Latinos in New Hampshire dream of a place to reconnect with their culture and put down roots
On the corner of Maple Street and Nashua Street in Manchester, there is a two-story house with a large tree outside the front door. For nearly 40 years, this structure was home to the Latino Center, a place where women would share recipes and stories, and where more severe concerns, like landlord-tenant problems and domestic violence issues, were resolved.
That’s the vision its founder, Eileen Phinney, had when she founded the center in 1971.
The first wave of Latinos arriving in New Hampshire came from Uruguay in the 1960s. A textile factory brought people from small communities, and many new arrivals didn't speak English.
Phinney, who was Uruguayan herself, and had built a successful life in Manchester, wanted to give them a place where they would feel close to their country and, at the same time, connect them with the broader community.
The center was full of life and culture, says Eva Castillo, an early employee at Latino Center.
Castillo remembers helping Spanish speakers with interpretation when they needed medical care or going with them to file a claim about unfair labor practices.
“And many came just to have someone to talk with,” Castillo said.
But after Phinney died in 2009, keeping the center funded became increasingly difficult. Little by little, the dream of giving Latinos a safe place faded after the center passed to another organization's hands. The focus shifted from only serving Latinos to serving all refugees. Finally, the center stopped operating.
“It was devastating. People didn't know where to go,” Castillo says.
Since then, Castillo and other advocates have struggled to raise funds to re-establish the center. They say grants to support a center exclusively for Latinos have been challenging to find.
Some communities do have a central gathering spot, like Indonesian Community Connect on the Seacoast. But Latinos, despite being the largest minority in the state, don’t have a place to reconnect with their culture or have a home that represents them; this leaves them without a place to go when they need help or simply a place to feel connected.
Cristina acutely felt that need when she arrived in New Hampshire in 2014, following the death of her husband in Mexico at the hands of a cartel. (We are not using her real name to protect her identity.)
While she first felt a sense of relief and safety, rebuilding a new life in a new country alone was challenging and confusing to navigate.
“I didn’t understand what was happening,” says Cristina.
She says a Latino center would have provided not just the practical support she needed, but also a community of people to share with.
Oftentimes, supporting new arrivals falls informally to people like Angela Mercado, a well-seasoned activist in Nashua who helps the Latino community, sharing her phone number with those who need assistance.
Mercado has opened her own small Latino Center in Nashua. However, she thinks of it as a small remedy. She wants to collaborate as much as possible with others working towards the same objective of opening a larger, fully-staffed cultural center.
In its absence, Mercado and Castillo worry about “agencias multiservicios,” or multi-service agencies — businesses that usually operate out of storefronts and offer translation and legal advice without expertise. The two women say both services are set at prices that take advantage of people.
“Latinos are tricked into paying more than necessary,” Mercado said.
Wary of those businesses, Mercado is trying to provide similar services through a small program at her Pentecostal Church in Nashua.
As she gives a tour of the classroom and pantry, she says this center will not be tied to a religious faith.
For Castillo, that’s important for a future Latino center because she believes people from all backgrounds should feel safe and encouraged to go. She is reluctant to associate with a church after a small Latino center was established at Saint Anne-San Agustin Parish in Manchester in 2019. Castillo says, recently, it has become a pastoral service, limiting the kind of social support and programming that can happen.
At Mercado’s center, she hopes to eventually pay those who volunteer, and grow its roster of programs.
While they know there are many challenges, Mercado and Castillo keep working toward their goal because, they say, the way to build a more united Latino community is by building connections.