A Quarter Century Of Helping Latino Families | WGLT

A Quarter Century Of Helping Latino Families

May 4, 2017

Socorro Alvarez, second from left, Western Avenue Community Center's Hispanic Outreach director, poses with young mothers and their children at a Dia de los Muertos celebration.
Credit Gail Franklin / Western Avenue Community Center

Many social service workers burn out long before the quarter century mark. Not so Socorro Alvarez, the Hispanic Outreach director for the past 25 years at Bloomington's Western Avenue Community Center.

Alvarez remains an enthusiastic advocate who has helped immigrants gain citizenship; Mexican American children learn their country's folk songs and dances; and young mothers struggling to adapt to a new culture find companionship and a listening ear.

The center will honor Alvarez on May 5 as part of its Cinco de Mayo celebration. Cinco de Mayo marks the day in in 1862 when Mexico prevailed over occupying French forces.

Western Avenue is expanding its annual Cinco de Mayo tamale festival into an evening affair that includes food, music and dance, and will honor Alvarez along with two other longtime workers, translator Saul Pulido and counselor Liz Acevedo-Alstrum.

Alvarez arrived in the U.S. on a student visa in 1975, but her parents entered without documents. It is an experience she says allows her to empathize with the struggles of new immigrants, particularly the undocumented.

"I know how it is to be here when you don't know the language, when you don't know the culture, and you don't know where the resources are in the community," Alvarez said on GLT's Sound Ideas.

An unassuming woman who shuns the spotlight, Alvarez says immigrants who don't speak English well or are undocumented are often targets of unscrupulous landlords. Many renters are told they must pay for repairs or painting that are the responsibility of the landlord.

"They receive statements saying they owe $800 or $1,000 ... They get scared and sometimes they do pay and sometimes they come to us first. They don't know they don't have to pay for paint and things like that."

Alvarez, said the stories of many of the people she's helped remain with her years alter.

One woman sought help getting a birth certificate for her seven-year-old daughter. "She was born when she was crossing the desert (into the U.S.), so she couldn't make her a citizen of here and they had to go back to Mexico and register there. I thought it was horrible to have to give birth in the middle of the desert," Alvarez, the mother of five and grandmother of 11, said.

She helped another woman whose father was an American, but who didn't realize for years she could apply for citizenship.

"She waited 20 or 30 years and nobody could help her. She had been working undocumented here and she couldn't go back to Mexico to see her family," Alvarez recalled.

Alvarez put her in touch with attorneys from the local Immigration Project who helped the woman sort out her legal status. Alvarez drove the woman to Chicago to take her citizenship oath. By that time, the woman was 50 years old.

Alvarez is an avid supporter of Ballet Folklorico, a group that teaches children traditional songs and dances. She stays late one night a week to keep the Community Center open so children can come and dance in the evening. 

"It's important to me," she said. "They are doing something good for the community and reminds me of me when I was little."

Alvarez also works with Kindermusik, a group for mothers and small children that meets once a month at the center for music and dance. The program aims to help children develop cognitive skills. For the mothers, it provides help learning English through songs.

"And also to socialize," Alvarez said. "Some of the mothers are home moms and there is no other place to socialize."

What's kept her going all these years?

'I love my job, and I love helping people. Sometimes it's challenging because I don't know the answers to their problems, but I look for the solutions. I just love to serve people because when we came here, there was no assistance at all for the Spanish-speaking families in the community. So this is very dear to my heart."

She calls the often-divisive rhetoric about immigrants coming from the Trump administration and its supporters, "uncomfortable and hurtful."

"I don't agree everybody is a rapist or bad person. In our community, we have lots of good people."

She said if she could have five minutes with the president she would tell him, "Give opportunity to families that are here working and trying to make a living and who haven't committed any crimes. Give them an opportunity to live the American dream."

The Community Center's Fiesta Cinco de Mayo celebration will take place Friday from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. at the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union Hall in Bloomington.  Tickets are $25 for a full dinner of tamales or steak tacos; $5 for children under 10 and $15 for elementary, high school and college students. Tickets to a late-night dance are $10.

There are more details at www.westernavenuecc.networkforgood.com.