For Gustavo Torres, the anti-immigrant fervor that's taken hold in the United States cuts him like a knife. In Maryland, where he serves as executive director of CASA de Maryland, the largest Latino and immigrant organization in the state, one of CASA's day worker centers was recently doused with gasoline during its opening week.
"It is really hard to see the way some people treat my community," he says. "It breaks my heart."
But the former journalist was born and bred a fearless activist, starting out as a student and union leader in his native
Columbia. He learned early of the need for people—particularly those who are marginalized—to develop strong organizing and advocacy skills. According to CASA, 98,000 immigrants in Maryland are legal permanent residents eligible for US citizenship, but are not receiving assistance to prepare for and take the exam.
"I wanted to help people develop their voice," he says. "There are a lot of people that no one is helping to integrate into our communities."
When Hermina left her family behind in Peru to come to this country, she felt isolated in her new home in Maryland. Language was a big issue for her, and she was only able to communicate with her husband. In a Spanish language newspaper she saw an ad for leadership training classes at CASA. Herminia had been a community organizer in Peru for a group similar to the Girl Scouts and she believed strongly in doing good acts every day.
When she came to sign up for the class at CASA she was disappointed to see it was already filled. "Don't worry; we have other services," a volunteer told her and suggested that she come back on Monday.
"Since that morning I've lived at CASA!" Herminia jokes.
"There can be such community here, such generosity," Torres says. "Sometimes, when the workers know that another worker is experiencing particularly rough times, they will let that person get the work over them, saying 'you need it more than me.' Even though they can't pay the rent, they offer it to someone else who they feel is struggling more," Torres says.
Herminia agrees, saying "every time I come I find others in need of support, who want to talk about different issues they are having. I realized I could help others in the same situation."
Herminia has taken classes on personal development and leadership for women—helping women advocate for themselves and protect themselves from workplace abuses. Now she helps to teach that class. She's involved with CASA in trying to pass a law in Maryland to protect domestic workers from abuse. She's also a very active participant in Noche de
Acción—Action Night in Annapolis.
"When I came to CASA, I learned not to be afraid of situations, to ask, to be a leader, to help others," she says. "I've learned to see everything from a different point of view."
Given the current political climate it's not clear where the issue of immigration will land. Yet Gustavo Torres remains optimistic about this country and has hopes for a comprehensive immigration plan. "I believe in the American people."
CASA of Maryland has programs in employment placement, vocational training, financial literacy, job development, ESOL instruction, Spanish literacy, citizenship classes, legal services, health outreach and education, health information services, social services, and community organizing and advocacy. CASA operates three workers' centers and a community education center, and is in the process of opening two more workers' centers, a vocational training school, and a 20,000 square-foot multicultural center in the heart of Langley Park. Learn more about CASA of Maryland.