DACA: a personal perspective


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  • CREA founder Maria Guadalupe Martinez ("Lupita"). Photo courtesy of CREA




  • Students in class. Photo courtesy of CREA




  • Math lessons. Photo courtesy of CREA



A longtime community leader on his involvement with an East Harlem group devoted to helping Latino immigrants

By Stephan Russo

In February I retired from a job I loved. I had been the executive director of Goddard Riverside Community Center since 1998, having started my career there in the summer of 1976 as a young and impressionable youth worker. As I rose through the ranks of this venerable West Side agency, I clung to the values of fairness, social justice and the power of offering a helping hand. Today Goddard Riverside serves over 17,000 neighborhood residents and has been a citywide leader in street outreach, supportive housing and access to higher education for young people who are often the first in their families to attend college. Yet it was time for me to move on and pass the torch to the next generation of leadership. Faced with the challenge of transitioning from community leader to community member, I wanted to put my energies elsewhere in the quest to “do good.”

The instinct to find community, and be part of something that makes a difference, brought me to a wonderful East Harlem organization called CREA, Centro de Recursos Educativos para Adultos (The Center for Adult Education). I came upon CREA last spring after a conversation with an old friend and colleague. I related to her that I was interested in getting involved with a group working on immigration, particularly an organization deeply rooted in the Latino community. (I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1970s in Colombia, South America, and the warmth of that community has never left me.)

“I know a marvelous woman who leads an education program in the Hispanic community,” my colleague said. “The program works primarily with immigrants of Mexican decent who never had the opportunity to complete their studies in their home countries and are motivated to improve their lives through education.” She put me in touch with Maria Guadalupe Martinez (“Lupita”), the visionary founder of CREA. I trekked over to CREA and met with Lupita, whose boundless energy became immediately apparent. Her story, like many who have settled here seeking a better life and have made a contribution to our city, is remarkable.

Lupita journeyed to this country in the late 1990s. She was a PTA leader in her son’s school and realized that many Spanish-speaking parents were afraid to become involved because they themselves had not finished their education and were reluctant to participate in their child’s education. Lupita quickly discovered her passion to help her fellow parents by establishing her own “Plaza Comunitaria,” an educational program recognized by the Mexican government that offers literacy, elementary, middle and high school equivalency classes, as well as life-skills workshops to Spanish-language communities. The first year (2013) CREA had 40 participants and today provides a community education program for close to 100 students.

The needs of the students who attend CREA extend beyond the classes and workshops. Lupita has created a tight-knit, supportive community. The program is fully staffed by volunteer teachers as well as interns from “La Universidad IberoAmericana” in Mexico City and CUNY. CREA has partnered with an experienced counselor who helps students with the plethora of issues beyond education – food, housing, jobs and family crises.

Now CREA finds itself confronting a troubling national issue. The announcement last week by the Trump administration rescinding the DACA program created by former president Obama has alarmed the Latino community. Several volunteer interns who teach classes have sought protection under DACA. If they lose their DACA status, CREA would be hard pressed to find qualified, Spanish-speaking instructors. Lupita pointed out that the elimination of DACA would affect entire families, not just the young people who have been able to take advantage of the opportunity to study and work without the fear of being deported.

“The worst part of Trump’s announcement is the fear and uncertainty which has been created in the community,” said Lupita. “The administration is causing great pain, despair and suffering. For Trump, this is a game of chess with many moving pieces; but for the Latino community, it is life itself. On the one hand he praises the accomplishments of these young people yet puts forth policies which will drive them back into the shadows.”

The concerns of this community are not new. CREA has been able to facilitate legal help to those whose status is uncertain and provide concrete ways to deal with ICE’s more aggressive approach. Lupita highlighted the importance of empowering her community with information, and remains confident that its strength and determination will help see it through this period.

“The young people in DACA want nothing more than to improve their lives by educating themselves,” Lupita stressed. “They have been raised here and love this country. Their parents work long hours to provide them with a better life. We also have to recognize that the people in our community are not going anywhere. This is where they work, study and raise their families. They are an integral part of our city.”

I am in awe of the sheer determination and optimism of Lupita, the volunteers and her group of advisors. In addition to confronting the DACA crisis, CREA is currently searching for a permanent home and additional resources to sustain its work. How fortunate for me to have stumbled upon this East Harlem hidden gem of an organization as I deal with my own professional transition and ongoing desire to remain involved in community work. I am currently helping CREA become its own 501c3 non-profit organization with the assistance of Lawyers Alliance for New York. I just may have found what I was looking for.




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