EL PASO – Antonio Santos’ office is loaded with nearly every Mexican cultural artifact imaginable. Bright blankets and border souvenirs adorn the walls while a virtually endless army of trinkets dance around a band of wrinkly papier-mâché mariachis who sing silently on the desk.
In the far back of the room a giant cloth mural of an Aztec warrior drapes down behind a traditional Mexican altar piece dedicated to his father who died some years ago. Photos of Mexican film stars and portraits of Chicano activists such as Dolores Huerta and Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales cover the rest of the wall.
Aptly nicknamed “Mr. Raza,” Santos administers a wide variety of community programs for children and adults at La Fe’s Cultural and Technology Center, a local satellite in the larger network of community resource centers owned by the private non-profit company, Centro De Salud Familiar La Fe, Inc.
“I like it when kids wander in here with curiosity. It gives me a chance to teach them about their roots.” Santos said.
Although La Fe is a primarily recognized as a name in community medical clinics in El Paso and surrounding counties, the La Fe network also includes a handful of educational, technological and community-building resources to confront the full spectrum of wellness problems faced by Latinos living in impoverished areas.
“In a community if you don’t have access to jobs, education, clean decent housing, social justice, culture and art, even if you have good physical health care without all the rest, what is that really doing for you?” said Estela Reyes, public relations officer at La Fe’s Cultural and Technology Center. “As a youth, as a father, as a child, as a member of the community you are still, regardless of what a doctor tells you, a very unhealthy person.”
Santos is one of the many staffers at La Fe with roots in downtown El Paso’s Segundo Barrio, a poverty stricken neighborhood that surrounds the current nucleus of the La Fe network — an area that was once tagged as the third most impoverished zip code in the U.S.
Many of the older staff at La Fe still remember Salvador Balcorta, now CEO for La Fe, when he was a young teen running around the neighborhood.
“Here at La Fe we talk about family and not just to say it as a cliché. We are actually a family, a true family because most of us were born right here in these neighborhoods.” Santos said.
The La Fe staff’s common origin has led to a grassroots solidarity based on the impoverished Latino experience. “We are able to connect. Many of the families we serve are going through different kinds struggles, [and]we have been through these same struggle,” Santos said.
During his teens, Santos helped maintain El Paso chapters of organizations such Latino’s Unidos and M.E.Ch.A (Movimiento Estudantil Chicano de Aztlán) to spread cultural awareness and Latino pride, he said. Santos now helps create and manage programs at La Fe’s Cultural and Technology Center to provide the same values to the current wave of struggling Latinos in El Paso.
For children and teens, the center has partnerships with local area schools such as Aoy Elementary School and with a charter school that focuses extensively on bilingual proficiency. The programs include baile folklórico, muralism, art, and music.
“We have been trying to fill the void that [budget cuts in public schools]have been leaving in art programs. That is one of the main purposes that [La Fe’s CTC] was created for,” said Jesus Alvarado, cultural arts coordinator for La Fe’s CTC.
Alvarado said that those that participate in the arts programs at La Fe often bring their acquired life skills back to the community. “We had a student that [participated in our recording studio program]that graduated from high school he went to study at a music engineering school. He [comes]back to help us run the sound for events and the two big community festivals we throw every year.” Alvarado said, “That’s what happens with a lot of the students that go through our [programs].” Alvarado said this cycle of community building will determine the future of the struggling areas of El Paso.
“Most all of the people that work in this particular building have grown up in the area so most of us have come back and done the work we envisioned when we were younger. That’s something we want to pass on to the students. If you want to create change it has to happen in you, through this community,” Alvarado said.
For adults, the center offers preparation courses for GED and U.S. Citizenship tests, ESOL courses, health promotion disease prevention, computer resources and technology training.
La Fe has also partnered with local schools and universities such as the University of Texas at El Paso’s Center for Civic Engagement to encourage students to get involved as mentors and assistants for ESOL and U.S. Citizenship courses.
“[Learning English] is a big issue. For people coming over here it is [very]difficult to acquire the level of language they will need to find a good position and a good job. We are covering a spot that not many others in the community are filling.” Manuel Gonzales said. These free services for those in need are invaluable to community building, he said.
“We have immigrants coming over here to get a better life and better opportunities and one way to do that is by acquiring their citizenship status, so this is our way to help them,” said Gonzales coordinator UTEP’s Center for Civic Engagement’s SHINE and ESOL programs.
Ramón Edgardo Moreno, 46, an Honduran citizen, is an active participant in La Fe’s Citizenship courses. Moreno said he looks forward to using the political skills he is learning after obtaining U.S. citizenship. “The U.S. citizen is guaranteed rights and privileges, such as voting and electing a government official, which as a resident you don’t have,” Moreno said.
Margarita Amaya, 67,who has been a resident for twenty-eight years, said she looks forward to the government benefits she will be eligible for when passing the Citizenship exam. “The Medicaid and Medicare for a lot of us is the most important thing right now. We can feel confident in visiting the doctor and getting medication as we get older,” she said.
Santos said that an important strength in La Fe’s CTC programs is that participants that have been assisted by the center often return to help the next group. “For students that are [participating]in our programs, once they complete the courses here, they [often]come back and serve as mentors. This is something that is very unique,” Santos said.
Lupe Hollis is one of those returning mentors. Having completed and mastered the GED, she now returns to every class to assist the current batch of GED seekers. “It’s a beautiful service they give [at La Fe CTC]. I feel like I’m with family right when I walk in. Helping the students for me is like therapy. It is the greatest feeling,” Hollis said.
Santos said that individuals such as Hollis who set an example for the other participants, have been one of the central driving forces that allows La Fe’s CTC to reach communities successfully.
“It’s the responsibility of everyone to return to their community, not necessarily to stay forever, but to come give back to their own people for a year or so sometime during their lives. It’s the only way of making a difference,” Santos said.
Editor’s note: This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
A previous version of this article erroneously mentioned Ms. Estela Reyes as Estela Flores.