Maria Salgado

Transcript of Maria Salgado
Interviewee: Maria Salgado
Interviewer: Dorothy Nygren, Richard Ludka
Date: January 13, 2015
Place: Centro Romero, 6216 N Clark St., Chicago, IL.
Transcriber: Richard Ludka, Dorothy Nygren
Total Time: 28:10

Copyright © 2015 Edgewater Historical Society

DN: My name is Dorothy Nygren of the Edgewater Historical Society. I’m doing an interview with Senora Maria Salgado of Centro Romero at their offices on Ashland Avenue. Today is January 13, 2015 and my colleague Richard Ludka is here helping me with this interview. We’re very pleased that Maria has graciously agreed to do this interview on behalf of Centro Romero. Thank you. My first question to you is that Centro Romero responds to anybody, not just immigrants?

MS: Yes.

DN: And Centro Romero’s been responding to these interviews for about 30 years?

MS: Since 1982.

DN: Since 1982. I read in a Tribune article that was published recently that you have responded to the needs of about 15,000 people a year. That’s quite remarkable, and I’m sure those needs are very diverse as far as what they need. The article talked about education, legal services, language, etc. So perhaps could you just talk about what the mission of Centro Romero is in general and then more specifically about how that addresses the needs of immigrants and refugees?


MS: Well Centro Romero was founded in 1982 by a group of immigrants living here in Chicago. At the beginning it was a volunteer based organization. There wasn’t any paid staff. It was a group of immigrants coming to the U.S. who saw this need amongst their community for things as simple as food, shelter, the complicated paperwork for immigration that people have to go through. Then as time went by, different effects within the community were starting to show up. The volunteer based group realized, “Hey. We need to teach our immigrants how to speak the language.” Then they started noticing there were other things going on, like domestic violence. So there was a domestic violence support group component added to the organization.


Now our mission is to provide opportunities within the community for immigrants that have sometimes the fewest options. Through education and other services to them, we hope to empower the family as a whole to succeed here in the United States; to be able to empower themselves to be integrated into American society.


DN: What do you think the very first, most important need for the immigrant is when they come to the United States?

MS: I think there are several different things, but I think one of the first things the immigrant is looking for is a place where they can feel at home. I think Centro Romero is one of the few organizations on the North Side that can assist immigrants feel that they have a place to go; that they have a place where somebody speaks their language. Then from there on, there are a lot of different needs. There are the immediate needs as I like to see them. Before I worked in the Legal Department I was working in the Public Benefits Program in the same organization. I used to see our clients as having different types of needs, but mostly there are some immediate needs. They need to know when schools are at. They need to have somebody to help them; to guide them; to see where they can maybe get emergency food when they run out of food; to see if they are having problems with their landlords and there’s a language barrier.

Then there are other needs that get taken care as time goes by. They have a need for support in learning the language and it’s difficult for immigrants sometimes to come to classes because not only do they have to feed their children and work those extra hours, but they also have kids at home. Unfortunately we’re not able to provide child care for all of our classes. So that’s one of the barriers, one of the needs that we have in our immigrant communities. We need to have those programs that incorporate the whole family so that the adult immigrant can have the time to devote to learning English and get assimilated into American society.


Then there are the other more complicated needs; navigating the immigration system. I work with the Legal Department. I’ve worked with them for four years. There’s still a lot of things that I’m learning. With immigrants coming in, they still don’t know the language. A lot of them have low literacy levels. When it comes to filing an immigration form, they can’t. A lot of them that have been raised here, that have been born here, do not file their own legal paper work. They go to an attorney. So it gets even more complicated sometimes with immigrants. They don’t understand the forms even in their own language because a lot of our immigrants come with low literacy levels and one of the needs that they have is to be able to get to a [literacy] level before they can read and write in their own language, then learn English; then learn all this other different jobs skills that they need to succeed in the United States.


DN: You talked about a place that they could feel at home as perhaps being the first need that Centro Romero responds to. I think that you said that a large part of that was a place where people spoke the same language they did. So I think language must be a very important aspect of feeling at home and being able to communicate with somebody in your own language.

MS: Correct.

DN: Now Centro Romero does not just respond to the needs of Spanish speaking immigrants. Do you have people working here that speak other languages?


MS: We have at different given times. We primarily serve the Spanish speaking community. In recent years in Edgewater and in the surrounding neighborhoods we have seen an increase in African immigrants, a lot of African immigrants. Our motto is: if we can understand each other, we are going to give you services. Sometimes we don’t have a person who doesn’t speak another language besides Spanish and English. But we ask them, “Can you bring a translator?” Or we work with other organizations that perhaps do not offer a service, but they have somebody that can come in and assist us. We try to be as accommodating as we can, even if we don’t speak the language.


DN: What are some of the other organizations that you work with that speak languages of African clients, or other clients?

