- HOPE FOR THE FUTURE: Maria Galicia sees it in her six children. El Zocalo Immigrant Resource Center has helped provide her with tools to better provide for her family.
When Maria Galicia thinks of the future, she sees her children. Like many immigrants, she's oriented her life around ensuring that they have opportunities that she and her husband haven't. "In my eyes, they have one option, to study and do better and find a career," she said through an interpreter last week. She doesn't want to see them working construction, she said, and returning to Mexico isn't an option.
Galicia, who wasn't able to attend school beyond the elementary level, followed her husband from Mexico to the United States 20 years ago. After harvesting nuts for several years in Texas, they moved to Arkansas, where Galicia has worked in a factory, provided childcare, operated a food truck and, most recently, started a cleaning business. She and her husband, who works as a custodian for the North Little Rock School District, now have six children, ages 24, 18, 16, 13, 9 and 3.
Galicia was one of El Zócalo Immigrant Resource Center's first clients. Sara Mullally Broussard and Kelsey Lam co-founded El Zócalo ("town square" in Spanish) in 2011 to connect immigrants from any background with services and promote community-wide understanding through education. At the time, Galicia owned and operated La Herradura, a food truck that specialized in authentic Mexican cuisine. Broussard helped her expand her business by introducing her to people and venues in parts of Little Rock she didn't know well. Galicia ultimately decided the food truck didn't mesh with her families' needs — her cleaning work allows her to be with her children in the morning, clean houses while they're at school, and then be home when they get out — but she's remained involved with El Zócalo.
Galicia regularly volunteers her time to cook at the twice-monthly food pantry El Zócalo offers out of the Geyer Springs United Methodist Church. In addition to food, the pantry provides clothes and health outreach, including dental services, nutrition education and sessions on emotional health. It serves about 15 immigrant families each time.
Galicia is part of an El Zócalo women's group. It's all about education and nurturing, Lam said. "It's helped for teaching skills and information for how to educate my children, for how to think about my children's future and my own future," Galicia said through an interpreter. "It's also a time to think about myself, because most of the time I'm thinking of my children and husband."
Until she started her cleaning business, Galicia worked with or around other Spanish-speakers, and, with the demands of her family, she said she didn't feel like she had time to learn English. But now she is taking an English class El Zócalo provides. Now, when her non-Spanish speaking clients speak slowly, she understands them.
Broussard led El Zócalo until 2015, when she moved to New Orleans. As director, Lam works 30 hours a week, coordinating the nonprofit's programming, supervising and recruiting volunteers, pursuing grants and other fundraising and manning a hotline that immigrants can call when they need help. In answering hotline calls and providing information at English language classes or the food pantry on things like how to manage finances, open a bank account and interact with schools, Lam and volunteers are often acting like social services case workers. More funding would allow El Zocalo to expand that side of its work, Lam said.
"A lot of our clients are in very desperate situations. Over the years, some have lived in homes without electricity or water, had untreated, life-threatening illnesses, survived violence and crime, both in their own countries and here. ... We've provided some 'lifeline' services, helped them get connected to things they desperately need, and at other times the services needed have, sadly, simply not been available in our community.
"A lot of time [donors] want to see a physical thing that [the people they're giving to] get, but I feel like our time is the greatest gift we give to people, especially one-on-one."
As El Zócalo expands, Lam hopes to expand its outreach to the nonimmigrant. "There are some people out there who have a genuine fear of losing their jobs to immigrants," she said. But the hatred she saw directed at immigrants during the presidential election this year and the degree to which it was tolerated affected her, and she said she hopes to do more events with nonimmigrants who "have legitimate questions."