However she encourages citizens to stand up for those who are not being heard.
“You don’t have to advocate for immigration reform,” Membreno says. “But I think if someone is conscious, if you have the power, you should advocate for things that are meaningful.”
“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.”
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.
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.
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.