Latinas 413

Latinas 413 are, from left, Liliana Atanacio, Catheryn Chacon, Tannya Romero, America Lopez, Carmen Villalobos Guevara, Marina Dominguez and Laura Cabrera.

On a cold Tuesday evening, in a tidy Pittsfield apartment she shares with her two children, Laura Cabrera begins her weekly singing lessons with her teacher, a man 5,600 miles away in Argentina.

The song this evening, Mexican folk singer Natalia Lafourcade’s “Para Qué Sufrir,” could well serve as an anthem for Cabrera and a group of Berkshire women who, in the past year, have resolved to open doors and ease others’ agony.

“Para Qué Sufrir.” Translation: “Why Suffer.”

“¿Para qué sufrir si no hace falta?” Cabrera sings as her instructor listens in via Zoom.

Translation: Why suffer if you don’t have to?

Tender and spare, that very sentiment led Cabrera, at the age of 18, to leave her home in Veracruz, Mexico, where she had been unable to afford the cost of a school uniform, public transportation and cafeteria lunches to finish high school.

“I was expected to be a wife and mother,” she recalls. “School was not a priority. I was very sad.”

She followed a boyfriend at the time to the land of dreams north of the border and wound up here in the Berkshires. She was soon pregnant, soon alone, soon fearful and soon a single mother of a child who would need many surgeries.

Here in the Berkshires, Cabrera discovered newfangled ways in which life can go wrong. But she also found other women like herself — women from Mexico and Central and South America who have struggled to start from scratch in a nation that, truth be told, holds no guarantees that dreams and reality fly in formation.

Together, these women — for now, seven faces stacked on a weekly Thursday evening Zoom meeting — call themselves Latinas 413. They’ve got plans to empower, support and inspire immigrant women such as themselves. More than 200 Latinas have joined their Facebook group, which serves as home base for now.

In December, they set up a GoFundMe campaign that raised $4,350 to assist three financially struggling Berkshire families. Another round of funding has begun.

Liliana Atanacio, 37, who has spearheaded the group, dreams of eventually having a physical space, loosely modeled on the social clubs founded by the waves of European immigrants from generations past. Latinas would be able to walk through the door and find mentors to guide them on matters regarding education, finance, family matters, health and entrepreneurship.

And maybe, just maybe, on weekends, one could walk through the door and smell home-cooked Latin-American food and dance to the music of a live band blowing the roof off the place.

“The Latino community keeps growing, and it’s going to continue to grow,” says Atanacio, who moved here from Toluca, Mexico, in 2008. She’s now a graduate of Berkshire Community College, a single mother of two preteen daughters, a licensed driver, and a fluent English speaker working as a bank teller in Lee.

Atanacio keeps what she calls a “wall of heroes,” those in the community who have challenged and inspired her. Latinas 413 wishes to pay it forward. The needs are many.

Many new immigrants “don’t speak English, and many don’t have proper housing and basic needs like food, rent, jobs,” Atanacio says. “Many don’t have documents. Many don’t have much schooling.

“We care,” she says. “We want to serve.”

'My roots, my home'

All seven women came here believing they could find a better life, and now they remain here endeavoring to prove themselves correct.

That includes Marina Dominguez, 31, who followed in the footsteps of an older brother and moved here from Argentina, nearly five years ago. She arrived with not much else but a few T-shirts. She’s now a life coach studying psychology at BCC and working at No. Six Depot Roastery & Café. She recently bought her first house, on Doreen Street in Pittsfield.

“This place now is my roots,” she says. “This is my home.”

The group includes America Lopez, 38, from Mexico City, who came here 16 years ago wondering if life could be anything like that depicted in “Sex and the City.” Surprise: Not yet.

But, she eventually learned English, gave birth to a daughter, bought a mobile home in West Stockbridge, and learned to love the Berkshires’ outdoor life. A 2020 graduate of Berkshire Community College, she hopes to eventually continue her studies at Smith College or Mount Holyoke.

“We’re not the ‘poor immigrant,’” Lopez says. “We’re the people brave enough to leave their own countries, learn a new language, start a new life. We are here to give.”

The group also includes Carmen Villalobos Guevara, 24, who moved here from El Salvador in 2014 to join her father, who runs a Pittsfield auto shop. She graduated from Pittsfield High School, then BCC, and she’s now a senior at Smith College with plans to become a child psychologist.

“We’re aware that there are Latino women out there lost and disconnected and afraid to ask for help,” Guevara says. “Our project is just starting, but we have a lot of hopes.”

Tannya Romero, 30, who arrived from Ecuador along with her brother in 2009, is also a member. In Pittsfield, they reunited with their mother, whom they hadn’t seen in nearly seven years. Romero learned English, graduated from BCC, and earned a bachelor's degree in biology with a pre-medical concentration from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

While she works for a manufacturing company in Lee, she’s planning to eventually go to medical school. As a member of Latinas 413, she helps other Latinas navigate the complex world of scholarships, financial aid and grants to save them from the frustrations she encountered.

“We can make it easier for others,” she says. “We can help them to connect.”

The group includes Catheryn Chacon, 30, who settled in Lee from Bogota, Colombia, in 2005, along with her parents and sister. Chacon eventually graduated from BCC and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in accounting and a master’s degree in accounting, both from the University of Massachusetts.

While working remotely for an accounting firm in Boston, she’s helping to steer Latinas toward developing marketable skills.

“They’re in a country where, if you work hard and if you know where you want to go, you can go there,” Chacon says.

Sing with confidence 

Together, Latinas 413 comprise a dream team of shared struggles and victories large and small.

Back to one such victory in a Pittsfield apartment on a cold winter evening, Cabrera is singing in her Zoom vocal class.

“¿Para qué ser fríos si el mundo nos hace sentir en casa?”

Why be cold if the world makes us feel at home?

Still inspired by the mariachi music of her childhood, she squeezes the music lessons in between jobs as a babysitter, Spanish teacher and caretaker.

From 5,600 miles away, her instructor’s advice to her (rough translation): Don’t make painful faces when you sense you’re singing incorrectly. No one notices the tiny imperfections. Sing with joy. Sing with confidence. You got this.

Her kids, Gael, 15, and Liberty, 8, are doing school work in the other room. Gael was born with microtia, a congenital deformity of the ear. He’s now a healthy young man who dreams of one day buying his mother a farm.

Liberty says she’ll most definitely attend college, and eventually buy a mansion.

Their mother, who strums upon a ukulele and sings the old songs of valor and heartache, would settle for both of them simply remaining who she raised them to be: diligent, delightful, compassionate Americans.

Felix Carroll lives in Housatonic. He can be reached at felixcarroll5@gmail.com.