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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Handicapped-accessible housing, licenses for undocumented immigrants, top issues for Latina leaders in Nashua

Though they come from different countries, the 14 women in the Granite State Organizing Project’s Latina leadership series share similar fears.

“We always have this thing in the back of our heads that no matter what we do, we’re never going to be heard, because we’re pretty much not from here,” said Liz Taveras, of Nashua. “It’s like, ‘You’re an alien coming to this country. Go back to your own country.’ But I was raised here. If anyone asks me about Puerto Rico, I have nothing to say.” ...

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Though they come from different countries, the 14 women in the Granite State Organizing Project’s Latina leadership series share similar fears.

“We always have this thing in the back of our heads that no matter what we do, we’re never going to be heard, because we’re pretty much not from here,” said Liz Taveras, of Nashua. “It’s like, ‘You’re an alien coming to this country. Go back to your own country.’ But I was raised here. If anyone asks me about Puerto Rico, I have nothing to say.”

That’s because many of the women who participated in the eight-week program, meant to empower women with Latin heritage to speak up for themselves and their community, have lived 10 or more years in Nashua – if not their whole lives.

“If you asked me about Nashua, then it’s different,” Taveras said. “I grew up here. This is where I have my kids. … It’s really hard to have that in the back of your head, but in your heart, this is your country. This is your place.”

After two months of research, presentations, neighborhood interviews and visits with agencies, plus several confidence-building activities, that’s all about to change. The women, who were prodded and prepped to speak up for their Nashua neighborhoods, have found the voices to do so.

And they don’t have a simple to-do list of problems to solve; they have to-do notebooks.

For weeks, GSOP Executive Director Sarah Jane Knoy and tenant organizer Angela Mercado pushed their students to identify goals for themselves, families and friends.

They were sent on assignments to interview social circles from their everyday lives and had to identify problems in Nashua that they could tackle as a group.

“I think it’s a good idea because nobody is talking about what we need,” said Veronica Del Villar, 45, a mother of three and an LNA. “Maybe we don’t know what to do. Maybe if we talk, there will be a change.”

Two of their top priorities: advocating for more affordable handicapped-accessible housing in Nashua and for undocumented immigrants who are disenfranchised because they can’t get driver’s licenses or access child care.

Although some came to class with other priorities – building a community center for Latinos or finding activities beyond the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Nashua to supervise their children and teens – they were willing to focus their energy on other areas.

“My sister, Damiana, said there’s not a lot of places for handicapped people,” Taveras said. “That really saddened me.”

Another problem echoing among their neighbors and friends – the need for affordable dental services in Nashua. They plan to meet with Harbor Homes, which many of them already seek out for health care needs.

“Dental care should be more affordable,” Judith Garate, 61, said through a translator. “It’s too expensive for many people.”

They didn’t always agree on the most pressing issues facing the group, but through leadership exercises every Monday and Friday, they gained the confidence and the details they need to make cases for change.

“There were a lot of different issues that I had not expected, coming from real heartfelt places,” Knoy said. “They’re amazing. They’re smart. They’re talented. They’re funny. They care so much about their community and about their families and a lot of them have lived in Nashua all their lives.”

At the program’s graduation ceremony Dec. 10, dressed in their best coordinated black and red outfits, the Latina leaders had an opportunity to step up and voice those concerns at a podium in Pentecostal Church United in Holiness in Nashua.

They spoke clearly and carefully. Even native Spanish speakers were able to articulate some needs in English for everyone in the audience to understand – a far cry from eight weeks ago when most were reluctant to get up and speak among classmates.

“I’m so proud of all of you,” said Alderman-at-Large Barbara Pressly, after each woman got up and shared her hopes for herself and for Nashua. “It’s wonderful to see you all here, and we’ll be eager to see what you do in the future.”

“This is a big achievement for all of us, for yourself, for the city, and for everybody,” said Luis Porres, an outreach worker with the city Public Health Department. “This is the way that we are going to integrate more into the community we live in. And like you said, one step at a time.”

After graduation, the group plans to continue meeting every other week at the Pentecostal Church to start working on solutions to the issues they identified. Gone are their concerns that their voices may be ignored in Nashua, they said.

“This is the end of our training but it’s the beginning of our journey together,” said Eva De Leon, speaking on behalf of the class at the end of their graduation ceremony. “I assure you, this is not the last time you will hear from us.”

Maryalice Gill can be reached at 594-6490 or mgill@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Gill on Twitter (@Telegraph_MAG).