Casa Latina marchers seek recognition

  • 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 on Saturday. MARIEL NORRIS

  • A group of marchers supporting Casa Latina sing and play instruments on Saturday in front of City Hall in Northampton, their destination. MARIEL NORRIS

  • Sheri Hall-Smith, left, and Diana Soler lead a group of marchers for Casa Latina down Main Street in Northampton on Saturday. MARIEL NORRIS

  • Teresita Castaño holds the flag of the Dominican Republic as a crowd gathers at City Hall in support of Casa Latina, an organization that aims to promote self-sufficiency and a sense of community among local Latinos. MARIEL NORRIS

For the Gazette
Published: 5/2/2016 1:37:31 PM

NORTHAMPTON – Drivers passing along Elm or Main streets Saturday morning might have noticed a group of people walking with flags and colorful balloons. The march was a fundraiser in support of Casa Latina, the only Latino-led and Latino-focused organization in Hampshire County.

The marchers each contributed $20 to participate, with a goal of bringing awareness to the local Latino community, according to Lillian Torres, director at Casa Latina.

“I think one of the most important goals for us is recognition, the recognition of the community here, that a great Latino community lives here,” Torres said in an interview in Spanish before the march began.

Casa Latina, a Florence-based organization established more than 40 years ago, aims to foster a sense of community among about 250 Latino residents. The organization is meant as a safe space where people can come to talk about their worries and problems, Torres said.

Sheri Hall-Smith, president of the board of directors, said that those at Casa Latina try to assist local Latinos with anything they need, from transportation to help with immigration documents to interpretation services. The most prominent service Casa Latina provides, according to Alan Bloomgarden, is medical interpretation in doctors’ offices and clinics.

Bloomgarden, a board  member, said Casa Latina has also organized numerous trainings and empowerment programs with residents for employment and educational purposes.

“Part of Casa’s mission is to build community among residents, and a part of today’s objective is to raise the profile of Latino residents in the community,” Bloomgarden said in anticipation of the march.

Emma Febu, a march participant, expressed concern about the low profile of Latinos in Hampshire County. When asked why she was marching, Febu said, in Spanish, “To support the efforts of Casa Latina: to let the community know that we’re here, and that we’re a growing community and need a lot of support.”

Febu moved from Puerto Rico to Amherst with her three children and found Casa Latina due to her need for an interpreter. Now, 10 years later, she volunteers as an interpreter at Casa Latina. However, despite the amount of time she has spent getting acclimated to the Valley, she said she doesn’t always feel welcome and that she encounters racism and segregation.

“We want people to see us as we are, not as a part of a group,” Febu said. “I would love to see equality in the community and people helping each other out. Everyone is family; we are all brothers and sisters, regardless of the race or color that we have.”

Mayra Montañez, another participant, agreed with Febu that it is necessary to make the Latino presence known to Northampton and Hampshire County. Montañez said that some Latinos she knows refrain from leaving home due to self-consciousness because people look at them in the streets as if they don’t belong. She said, in Spanish, that she was participating in the march, “because we’re Latinos, and ¡estamos aquí! (We’re here!)”

Approximately 20 people participated in the march, a group that included staff, volunteers and residents.

Pastor Francis Reilly, who knows some members of the Casa Latina community through Spanish Mass at Annunciation Chapel, also joined in the march. As participants made their way from Northampton High School down Elm Street, past Smith College and into the center of Northampton, they sang Spanish songs, played the pandero and güiro, and carried the flags of Puerto Rico, Ecuador, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, and El Salvador.

Periodically, drivers gave the group encouraging honks, which were received with cheers. When the marchers arrived at City Hall, their destination, they stood on the steps and continued singing and playing instruments, drawing in spectators.

From the top of the stairs, event organizer Ruth Tirado announced, “We want to provide for everyone who identifies with the Latino experience.”

Tirado joined the board in December, when Casa Latina was struggling financially. She said that she hopes the nonprofit will grow more stable by strengthening its social media presence and partnering with local organizations. She is also on the lookout for volunteers to lead workshops on topics ranging from art to filling out immigration documents.

“At the moment,” Tirado said, “we’re on a shoestring budget. We’re low staffed, but we are committed to our Latinos ....We want to keep going.”

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