PITTSFIELD — As the Berkshire County Latino/Hispanic population continues to grow, community initiatives to better support residents of this demographic are also expanding.
On Feb. 23, Berkshire Community College, under a National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association grant to the college's Jonathan Edwards Library, held a forum on how public higher education can help support the growing number of Latino students in the county. The forum also shed light on issues of and resources for the Latino constituents of the Berkshire community at large.
According to 2014 federal estimates, out of a county population of 128,715, about 4.1 percent, or 5,277 people, are of Hispanic/Latino descent, up from 3.5 percent in 2010.
Though there are no exact or official estimates, it is a given fact that a portion of this population includes immigrants who are living here without legal documentation. Some of these immigrants have fled persecution in their home country, while others seek better opportunities to afford to their family members or themselves.
These issues clearly are challenging and controversial, as the nation has divided views on whether to accept or deport immigrants from all places. But various agencies in Berkshire County are moving forward. Some, like Berkshire Immigrant Center, are helping people get on the path and go through the processes for legal citizenship, while new grassroots efforts are being made to reach out to others to help them understand how to find the resources they need.
State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing lauded these efforts to make the Berkshires an open and welcoming community. "Simply building walls in not the best of what this community or country is all about," he said during the forum.
Another panelist, Anaelisa Vanegas-Farrara, a licensed social worker, has been working as executive director of Manos Unidas, a multicultural cooperative, and "Fronteras Comunes/Common Borders," a local Spanish-English bilingual publication, to get the word out about community projects as well as global outreach efforts. The current issue offers a range of content, from editorials on fracking, to listings about job training, poetry and local personality profiles.
"The Berkshires is often referred to as a "cultural mecca." But I don't think we can call this a cultural mecca unless we include different classes of people and include these voices," Vanegas-Farrara said.
BCC student and community leader, Angel Poveda Jiménez, said while he still struggles with English sometimes, it hasn't deterred him from trying to help younger Spanish-speaking students in subjects like math, or just building confidence in themselves. "I'm trying to build bridges for students so they don't have to struggle."
During a question-and-comment period of the forum, several other adults in the audience spoke up about other developing initiatives.
One man said he was working as the Latino ministry coordinator for the Berkshire Interfaith Organizing group. It is currently focused on making sure all people have better access to public transportation and food, particularly people with low incomes. He said they're also looking to work to inform and lobby for policies that can help ensure these resources are available.
Gonzalo Bermudez, a local translator is also working on committee to do more outreach to help people overcome language barriers, and to coordinate Spanish-language lectures and events to help better engage people with the wider Berkshire community.
Back in the fall, for example, Berkshire Children and Families' Family Resource Center, in collaboration with the Berkshire Immigrant Center and Elizabeth Freeman Center, launched "Conexiones Positivas" (Positive Connections), a public Latino family support group.
Each panelist, in his or her own words, emphasized that positive support versus fear-mongering is key to helping people overcome struggles and enabling them to be a productive part of the community.
Said Berkshire Community College student trustee Gladys Garcia-Rijos, "When there is someone out there who is believing in you it keeps you motivated."
Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.
The Berkshire Immigrant Center
88 South Street (First Baptist Church, second floor)
Berkshire Interfaith Organizing
Community Health Programs (CHP)
444 Stockbridge Road
Conexiones Positivas (Positive Connections)
Family Resource Center, Berkshire Children & Families, 480 West St.
Elizabeth Freeman Center
Offices in Pittsfield, North Adams, and Great Barrington
Staff trained to work with immigrants
LitNet of South Berkshire
100 Main St.
Manos Unidas/ Fronteras Comunes
413-347-9681 or 413-841-0298