Casa Latina loses longtime director

  • Sheri Hall-Smith, left, and Diana Soler lead a group of marchers for Casa Latina down Main Street in Northampton in this undated file photo. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO


  • María Alicea, left, and event organizer, Ruth Tirado, carry a flag that says "100% Boricua" ("100% Puerto Rican") as they march in front of Northampton High School to fundraise for Casa Latina last year.  —File photo

Monday, July 17, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — A longtime director of a Florence nonprofit dedicated to empowering Latinos has parted ways with the organization as board members re-evaluate its staffing and services.

Many in the community say they will miss the passion and personal touch Lillian Torres brought to her role as executive director of Casa Latina. She served the organization for about 20 years before her departure late last month, the details of which leaders at the nonprofit declined to discuss.

“We can’t go into too much detail around personnel changes,” said Ruth Tirado, president of the board. “The board has a good outlook as to where we’d like Casa Latina to go.”

Attempts to reach Torres for comment were unsuccessful.

Tirado said in light of the changing political landscape for immigrants, the board is reviewing what more it can do to be of service.

“With the given political climate, we are envisioning Casa Latina to grow to be more pronounced within the community at large,” she said. “Our hope is to keep expanding.”

Tirado said the board will soon seek a new director.

The organization operated on an approximately $140,000 budget in 2016 according to state filings. Among the services Casa Latina provides are interpretation, advocacy and transportation to the polls.

The agency annually receives federal Community Development Block Grant money through City Hall, including $12,727 and $10,000 during the past two years.

Peg Keller, CDBG director for the city, said she was advised by the board in its efforts to redefine roles in the organization.

“The agency’s functioning right now on a very limited budget,” she said. “The board’s been working for probably two years to kind of plan for the future.”

But some are frustrated with Torres’ departure and say reasons given are inadequate.

“I’m really unhappy about this decision,” said Mayra Montañez, a volunteer who left Casa Latina’s ranks after Torres left. “A lot of people are asking for Lillian.”

Natalia Muñoz, who volunteered with the organization under Torres, calls the separation “a tragedy” for the community.

“This organization is 40-something years old and Lillian has been part of it for almost half of its life,” Muñoz said. “Her absence is felt by people in the community.”

Tirado acknowledged many served by the nonprofit have been asking for Torres, and Muñoz said that’s because “she treats everybody with respect and kindness.”

“So many of these community organizations are led by really nice people from different circumstances. Lillian comes from the circumstances of the people that she serves — she serves not from textbooks but from her own life experience.”

Tirado said business may not be as usual but everyone is working hard to bring Casa Latina to the next level.

“Everyone is all hands on deck,” she said. “We’re all working here to make sure things are functioning as best as possible.”

Tirado cited a new food recovery program at Hampshire Heights as an example of new programs to come.

“So far it’s been really successful,” she said.

Community leaders said Torres’ departure won’t go unnoticed in the advocacy community. Former Northampton mayor Clare Higgins, executive director of Community Action, said she collaborated with Torres for decades and wishes her well.

“Lilian will be missed,” she said. “She’s been a huge help to a lot of people in the community and I wish her luck in whatever she’s doing next.”

This story has been updated to clarify the fact that while CDBG Director Peg Keller was kept apprised, she played no active role in Casa Latina’s overhaul.

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@gazettenet.com.