It is likely that in the late 1960’s a few friends or relatives in the municipality of Don Matias in Colombia felt adventurous and/or desperate. Probably wanting more work options than what this small city of 20,000 could offer — farming or textile factories— they looked northward. After the 1965 Hart-Cellar Immigration Act was passed in the U.S. Congress, the quotas for Latin American countries were significantly lifted. The first of many waves was beginning to swell. And it was this path that brought Beatriz A. and her husband from Colombia to East Boston in 1999.
Beatriz started working immediately, cleaning offices and houses. She also found a job at a Downtown Boston restaurant that offered catering. Soon she was a mother, balancing parental duties, a part-time job and a full-time job, while trying to enroll in English classes. As a caterer, she pushed massive food containers up sidewalks and across streets, delivering hot food to executive luncheons in high-rise office buildings. Now, anytime she passes through this particular downtown area with her daughters, she reminds them of her early struggles.
Beatriz was the first Pionera. She met Jesús Gerena, UpTogether’s current CEO, in 2010 at her Catholic Church. Gerena started his journey with the national organization when he was hired to open a branch in Boston. “He explained the model, but I didn’t understand it,” she says. However, she was curious enough to call him back. Utilizing her expansive East Boston network, Beatriz organized the inaugural meeting of the Pioneras in her small apartment. With Beatriz on board, the other mothers were willing to jump in. Like all the Pioneras, Beatriz benefited by setting goals and the sharing of resources within the group. She learned how to get financial aid to take ESOL classes and how to enroll her kids into high quality public and private schools. Funds she received from UpTogether (then Family Independence Initiative) allowed her to buy her first car, which helped immensely as she juggled two jobs and two young daughters.
Since arriving in the U.S. she hadn’t had the opportunity to develop close friendships, to create a community; there was only time for work, kids and sleep. But with the Pioneras she found the human connection she craved. The moms not only shared information and solved problems, but they also saved money together for children’s activities. With their collective “kid’s fund” savings they had group holiday parties, arts activities, field trips, and created a community garden. A group of over 30 parents and kids went camping regularly. Beatriz says, “the more I stayed with UpTogether, the more I felt my life was changing. I now had the power to not only help myself and my family, but I could help other people in my neighborhood. More and more people like me were arriving in East Boston and it felt good to offer them knowledge; it made me feel alive.”
As Beatriz acted on her calling to serve others, she became recognized by her neighbors as a force in the East Boston community. UpTogether’s founder noticed the blossoming leadership capabilities of the Pioneras and in 2013 invited Beatriz to attend a summit meeting of non-profit leaders in Washington, DC. “It was amazing being in the Obama White House,” says Beatriz. “We had to go through all of these tunnels and security.”
Now, Beatriz continues to find meaningful work at the East Boston Health Center, where she has been employed for 14 years. Her two daughters, 15 and 18 are attending a private school in the Boston suburb of Wellesley, where they have received scholarships.
Looking ahead, Beatriz will soon start classes to earn a Medical Interpreter Certificate. She and her husband continue to save and plan on buying a home. Her oldest daughter will start applying to colleges soon. "I grew up so proud of my mother," says Beatriz' 18-year old. "I would always see her organizing and leading social and cultural events. I hope to continue this value she instilled in me."