East Boston

Loss of status, lack of words frustrate Colombian immigrants
By Marcela Flores Iga

Yasmin Gomez came from Colombia to East Boston a year ago to find a safer life.

Things haven't been easy, she said, "but it was this or nothing."

Feeling her life threatened in a country known today for its violence, she says she had to leave everything – well-paid managerial job in a big company, a nice house, her friends – even her family. Once here, with no legal documents and no proficiency in English, she had to settle for a minimum-wage job cleaning offices.

As the Office of New Bostonians reviews her legal status, Gomez struggles to learn English. “I want to find a better job and I want to be more involved in my community,” she said.

“Around 150,000 Colombians are currently living as refugees in the United States”.

Like many other newcomers to East Boston from Colombia – often well-educated immigrants who fled not only the civil war in their country but also successful jobs as managers, architects and professor – Gomez holds a deep sense of frustration.

It is a frustration borne of having to start from scratch – of having to rebuild a life.

In some ways, that makes the situation of some of East Boston’s Colombian immigrants different from other Hispanic immigrants who came here seeking a better standard of living.

“The Hispanic Community in the United States is a myth.” -Sgt. Arthur M. McCarthy of the East Boston Police Department

“The Hispanic community in the United States is a myth,” said Sgt. Arthur M. McCarthy of the East Boston Police Department. “Just because they all speak Spanish means their situation is the same…We call them Hispanics or Latinos because it simplifies things for us.”

But there is at least one common problem shared by most: a frustration borne of an inability to communicate. Many new immigrants must learn English, both to communicate and to get ahead. And that is a frustration that is shared regardless of background or nationality.

They have to depend on others for daily interactions, are looked at as different regardless of their efforts to adapt, settle for minimum-wage jobs and see better opportunities fly away.

Loreta Pardi, the program director of the English as a Second Language Program for adults at the East Boston Harborside Community School, sees how Hispanic immigrants struggle every day between two or three jobs to find a little time to learn English, what they know is a key to open doors.

According to a survey by the program staff, most students said their main concerns are: learning English and at the same time having to adapt to the culture, keeping a job or multiple minimum-wage jobs, supporting a family, having a house and immigration issues.

“It’s hard to study and focus when you have children to take care of but don’t have a house, or money, or a legal status,” Pardi said.

For these reasons, the progress is slow. Many students need a whole year or more to complete the program. Others don’t ever completely learn it after years of living here.

“We want to help new residents find better jobs, have economic and social self-sufficiency, and enjoy their new life so eventually they become more involved in the community and contribute through civic participation,” she said.

East Boston in numbers: Immigrant population increases and also poverty and unemployment rates.

Other Stories:

Breaking down the language barrier
Unifying by demystifying: McCarthy's story


5 students share their experience


Colombian push for stronger protections
Report: Bilingual education and Latino Identity
Does a Latino Community exist?
East Boston 2000 Census


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