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Centro de la Familia helps Hispanics adjust to American life

click to enlarge Jorge Marquez fills out a questionnaire during Centro de la Familias workshop on U.S. immigration law. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Jorge Marquez fills out a questionnaire during Centro de la Familias workshop on U.S. immigration law.

It's Monday evening at Helen Hunt Elementary School, but the classes are still full. These students -- taking English as a Second Language (ESL) lessons -- are old enough to be the parents of the students who attend during regular school hours.

There is a smattering of accents among the Spanish speakers. Puerto Ricans and Cubans mix with Mexicans and Guatemalans. On this Monday, the 80 or so students have set aside their English lessons to learn about something very important to everyone in the room -- legal issues.

Mina Anderson, a local translator and advisor to Colorado Springs' burgeoning immigrant community, outlines the basics of the convoluted, confusing and ever-changing American laws.

"The hardest thing for foreigners are the immigration laws," she says in Spanish. "They are very detailed and can change without notice."

The participants -- ranging from high-school students to gray-haired grandparents -- take notes, ask questions and listen intently. Most of the students came to Colorado Springs looking for better jobs and a better life for their families.

Many have worker permits and resident status, but nearly everyone shares worries over bringing their children, wives or husbands, parents and other family members to the United States.

The session continues for about one hour, then everyone digs into sweet Mexican pastries and sodas before heading home.

The evening's presentation was sponsored by Centro de la Familia, a local outreach program that connects with Colorado Springs' fast-growing Hispanic community.

According to the Pikes Peak Council of Governments, there are more than 60,000 Hispanics in the region, though that number is likely much higher due to undocumented workers.

"The Hispanic population is huge," says Mary Ann Carter, who shares executive director duties with Sandra Hernandez. "The Latino culture is so family-oriented, we sometimes find two to three families sharing a home."

Carter says the Centro de la Familia (Family Center) visits the ESL classes three times during each spring and fall session as part of its "Viviendo en Colorado Springs" (Living in Colorado Springs) Spanish-language outreach program.

The program features discussions and presentations on immigration laws, domestic and sexual abuse as well as drinking and driving laws. The Centro de la Familia also provides parenting programs for couples.

The idea is to help the immigrant community adjust to the laws and etiquette of living in Colorado Springs, which can be bewildering to people new to the United States.

"This helps people with the acculturation process," Carter said. "It can be confusing for these people to deal with these issues in a different country and culture."

This week's immigration law session featured Anderson, a Panamanian who works as a court translator. The DUI session features a local judge, and the domestic violence session will feature counselors who'll discuss intervention and advocacy.

Carter and Hernandez -- both Spanish-speaking licensed mental health providers -- helped start the Centro de la Familia in 1996, in part to deal with the dramatic growth in the immigrant community.

"We were getting all these calls about people needing help," Carter said. "We started out with small grants to focus on domestic violence and have expanded our services."

A board helps direct policy, and the group is supported by donations from such groups as the Colorado Springs Catholic Diocese, El Paso County Department of Human Services, the Gill Foundation, Temple Buell Foundation, Youth Crime Prevention-Intervention Grant and the Fourth Judicial District VALE grant.

The Centro de la Familia provides services to the sometimes-hidden immigrant community. Many are afraid or unaware that help is available, especially for domestic or sexual abuse cases.

"There is a spirit of appreciation of what we do," says Carter. "The women feel so much safer, because if they call law enforcement, they know someone will respond. They love this country and the protection they have."

Centro de la Familia also works with the Native American community in Colorado Springs, which numbers about 400. She said the group tailors their service to meet their cultural needs. Native Americans, she said, are more individualistic and don't feel as comfortable in large groups.

Editor's note: This story is the third in the series on the nine recipients of the Independence Community Fund.

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