Maria De Los Angeles Mendez is a child of Mexican immigrant parents. She has known from a young age that she wanted to help the community that she is a part of.
Once she entered high school, she became a junior organizer at Juntos, a Latinx immigrant organization based in South Philadelphia that fights for the rights of immigrants in the Philadelphia area.
“I mainly focus around the youth,” Mendez said. “I work with youth from ages 12-18, and every Thursday we have Fuerza, which is where we do workshops surrounding their culture, so we teach them about their roots.”
Mendez, like many children of immigrants growing up in Philadelphia, said it’s not uncommon for people like her to lose touch with their culture when surrounded predominantly by Americans.
“I was raised in predominantly White neighborhoods so I always felt like I was the black sheep and I kind of felt left out,” she said. “So here at Juntos we try to provide spaces where we can all relate and talk about the struggles we go through and what we face as immigrants and as kids of immigrants.”
Juntos as an organization tries to meet a swath of needs in the immigrant community, working to advocate for policy change and delivering resources, often in concert with committed volunteers and activists, according to Alana Adams, the operations and event coordinator at Juntos.
“The last piece of what we do is the committees,” Adams said. “We have different ones. We have Orgullo which is for LGBTQIA+ Latinx folks, and then we have a sanctuary schools committee which is parents and youth working together for sanctuary schools and those are both communal spaces to share and discuss different identities and issues as well as leadership development.”
Juntos will soon be launching a housing campaign supporting tenants and renters rights, focusing specifically on those who are undocumented, Adams said.
In her work at Juntos, Mendez has been partly focused on supporting sanctuary schools programming in the city, providing resources to make schools more welcoming to the children of immigrants.
The majority of students in Philadelphia schools are Black and brown, many of whom are immigrants or children of immigrants. Beginning in 2020, Juntos surveyed hundreds of educators in Philadelphia to learn more about customs and immigration trends that exist within Philadelphia’s school districts.
But, meeting students cultural needs can often take a back seat to the other crises that beset the school district.
“What we see in public school systems are lead in water, bad infrastructure, no nurses, and no counselors,” Mendez said. “Schools like SLA and FLC are good schools, however during the pandemic people found asbestos even in these schools.”
As other institutions may fail to meet individuals needs, staff and volunteers at Juntos step up in other ways. For instance, sanitary products such as diapers, tampons, pads, toilet paper, and other toiletries are all available free of charge out of Juntos South Philadelphia location.
Benjamin Gamarra, the resource organizer at Juntos, works hard to obtain necessary resources for the immigrant community here in Philadelphia and sees providing for people’s needs as a core part of the organization’s mission.
“I mainly work with mutual aid efforts,” Gamarra said. “We have the luck of being one of the recipients of the Bank of Philadelphia in order to help the new kids on the block and also with direct service.”
Because of the pandemic, organizations such as Juntos became even more essential, given the way COVID-19 impacted especially vulnerable immigrant families. Juntos focused on providing as much material and administrative support as they possibly could to those in need.
“COVID hit us really hard,” Adams said. “A lot of us lost our jobs. A lot of immigrants in our community lost their jobs and we were really struggling. Obviously we don’t have the privilege to stay at home, and we don’t have medical care, so there were just a lot of issues that our community had to face.”
According to Adams, much of the organization’s success comes from connecting people with the resources they need.
“In a lot of ways we work like a directory,” she said. “We’re not lawyers, we’re not technically advocates even though we do advocate for people often, so if someone comes to us basically about any problem, if it’s within our expertise we’ll help them resolve it.”
Members of the immigrant community often need a wide range of services, though it can be hard to access those services without a connected advocate.
“If they need interpretation, we’ll help interpret,” she said. “If they just need someone to sit down and help make phone calls for them, help them deal with the courts, help them make appointments, with lawyers, et cetera, we’ll just sit down and help them do it.”
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