MS: There are not many organizations unfortunately, but there is the United American African Organization that we work with. We work very closely with ICIR. Sometimes we have to call them and say,”Hey, do you know anyone that can come in and given us a hand?” We work with the Muslim Women’s Research Center. There is large Muslim community in Africa. Sometimes we’re able to get some help there. Currently we have our star volunteer in the Legal Department, Evie, at least who is fluent in French. We are very happy to have her because a lot of our African immigrants speak French. So we are able to work with her right now. I think we’ve been relying on her a lot lately.


MS: So one of the maybe gaps that Centro Romero would have would be languages of other countries of origin other than Spanish speaking countries. So in thinking, for example, one of the ways that the community could respond to immigrants would be to seek out organizations to volunteer for that would speak another language because you have a big need for translators?

MS: Yes.

DN: That’s great. Do you see a big difference between the needs of immigrants and refugees? Do you work with refugees here?


MS: Yes. There are other organizations in Chicago that work with refugees more closely than we do. The needs are different and the resources available to them are different as well. So there is a difference in the needs and the types of resources available. Now one of the examples I can give you; if you are coming in as a refugee, there is a program that you went through that will assist you here. There will be an organization here that will assist you with housing; with obtaining things like food stamps; or some benefits because you are coming in as a refugee and you can apply for these sorts of things. Sometimes the need there is greater than coming to an English class here at Centro Romero. There are already designated agencies that work with these refugees, specifically for those types of needs; housing; getting them employment. Most of the people who come as refugees come to Centro Romero seeking more assistance than coming in for an ESL class or seeking more assistance in renewing their green card or filing for citizenship.


Now the immigrants that don’t come in as refugees, or are not here as refugees sometimes don’t have an immigration status, have different kinds of needs. There is not a specific agency that deals with those kinds of needs. That’s where we come in and agencies like us come in. We have different programs that can assist them because they may not be eligible for food stamps or for applying for affordable housing. We come in with other types of assistance that they may be eligible for; food stamps. You don’t need to have an immigration status to get assistance from a food pantry. Or they may be beginning their process of paper work to receive a work permit or a green card. That’s the kind of community we see the most of; the undocumented community that’s looking for a way to assimilate; that doesn’t have this type of program available to them at a different agency. We’re also working with a community that are not citizens yet. They may be in a temporary work program, or maybe deferred action for child arrival; or they maybe transitioning form a green card into becoming citizens. So the needs are different within these populations.


DN: When you have people that do not have an immigration status, are they eligible for attending ESL classes for example; getting food stamps; and of course getting legal help from you as well?

MS: Yes.

DN: What other kinds of services would they be seeking because they wouldn’t qualify for housing?

MS: They won’t usually qualify to get housing assistance. Sometimes their children are citizens so they qualify for food stamps; the children do, not the parents. There’s no requirement for a person to be documented or undocumented to come to our ESL classes; for our GED classes; or to come into our domestic violence support group; or to come in for a consultation with us for immigration benefits. There’s no requirement for going to a food pantry in the neighborhood. There are specific clinics in the area also for those people who are not eligible for a medical card because they do not have proper documentation. They can go and get seen at an affordable rate depending on their income. That is the kind of information that we take out to our immigrant community.


Some people that are undocumented at the time may not have a pathway to becoming a resident or getting social security but our part is to educate them on what else is available to them. One of the things that you can do: for example, a lot of our immigrant community does not have a social security number. Well, there is certification number you can get and you can file for that and that’s where we can come in with trying to give them the research that they need to assimilate as much as they can into our society.

DN: You’ve said you’ve been in the Legal Department for four years but working here maybe longer. What changes have you seen working here in the needs of immigrants or the types of immigrants in Edgewater?


MS: First of all, as I was telling you, we have been seeing a larger population of African immigrants. The way that we work here is by word of mouth. We can go and pass out as many flyers to invite immigrants to come in. We have these services available for you, but a lot of the people that come in are by word of mouth. Their friends send them. Their relatives send them. So we have seen a more diverse group of immigrants coming into the area. Our classrooms are not only Latino, Spanish speaking immigrants, but we are seeing again more of a variety of immigrants in the neighborhood.

I actually started here as a participant in the After School program back in 1996 I believe. Throughout my high school years I came in and volunteered. I started working with the Public Benefits Program assisting people to file for a Link Card; a Medical card; to get those kinds of immediate resources that they needed. Then I started working in the Legal Department.

There is not much change I think in regard to the needs. I think the same needs that my family had when we immigrated to the United States are the same types of needs that immigrants coming her now have. I don’t think that the needs have changed. But I think that the resources available to immigrants have changed. I think there are more organizations that are assisting immigrants to assimilate into the society. I think there has been a change in that. But I think there is still a need for a place that they can feel at home; for a place that can offer help with their English barrier; for immediate assistance such as housing, clothing, and medical care.


DN: Maria, you’ve said that you’ve seen more diversity in the immigrants that Centro Romero has responded to. How do all these immigrants from different countries get along?

