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At El Centro Humanitario, finding work is only the beginning

By ESTEBAN L. HERNANDEZ

DENVER-Wearing a ripped v-neck shirt and faded cut-off shorts, Lupe Medina is standing near the entrance of El Centro Humanitario, his arms resting on the front desk.

He appears impatient as he speaks to the El Centro’s employment director, Sandra Medina. “Give me someone who wants to work. I need to leave,” he tells Sandra Medina, no relation.

Sandra Medina turns, calling out a name. A man begins walking toward her. Then, without really looking at him, Lupe Medina walks out with the man, who appears to be a senior citizen, his gray hairs sprouting from underneath his green baseball cap.

So goes another day at El Centro, another worker successfully employed. At least for a couple hours.

At El Centro Humanitario, people like Sandra Medina work in the downtown building helping day laborers find work and receive fair pay from people like Lupe Medina, who hire the workers on a day-to-day basis. Sandra Medina’s job is to direct the workers toward interested employers. With 146 members, her job requires her to keep track of each worker’s prior work record on a weekly basis.

“It’s basically like a raffle,” Sandra Medina says. “Basically, it goes by the last day they went to work. So that’s how it raffles them off.” The small staff of workers keeping the center functional includes directors and other administrative staff.

One of those directors is Crystal Ferreira, who is the director of programs. “There could be no better job for me, I think, for myself than the one I’m in right now,” Ferreira says. “It’s a perfect blend of everything I’ve done in the past.”

Ferreira says she spent some time in Mexico, where a majority of the day laborers are from. For her, the months she spent living in the Mexican state of Sonora created a special connection that now surfaces with her current occupation.

“The way I grew up, I was around that demographic a lot, and I got to see those injustices,” she says, adding that the social justice part of her job inspires her. “So absolutely it’s something that’s important and personal to me. It motivates me a lot.

“It’s not a job, it’s a relationship,” Ferreira says.

Her words are proven true in her efforts. Thanks to Ferreira, individuals like Roberto Rodriguez, a member at El Centro, join for help with work allocation.

“This place is the only place where work does show up,” he says. “That is why we come to this place, because it is a place where we come to pass the moment, to not be in the streets and be here at least giving ourselves hope to finding work.”

Rodriguez says he’s grateful for the center, explaining that the center always donates things to members, helping them live through cold months, sharing food and bringing them clothing.

However, El Centro is not a shelter, but rather, a community meeting place in addition to a center helping people find work.

Outisde El Centro Humanitario on Thursday, May 5, 2011 during a sunny day in downtown Denver. (Photo/Esteban L. Hernandez)

“I am grateful for this place, because a lot of people will help to continue keeping this place open, and a lot of programs help us do a lot of activities,” he says. “We come from Mexico and we come with the intentions of working, of doing something.”

Rodriguez’s story is only one of hundreds with similar beginnings.

Take Miguel Angel Martinez. He spent 10 years of his life living in the United States. Today, and every day really, he has no home. No family in the United States. He is from the state of Chihuahua in Mexico, and on nights before he treks to El Centro to find employment opportunities, he lines up at 9 p.m. at a local shelter seeking a bed for the night. He says he is grateful to God and El Centro.

Roman Contreras is also a member of El Centro and a day laborer. He says the staff are friendly, good people.

“El Centro Humanitario represents freedom, in a sense of peace,” he says in a calming voice. “A lot of people come from different places and are unsure where to go, if they’ll even welcome you for whatever reason. Here, they don’t discriminate against anyone. They are humanitarians. This place, without [the staff], would not stay open. Honestly, this place helped me find my family when I moved from a different place,” Contreras says.

El Centro’s impact in the community is recognized across the state, transcending the walls where Martinez and Contreras make their statements.

Colorado congressman Jared Polis, a supporter of pro-immigration legislation, praises El Centro for what he says is hard work helping the immigrant community thrive.

“For nearly 10 years, El Centro has been helping Colorado’s immigrant community through their vital employment, legal and education programs,” he says.

These days, Contreras says that his life has improved, but that he will continue coming to El Centro as a member.

“This will always be a refuge for me,” Contreras says.

Martinez is a member of El Centro to find work, but amid his humble words, he also shares something deeper. Something that seems to keep him going despite his situation

“Without humility there’s no life,” says Martinez, who even in his late 60s, continues to work laboriously physical jobs.

“You get here, there is warm coffee, kindness from the ladies here and companionship with the other workers,” he says.

Ferreira, one the ladies that Martinez refers to, smiles with nearly every sentence she speaks. She appears genuinely excited about the many programs, several of them ones she began, that El Centro offers its members.

Funding for El Centro is federal, but recent cuts have left the center scrambling to find new outlets for money. Ferreira took it upon herself to spark the imagination of members by introducing her $20 challenge, which started out as something of a game for Ferreira.

“I love games,” she says with a playful smile. “This was something where I took my own personal money, and it was a social experiment if you will, and what ended up happening was I said ‘ok, here is the game.’”

With a $20 start-up courtesy of Ferreira, up to 30 members can participate by using that money to create more funds. For example, one member decided to use his $20 to buy packages of bottled water, and then sell them individually.

There are three rules about the project, and they included not using the money for something illegal and the most important rule, to have fun.

Members are creative: some sell burritos, other walk-dogs, and others still create groups and combine the money to fund an idea. Members can be spotted selling peanuts outside Coors Field, others raking leaves, making jewelry and selling homemade cakes.

The third rule applies to the end of the month, where Ferreira members who participated must show what they did with the money and give back.

“They pay me back, if they lost it, no harm done, its something that happens but if they make money they pay me back the 20 dollars,” she says.

Also central to El Centro’s philosophy is a dedication to education.

