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KBIA's special series ¿Dónde está mi gente? (Where are my people?) features Engagement Producer and reporter Kassidy Arena as she investigates where Hispanic and Latino people are throughout mid-Missouri and why the state has one of the lowest percentages of Hispanic and Latino people in the Midwest. ¿Dónde está mi gente? documents her journey in a six-part, narrative that highlights successes and gaps in demographics, business, community outreach, higher education and identity.

Immigrants take the lead on community outreach for others with their same story

Kassidy Arena
A student is reading at the library inside El Puente Hispanic Ministry. "Hay una necesidad de que llegaron a organizaciones como El Puente", la directora Cristhia Castro dijo. [Translated: "There is a need for more organizations like El Puente," executive director Cristhia Castro said.] Many immigrant community outreach programs for Hispanic and Latino people in mid-Missouri are run by Spanish-speakers and immigrants themselves.

I met with Cristhia Castro on a sunny morning in Jefferson City.

El Puente Hispanic Ministry
El Puente is based in Jefferson city, and there is also a satellite location in California, Missouri.

It echoed in the unassuming brick building and occasionally we could hear the footsteps from the doctor’s office above us. Castro serves as the executive director of El Puente–a Hispanic ministry that works to act as a bridge for Latinos and Spanish-speakers when they move to Missouri, hence the name.

"Es importante que ellos también conozcan la comunidad hispana, que la entiendan y que también den una bienvenida", Castro dijo.

Translated: “It’s also important for the Anglo community to receive the Hispanic community. It’s important that they know the Hispanic community, understand them, and welcome them," Castro said.

She’s originally from Honduras, but has lived in Columbia as well as Little Rock, Arkansas. She said she likes Jefferson City, but she knows it’s not perfect. It's not as diverse as some of the other places she has lived. She's been living in the state's capital for five years and working with El Puente for two. Within those two years on the job, she has noticed her relationship with the Hispanic community in and around the city grow stronger and closer than before.

She’s had to help people in something that can seem basic: like filling a backpack with school supplies and going to doctor appointments.

"No los atendamos a todos a la vez, sino que varía. O sea, citas médicas para unos un día, para otros otro día, ayudarles con papeles para traducir documentos. Interpretación las clases, el transporte a un abogado"... Castro enumeró solo algunos de los recursos con los que El Puente ayuda.

Translated: “We can’t serve them all at once, but it varies. That is, medical appointments for some one day, for others another day, helping them translate documents and classes, transportation to attorneys…" Castro listed only some of the resources El Puente helps with.

Castro works with only three other workers to help around 3,000 Hispanic people across Cole and Moniteau Counties have better access to health care, faith experiences, family services and educational opportunities. With that last emphasis, she politely corrected my grammar when I couldn't remember how to phrase a question about needs in the community.

"Hay una necesidad de que llegaron a organizaciones como El Puente, porque hay, por ejemplo, una meta del Puente, es ayudar a la comunidad que una vez que llegan y se establecen, puedan seguir superándose", ella dijo.

Translated: "There is a need for more organizations like El Puente because for example, our goal is to help the community when they come, to establish themselves and so they can continue to better themselves," she said.

She prefaced she didn't want to sound like a cliché, but she feels serving her community allows her to feel closer to God and have a larger impact on the people around her.

El Puente has been serving Hispanic communities in central Missouri for nearly 23 years. And other organizations are just starting to follow suit.

Kassidy Arena
Ilsi Palacios works with Spanish-speakers to provide health resources and housing support. At the time of the photo, she was working with eight individual cases. "One of my favorite parts is to be able to listen to many who don't have anyone to listen to them, or who are having a very difficult or traumatic experience in their lives and need someone to listen to them. I listen to them, I pray with them and also see how they can get out of the situation they are in," Palacios said in Spanish.

Isli Palacios was recently hired as the Hispanic Resource Coordinator for Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri, which covers 38 counties. And similar to Castro, one of the reasons why Palacios took on this role is because she knows what it’s like to be new. She came to Missouri from El Salvador.

"El primer día de clases, caminando en la nieve y llegar a un mundo desconocido donde no hablaban mi idioma. Pues fue un reto grande", ella dijo. "Creo que debemos de trabajar en remover las dificultades, las barreras que hay para personas de habla hispana".

Translated: “The first day of my classes here, I was walking in the snow and I had just arrived to an unknown world where I didn’t speak the language. It was a huge challenge," she said. "I think we should work to remove the difficulties and the barriers that Spanish-speakers face."

Palacios said language is one of the most common barriers new Latinos in Missouri face. But there’s so many others. When she first started her role in 2020, much of the work she was doing revolved around making sure COVID-19 information got to the communities that have been disproportionately affected by the virus. Palacios also helps connect Spanish-speakers with housing information and other health resources with the goal of increasing self-sufficiency.

If we look and there is a need, we will want to contribute. We want to help each other.
Ilsi Palacios, Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri

On the bright side, Palacios said, she has a front-row seat to see Hispanic and Latino people grow closer together and overcome those barriers with support from one another. She helps them create goals that will propel people toward physical and emotional wellness which, she said, is a beautiful process.

"Tenemos la fe, tenemos la esperanza de que también se van a abrir las puertas en en otros servicios donde la comunidad se sienta aún, todavía más bienvenida", ella dijo. "Yo he notado y si observamos donde hay una necesidad, queremos aportar, queremos ayudar al otro".

Translated: "We have faith, we have hope that more doors will open for more services to make sure the community feels even more welcome," she said. "I have noticed that if we look and there is a need, we will want to contribute. We want to help each other."

Conexion Hispana/Hispanic Connection
Fernando Carbajal poses for a photo on his birthday. He lives in Joplin but works for FCNB Insurance in Carthage. He first came to the U.S. as an exchange student in high school. Many times, he works with other Latino professionals in the city to bring resources to Spanish-speakers and Latino immigrants. "We like to educate them on what they need to do and what they need to look for. Because you'd be surprised how many of them get taken advantage of," Carbajal said.

I started to see this pattern of hispanohablantes or Spanish-speakers, who already went through the new-to-Missouri experience helping others in similar situations. So I called Fernando Carbajal to ask what he thought. About a year ago, he helped start Conxion Hispana–a group of Latino professionals that connect other Latinos with resources around Carthage and Joplin.

Carbajal is from Guadalajara, Mexico and now lives in Joplin. His official job is working as an insurance agent at FCNB. On top of his day job, he also takes time to help other Spanish speakers learn about things you don't learn in school–like how to open a savings account.

“I can look at them and say, you know, how much did they struggle with stuff? Because they're fearful that people will make fun of them? Or they're afraid to ask questions, because they don't want to sound dumb?" Carbajal said. "So I do it because at one point, I've faced what they're facing right now.”

Studies show the majority of Latinos in the U.S. are actually native born. That is, born in the U.S. But the issue is, oftentimes, they can’t go to their immigrant parents for help with those daily situations, that get more complicated when moving around the U.S.

¿Dónde está mi gente? will continue with three more upcoming segments.

For the audio transcript, click here.

Kassidy Arena is the Engagement Producer for KBIA. In her role, she reports and produces stories highlighting underrepresented communities, focuses on community outreach and promoting media literacy. She was born in Berkeley, California, raised in Omaha, Nebraska and graduated with a degree in Journalism at the University of Missouri, Columbia.
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