I am the program director of St Jerome HANDS community center in Mott Haven, in the Bronx.
Originally I am from Puebla City, Mexico, but I was living and working in Rome when I received the call from my Superior to come here. We are like soldiers—when we receive a call, we go.
I had to study very hard for this mission. The culture, the language—my English was not very good, so it was and still is a great challenge. People come and talk to me about their problems with alcohol, domestic violence, immigration issues, how to resolve tickets. They need answers but don’t know who can they trust. I go on Google and search for answers for them, and I get help from the Mexican consulate. Little by little, we learn together.
More than 300 people come here every day for our programs. They are very committed—some come from more than an hour away. We offer them classes in English, Spanish literacy, math, computer basics, and citizenship. We invite lawyers to come and talk to them, help them know their rights and responsibilities. We teach people to stay alert to ICE, stay within the law, and pay taxes. We help construction workers get the licensing they need to work.
I like working with our health programs. Mott Haven has the highest rates of every kind of sickness, like diabetes and heart attack. We help our people navigate the health system, and we encourage them to exercise. Our food pantry was getting unhealthy food from the agencies—too much sugar. Now we go back to the agencies and say no.
I have been here for eight years, and it is a rich experience for me. When I go back to my country, I want to do something like this in my own parish, or whatever parish I go to. I know that similar systems exist. And because of what I have learned here, I know that we don’t have to wait for the government. We can build on the resources we have.
My superior tells me, “Stay there, stay there!” I took a vow of obedience, and sometimes it’s difficult. I would like to do other things. The most important thing is attitude—when you don’t like something, or want to do something else, that’s when you have to give more of yourself. As much as you can.
I was 15 when I first met a sister—before, I’d only seen them on television. I had a lot of questions. She said to me, finish your studies and we’ll talk later. I finished, and I went back. My parents said, “But you are not very spiritual!” Some things you can’t explain.
In this life, every day I am learning new things. And when I can help somebody—find a solution, see a happy face—I think, oh my God, this is very good.
Interviewed on February 13, 2018