There are simple classes that teach every-day hobbies like sewing and classes that are funded by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a federal organization that offers safety training and awareness classes. The health training and safety classes are especially pertinent to the workers, Ferreira says.

“Basically what we did is we did a survey and an analysis of our demographics and we found that Hispanic immigrant that work in these temporary vocations have a very, very high risk of accident injury on jobs and they also tend to work at really dangerous jobs,” Ferreira said.

However, there is no strict focus on only the men’s vocations. Women are also trained on how to safely work with chemical and instructed on the correct type of protective equipment. At El Centro, women are often used in domestic working environments while men are usually pegged for construction and other manual labor jobs.

Amid all the other programs she helped create and now sponsers, it’s the GED classes that are Ferreira’s crown jewel.

“We have a GED program right now,” she says smiling, her eyes widening. She says that since several of the members only spoke Spanish, so finding a way to help workers earn a GED in that language was key.

“What we ended up doing is I talked a couple of the day laborer who had bee educated in Mexico. There is a GED program that is available in Spanish, so asked if they would be interesting in teaching.”

At first, no one seemed interested, she says.

The locker of Alberto Cruz is decorated with various memorabilia he’s found or been presented with during his time at El Centro on in Denver Thursday, May 5, 2011. Renting a locker at El Centro costs less than $5 a month for members. (Photos/Esteban L.Hernandez)

Then came Luis Suarez.

Suarez lives in Denver and is from the state of Aguascalientes in Mexico. His stay in Colorado is approaching the four year mark, and now, as a teacher of the Spanish GED classes at El Centro, he not only symbolizes education, he also symbolizes opportunity.

“He’s a phenomenal teacher, “ Ferreira says about Suarez, who sitting in the main lobby of El Centro, turns an elongated dinning table into a desk.

Suarez’s books, lessons plans, calculators and a can of energy drink are scattered in front of him.

“I have lived in other states, but I like it because of everything: the landscape, its seasons, I like the snow, I like when it warms up,” he says as he continues working on a math problem.

He says he has two groups, one that meets Mondays and one on Wednesdays at El Centro. His work is completely voluntary. He even has a school where he teaches adults GED subjects. He knows the value of an education, and Ferreira says Suarez, although he enjoys teaching at El Centro, has larger aspirations of returning to school: He wants to attend the University of Colorado in Denver.

“All of a sudden a lot of Hispanics who are unaware, especially those who have a social security number, they don’t know that they can have a GED to get better jobs,” Suarez says. “Since there are few opportunities for Latinos do get a GED in Spanish, they are unaware.”

He says that the classes attract those seeking a life outside of day laboring. “But if you want to move forward with your life, it’s the only way,” Suarez says about education.

Jessie Dryden, a graduate student pursuing a master’s in political science at Suarez’s dream school, CU-Denver, is an intern at El Centro. She decided to seek the position as a chance to continue research relating to immigrant labor.

“It’s not work, its life for me, its only going to get better from here on out,” she says about her internship. “I’ve dedicated all my higher education to Latinos in Denver, so I think that I would my study made me realize to be aware of my own paradigms,” she says.

Dryden was able to collect more than 300 questionnaires when she started her research in the fall of 2010 thanks to members at El Centro. Dryden, who is white, says she does not speak Spanish but shares a passion like Ferreira, to ensure that the men and women of El Centro are treated properly in their work experiences.

“I feel like I’m part of something,” she says about her work at El Centro.

One of El Centro’s newest projects is a community garden. Suggested by the members of El Centro, the center is now a proud sponsor of two community gardens. One is located at the downtown location, lining the outside perimeter of the building. The second garden is located a few blocks from El Centro.

Dryden says the men were excited to receive the opportunity to work and plant their own garden.

“That to me is so motivating,” Dryden says. “You are watching people empowering themselves and get exiting about learning.”

Ferreira encouraged the creation of the garden, which she calls an “urban garden.” She says that because some of the members do not know how to read or write in either Spanish or English, she found a different way of presenting each member with the opportunity to contribute to the urban garden project.

“One of the activities we did with them is plot the garden, through drawings,” she says as she points to two large paper sheets on her walls. There, the men plotted out the garden with drawings of the type of vegetables, flowers and fruits they wanted to plant. Some of the drawings contain crudely written words, mostly in Spanish. They are a colorful reminder to Ferreira of her continual efforts at El Centro and the spirit of camaraderie demonstrated by the members.

“When given the opportunity they really love to contribute and give back to things,” she says about the men, her eyes fixated on the garden drawings.

Chairs are placed in rows atop tables as Tomas Aluro, in the red hat, eats his lunch at El Centro in Denver on Thursday, May 5, 2011. Members are in charge of mopping and cleaning the main lobby before closing time. (Photo/Esteban L. Hernandez)

Emilce Acevedo, a director at El Centro, says she and the rest of the staff don’t actually participate in too much of the garden’s maintenance because of the member’s strong work ethic.

“Look at the garden,” she says walking alongside growing cilantro stocks, strawberry plants and colorful flowers lining the outside of the building. “They’re doing all the cleaning, they’re watering every day.”

Such community services are the type of opportunities Ferreira says allow El Centro members a reasonable method of give back to the city of Denver.

Ferreira says she knows the names of each individual member, which she explains is an important factor of her job.

“I think that I wouldn’t have as clear of a vision of what I wanted to do or how I wanted to see this organization run if I didn’t know them personally,” she says.

She says each one of workers impacts her life and the lives of the other staff members. “You know, they change mine,” Ferreira says. “We learn something new from each other all the time. So, I think that it’s amazing that we are influencing each other. It’s in small ways, and if I can include them, and I can. That’s pretty incredible.”

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About Esteban L. Hernandez

Reporter in Connecticut.

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