MS: Well I think that we have had the experience where it may be a tough situation at times because of cultural things. How do you interact with a person who is Muslim or to a person who… Most of our immigrants that we are serving are primarily Spanish speaking, Catholic immigrants so it is okay for me to refer to them in a certain way, or to say hi to them or bye to them in a certain way. So I think that there is a little bit of a barrier sometimes in the cultural aspect of it. But I think that we are doing, at least the programs that we see this type of immigrant, a good job of informing each other. Look, this is my culture, this is mine, and this is how we can meet at a place where we can respect each other’s cultures. I think that it is not necessarily a barrier between serving other immigrant communities. I think it’s an opportunity for us to learn there are not only immigrants coming here from Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

There are different types of immigrants, different types of things going back home and finding that place, that thing in common that brought us here. But it is sometimes a challenge. It is a challenge! I had a client once, an African man, and I’m finishing a meeting with the woman and was about to say bye to him and his wife who is Mexican. I didn’t really ask about their customs or religion because for me I was providing a legal service to them. We were done and she said bye to me (Maria makes the gesture of reaching out her hand to give a handshake.) Then out of my cultural upbringing I said bye to him (making the gesture of reaching out again) and he said ’Nooo!’ (Chuckles).

So I think it’s not a barrier for us, but I think it’s an opportunity to learn from each other and an opportunity to be able to make this neighborhood even richer than what it is.


DN: What do you see the community doing to help the needs of immigrants, or what can people in the community do to respond to their needs?

MS: What have I seen? I’ve seen neighbors bring in neighbors. I have seen teachers bringing in students and saying ’I don’t know how to help them, but they need help.’ I think its great and it always makes me happy because sometimes there will a person that doesn’t even speak any Spanish and can’t understand their neighbor. But they say, “My neighbor just moved in and he needs help.” Those are the type of things I see the community doing. They say, “Go to Centro Romero” or “Go to this other place.” They’re helping one another, helping their neighbor, their student, their new friend they met at Dunkin Donuts. That’s how I see the community helping and I think its great.

What I see them doing as well is volunteering. Volunteering to tutor a person one-on-one. We have seen people who volunteer here or at other organizations. These are the types of things people can do – offer their time and their expertise. We see a lot of people that don’t need to volunteer or bring in their neighbor. But I think that one of the ways Edgewater and the community can help is by learning and educating themselves about the type of services that are available in the community for their neighbors, for their students, for the new friend they made. One of the key things I think is some education on why immigrants are here and what they are doing here. I think that sometimes a lot of people would be willing to help but they don’t know what the immigrant community needs or why they are here in the first place. Even just education, educating themselves – I have counselors from the high schools around here that have called us or emailed us, “’I have an undocumented student and I really want to help them get into college, what can I do?’” That kind of thing is what I think the rest of the residents in the neighborhood can do. Reach out to organizations like us because we are more than willing to give them as much information as we can so they can assist us in guiding people to assimilate themselves into the neighborhood; assimilate them into American society.


DN: Richard, Do you have any questions?

RL: I do not, but it’s been most informative.

DN: Maria I’ve asked a lot of questions, but this is an interviewing showcasing Centro Romero and the work that you do here. Is there anything else you’d like to add to the interview?


MS: Again, I think that Centro Romero serves a large group of people, but every year the need for these types of services grows and grows. Unfortunately there are not a lot of organizations that can deal with the amount of immigrants or the amount of people coming in for resources, information, and assistance. I think that, again, one of the big things we have responsibility to do is to learn, to learn about one another but also to help each other out. I think sometimes we get very caught up with our own needs and our own lives that we forget we are part of bigger community. The only way our communities are going to rise up, whether economically or in terms of education, is by working together. It takes a village to succeed in having a successful and safe community, and I think that we should see immigrants as an opportunity to do that. We have some clients that unfortunately cannot take the step to become a permanent resident or citizen. You know what? They were able to get a work permit and a company of a hundred workers working in landscaping even giving the local community jobs. That is the type of stuff I’d like to see more often.


DN: One of the interviews I’ve already completed was with a gentleman who helped immigrants. He said he doesn’t see immigrants as having problems, he sees them as having riches to share with Americans who may not have been exposed to different cultures. It is a gift that immigrants can bring to the larger cultures that we need to recognize.


MS: We see all different types of immigrants. Recently with the deferred action for childhood arrivals for these students that can now apply for a work permit – I have seen people with their college transcripts and I look at and feel embarrassed myself. These students are very bright with great GPA’s just waiting for the opportunity to get their work permits, their social, and go be a nurse. So yes, I think it’s a pool of different talents that we can bring into our neighborhood.


DN: I have one last question: do you live in Edgewater?

MS: I don’t, I live in West Rogers Park, but I did live for awhile in Rogers Park and I actually went to high school right here at Senn High School here in Edgewater. My parents are very familiar with Edgewater.

DN: Are your parents from Edgewater?

MS: No, my parents are actually Mexican and they moved to Chicago in 1992. We primarily lived in Rogers Park. But we were always in Edgewater because of Centro Romero. It was a place we could go and feel at home.

DN: Like you said, it was home for you and many others. I would like to thank you very much for this interview; it has been so informative and helpful for our purposes.

MS: Thank you for thinking of us.