It is not hard to find the “feel good stories” as the city of New York emerges from the devastation of its16-month pandemic lockdown. There is much hubbub about the return to normalcy and how all of us have been trying to get our lives back as we begin to shed our masks, reliant on the miracle vaccine to be together again in groups and celebrate our mutual existence.
There are certain communities, however, that have been extremely hard-hit by the pandemic – we called them essential workers as they staffed the hospitals, health clinics, food markets and other life sustaining services that kept the rest of us intact. Particularly devastated were the city’s 2.4 million Latinos. This community was 1.4 times more likely to be infected and hospitalized as non-Hispanic whites and has some of the lowest vaccination rates.
Yet, despite the lockdown, a small adult educational program in East Harlem was determined to keep its doors open and continue to provide classes in everything from English as a second language and completion of elementary and middle school, to the high school equivalency diploma.
El Centro de Recursos Educativos Para Adultos (CREA), is one of the community educational programs sponsored, in part, by the Mexican Consulate and referred to as a “Plaza” Comunitaria.” The program underscores the Mexican government’s commitment to enhancing the educational opportunities of Spanish speaking immigrants who no longer reside in their country. CREA was founded in 2013 and has been led by Maria Guadalupe Martinez (“Lupita”), who saw the need to educate the parents in her children’s school. Lupita decided to start her own program and reached out to the Mexican consulate for help.
By her sheer dedication and persistence, the program now serves over 200 adult students and relies on nearly 30 volunteers to teach its classes and conduct a variety of educational workshops. (Disclosure: I am a board member of CREA).
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, and CREA could no longer hold its classes indoors, it quickly organized and set up a system to teach virtually. Many of CREA’s students did not have iPads or laptops and had to contend with spotty internet service. The children of these families were also home trying to take courses remotely. Many of the adult students’ work lives were upended and they faced significant economic challenges – meeting rent payments, purchasing food and paying medical bills. CREA began a campaign to provide direct cash assistance and raised over $100,000 to help more than 150 families. It created a much needed food pantry where families could obtain fresh vegetables and Mexican food staples to tide them over.
But CREA never relinquished its core mission of education. This week it held an outdoor graduation ceremony for thirteen of its students who had succeeded in completing the required course work and passing the high school Test Assessing Secondary Completion Exam (TASC) given by the New York State High School Equivalency Office. These students can now call themselves high school graduates in their adopted country, having overcome tremendous obstacles to reach this moment.
Unable to find an indoor space for the annual graduation, which did not take place in 2020, and still concerned about the students’ safety, Lupita organized a group of CREA volunteers who, despite the 90-degree heat, set up an outdoor graduation site on Randall’s Island. The volunteers began at six in the morning to set up tents, chairs, a video screen, hang balloons and banners, and transport food and drink for the 13 graduates and over 100 of their family members. The CREA community was determined to make this a memorable day and celebrate this important milestone for some of its proudest members. It was proof that the pandemic had not diminished the fortitude and determination of the CREA community.
Jorge Islas Lopez, the Mexican Consul General in New York City, set the tone for the graduation. “After months of being separated because of the pandemic, we can now celebrate the graduation of these remarkable students. They have demonstrated the strength to reach their dreams and the dreams of their families by obtaining the education they need to be successful in this country,” he stated. “This is a great day for the Mexican community in New York City,” he added. “Education gives us the dignity and the security we need to develop our potential as members of the community. We are very proud of you.”
One of the graduates, Cándida Cortés, was beaming as she spoke about what this day meant to her. Cortés came to this country from a small town in the state of Guerrero in the southwestern part of Mexico. Her first language is the indigenous Mixteco. Spanish is her second language, and she has worked diligently to learn English. “I met my husband here and now have three children. I first started taking primary school classes but couldn’t complete them for personal reasons,” she told the gathering. “I then became a volunteer at CREA and have worked hard over the last few years to complete my studies and earn my high school equivalency diploma. To study during the pandemic has not been easy. Many in our community became sick and lost their jobs. I have learned through all of this how to persevere and dedicate myself to something I believe in,” she added.
The import of the day was not lost on Dalila Tapia. A 42-year-old student originally from Puebla, Mexico, Tapia underscored that the crisis of the pandemic did not deter her community from pushing forward. “This humanitarian crisis has hit our community extremely hard. In spite of this, we have learned how to adapt and not be deterred from pursuing our dreams. Many of us continued to work during the pandemic, and learned how to overcome the obstacles we faced. Finishing this part of my education has been the experience of my life,” she said. Tapia ended her remarks by quoting Albert Einstein who said that there is a force more powerful than electricity, atomic energy or steam, and that this is the will and determination of the people.
There was no better example of this than the CREA graduates, who braved the heat of the day, let alone the uncertain days of the last year and a half, to celebrate what they had accomplished.