A new class is helping N.H.'s Latino immigrants build connections and confidence to change their communities
For a long time, Nadia, a stay-at-home mom in Nashua, thought of her apartment like her cocoon. Each morning, she woke up at 4 a.m. to study the Bible and prepare her husband’s lunch. Her family and faith were her main focus. Her home, adorned with butterfly stickers, was one of the few places she felt comfortable.
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“Sometimes we think, as immigrants, we don’t have the right to acquire certain things, or we don’t have the right to say certain things,” she said.
When Nadia did venture out, it was usually to the local Pentecostal church — where she met her friend, Sadier. The women, whose last names we’re not using to protect their privacy, soon realized they had a lot in common. As immigrants, they both bound themselves to an invisible life in New Hampshire.
“I thought I didn’t have the right to talk, and my voice didn’t have any value," Sadier said.
But that’s changing, thanks to a new course they are taking with the Granite State Organizing Project. Called “Creando Líderes para la Comunidad,” or “Creating Leaders for the Community,” this ten-week program is designed to help Latino immigrants in southern New Hampshire build connections and change their communities for the better.
Angela Mercado leads the class, drawing on her experience as an immigrant from Ecuador who has been volunteering in the Latino community since she arrived 20 years ago.
Mercado looks for potential students everywhere, but she’s found a lot of interest in local faith communities — like the one where Nadia and Sadier worship. She said lots of hurdles can keep people from feeling like they have a voice: language barriers, isolation and more. She wants this class to be the starting point for overcoming those obstacles, a place where folks in the Latino community can gather, get to know each other and help each other out.
“This is for everybody to learn you can help other people by being advocates,” she said.
Mercado kicks off the course by asking her students to set a personal goal, to help them feel more empowered. For Nadia, that goal was to go to the local library — something she hasn’t had the courage to do before, despite living in Nashua for years. After this assignment, she made a resolution to visit this summer.
Her friend Sadier also wanted to expand her horizons by getting to know her neighbors.
“We lock ourselves in our homes,” she said, “and we don’t know the needs of our brothers and sisters.”
The class also inspired Sadier to see her neighborhood in a different way and to think more about the people around her. With that in mind, she came up with another idea: She could start reaching out to new immigrants, using her own experience to help them find out where to go for basic needs like food, healthcare and more. Someone can be a blessing to another who is just arriving, she said.
This focus on community needs — at the one-on-one level, or more broadly — is a big part of this class.
For another homework assignment, students had to look around their communities, mostly Manchester and Nashua, and think about how they could be improved. They identified lots of problems: a lack of affordable housing, a lack of support services for older adults, a lack of resources to help people fight discrimination. But they also talked about solutions — and bringing these ideas to people in power.
For many students, it was the first time they felt like they had found a space to talk about these kinds of things.
As she leads the class, Mercado said she tries to inspire her students to become real agents of change, leaders or advocates. And in order to do that, she also tries to help them feel more comfortable speaking in public.
Nadia and Sadier recently put that lesson into practice at the New Hampshire State House, where they shared their thoughts at a legislative hearing. Neither of them had testified publicly before.
“I felt I was dying,” Sadier said. “But I was proud of myself, and no one will stop me anymore.”
While they were at the State House, both women noticed that other Latino leaders didn’t have a lot of supporters in the room. If no one else shows up to support the advocates, Sadier said, there’s no way real change can come for their communities.
But that didn’t discourage the women. Instead, it made them even more eager to take action.
Ever since her visit to the State House, Sadier has been encouraging her friends to be brave and not to be discouraged if they can’t speak English.
“It was not an impediment, and will not be an impediment,” she said. “We should be brave and not live in the shadows.”
Nadia feels more empowered now, too. She is ready to advocate for other people.
“I am a voice to those in the same condition as me,” she said.
Like a butterfly, she’s grown out of her cocoon.