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'Seed of a voice without saying words': College project sought photos from Holyoke Latinx residents

People like to joke about how eastern and western Massachusetts don't connect. Such was the case for student Marina Pineda Shokooh.

Shokooh lived in Puerto Rico with her family until she was 8 years old and then grew up in Cambridge. It was when she became a student at UMass Amherst that she learned about the nearby city of Holyoke.

“I was like, 'This is insane!'” Shokooh said, remembering when she learned that Holyoke was home to the highest number of Puerto Ricans, per capita, in the United States outside of Puerto Rico.

When she shared photos of the city with her family, she said her grandmother was really surprised to see so many Puerto Rican flags.

“I think [the flags] reminded her of a time where you couldn't do that on the island," Shokooh said. "Especially [Holyoke] being the diaspora, it's like these people, they still connect with Puerto Rico, even living here.”

Over the last few years at UMass, Shokooh studied community development. As a capstone project, she set out to tell a story of Holyoke using a visual research methodology known as photovoice.

A photo included in a recent exhibit of photos from city residents, in Holyoke, Massachusetts.
Chloe Soto
A photo included in a recent exhibit of photos from city residents, in Holyoke, Massachusetts.

With the help of Nueva Esperanza, Shokooh hung fliers in businesses around the city, inviting Latino residents to photograph places they feel connected to. She titled the project "Puerto Rico and Latinx Placemaking in Holyoke, MA."

The response was modest. Three people contributed photos of city buildings, street signs, and Holyoke at night in a fog.

Holyoke resident Sonia Ramos was among the group included in the project. Ramos submitted her photos of a set of old train tracks, no longer in use, in Holyoke Heritage State Park.

Standing near the tracks, along one of Holyoke's canals, Ramos said this area reminds her of daily life in Puerto Rico, where up until a few years ago she lived and worked as a nurse.

Sonia Ramos and her family moved to western Massachusetts in 2020. Recently she took part in a community photo project in Holyoke, shooting images of train tracks in a park, a site that reminds her of daily life in Puerto Rico.
Submitted
/
Felisha Ramos
Sonia Ramos and her family moved to western Massachusetts in 2020. Recently she took part in a community photo project in Holyoke, shooting images of train tracks in a park, a site that reminds her of daily life in Puerto Rico.

"I used to drive to work everyday [and see the tracks]," Ramos said, "and prior to that since I was nine years old. The train tracks was there all the time, and the bridge, the canal, the river. So I see this and this is what reminds me of home."

In 2020, Ramos, her daughter and husband left Puerto Rico a few months after a 6.4 magnitude earthquake hit the island.

The pandemic was underway. She and her family lived in a family shelter across from the park. It was the view from her window, and the image she took, Ramos said, that helps her remember where she's from.

“Using that as a place in my heart, that I remember my home, that sensation of peace and remember who we are," Ramos said. “We are Latinos.”

Ramos first saw a flier for the project a few months ago, on her way to church. She said it caught her eye.

“Because we've been in that situation as Latinos, a lot of barriers about language," she said. "So I want to be part of that because I could give a little seed of a voice without saying words.”

Shokooh said she I thought Ramos’ pictures were beautiful, and she took her story to heart.

“I think Sonia’s story really impacted me the most,” Shokooh said. “She shared that she very much identified with this project."

 As a senior at UMass Amherst, Marina Pineda Shokooh organized a a photo exhibit about Holyoke's Puerto Rican community.
Submitted
As a senior at UMass Amherst, Marina Pineda Shokooh organized a a photo exhibit about Holyoke's Puerto Rican community.

Shokooh said she knew people would get involved and have fun, but it didn't cross her mind that this photo project could make such a personal impact on someone's life.

In the end, this school project — which is now on display at Nueva Esperanza — became much more important to Shokooh than she expected.

She was able to connect with other people going through — what she called — that emotion of belonging in two places at once.

After graduation, Shokooh said, she has plans to move back to Puerto Rico.

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