For a long time, Nadia, a stay-at-home mom in Nashua, thought of her apartment as her cocoon. Every morning, she got up at 4 a.m. to study the Bible and cook her husband’s lunch. His family and his faith were his main concern. Her home, adorned with butterfly stickers, was one of the few places she felt comfortable.
“Sometimes we think that as immigrants we don’t have the right to acquire certain things, or we don’t have the right to say certain things,” she said.
When Nadia ventured out, it was usually to the local Pentecostal church – where she met her friend, Sadier. The women, whose last names we don’t use to protect their privacy, soon realized they had a lot in common. As immigrants, they both bonded to an unseen life in New Hampshire.
“I thought I had no right to speak and my voice had no value,” Sadier said.
But that’s changing, thanks to a new direction they’re taking with the Granite State Organizing Project. Called “Creando Líderes para la Comunidad” or “Creating Leaders for Community,” the ten-week program is designed to help Latino immigrants in southern New Hampshire build connections and improve their communities.
Angela Mercado leads the class, drawing on her experience as an Ecuadorian immigrant who has volunteered in the Latino community since arriving 20 years ago.
Mercado looks for potential students everywhere, but she’s found plenty of interest in local religious communities — like the one where Nadia and Sadier worship. She said many barriers can keep people from feeling like they have a voice: language barriers, isolation and more. She wants this course to be the starting point to overcome these obstacles, a place where members of the Latin American community can come together, get to know each other and help each other.
“It’s for everyone to learn that you can help others by being advocates,” she said.
Mercado kicks off the course by asking her students to set a personal goal, to help them feel more empowered. For Nadia, that goal was to go to the local library, which she hadn’t had the courage to do before, despite having lived in Nashua for years. After this mission, she resolved to come this summer.
Her friend Sadier also wanted to broaden her horizons by getting to know her neighbors.
“We lock ourselves in our homes,” she said, “and we don’t know the needs of our brothers and sisters.”
The class also inspired Sadier to see his neighborhood in a different way and think more about the people around him. With that in mind, she had another idea: she could start reaching out to new immigrants, using her own experience to help them find where to go for basic needs like food, healthcare and more. . Someone can be a blessing to another who has just arrived, she says.
This focus on the needs of the community – on an individual level or more broadly – is a big part of this class.
For another homework assignment, students had to look around their communities, primarily Manchester and Nashua, and think about how they could be improved. They identified a lot of problems: a lack of affordable housing, a lack of support services for seniors, a lack of resources to help people fight discrimination. But they also talked about solutions — and taking those ideas to those in power.
For many students, it was the first time that they felt like they had found a space to talk about this stuff.
As she leads the class, Mercado said she tries to inspire her students to become true agents of change, leaders or advocates. And to do that, she also tries to help them feel more comfortable speaking in public.
Nadia and Sadier recently put that lesson into practice at New Hampshire’s State House, where they shared their thoughts during a legislative hearing. None of them had testified publicly before.
“I felt like I was dying,” Sadier said. “But I was proud of myself, and no one will stop me anymore.”
While at the State House, the two women noticed that the other Latino leaders didn’t have many supporters in the room. If no one else comes forward to support defenders, Sadier said, there’s no way real change can happen for their communities.
But this did not discourage the women. Instead, it made them even more eager to act.
Since visiting the State House, Sadier has been encouraging his friends to be brave and not be discouraged if they don’t speak English.
“It wasn’t a hindrance and it won’t be a hindrance,” she said. “We must be brave and not live in the shadows.”
Nadia also feels more empowered now. She is ready to defend others.
“I am a voice for those who are in the same condition as me,” she said.
Like a butterfly, she emerged from her cocoon.