Mary Wickham with two Mixteco women at Sacred Heart Center. (Photo courtesy of Sacred Heart Center)
It was not until 2011 that Mary Wickham became aware Richmond had a significant Latino population. The latest census data had just come out, showing that the number of Hispanics in the city had more than doubled in 10 years to roughly 13,000 people.
The number struck her. Here she was, a Spanish speaker with a master's degree in Latin American history, who had spent a year living in Buenos Aires and many months in both Colombia and Peru, and, yet she had no idea so many Spanish speakers were living in Richmond.
“So, I started looking for the Latino community,” she says. “And I went into a bodega and saw in the refrigerated section all the different kinds of cheeses, you know, all the queso frescos. You had queso fresco from Honduras, queso fresco from Guatemala, from El Salvador, from Mexico and it just made me realize how diverse the population was and how settled it was. So, I just really wanted to get to know it better. I drove down Hull Street and down Jeff Davis looking for it.”
She had not long earlier left her job as head of school for St. Andrew’s School, a tuition-free Episcopal elementary school in Oregon Hill. It was during this lull that the Sacred Heart Center advertised a part-time position for a program coordinator. Wickham says she was immediately impressed by the strong relationship between the community and the parish led by Father Shay Auerbach.
She became the center’s only paid staffer. Now, there are six full- or part-time employees, plus, she emphasizes, a vital, dedicated cadre of volunteers.
“She has opened the doors to make Sacred Heart Center a hub,” says the center’s director of leadership, Father Jack Podsiadlo, who joined Sacred Heart in September 2013. “She is one who is bringing both the Latino and the Richmond community together. ... She sees that this is a gift to both sides.”
Under her executive directorship, the Sacred Heart Center, at 1400 Perry St. in Manchester, now offers English as a Second Language classes day and night, GED in Spanish classes, basic Spanish literacy, and citizenship classes. It has partnered with nonprofits that have paved the way for its Latino Leadership Institute, a citizen’s police academy in Spanish, tax preparation services, health care services, college- and career-readiness counseling for high school youth, and a roundtable to better identify and address issues that affect the Latino community’s integration into Richmond.
Wickham announced she was leaving the Center early this month, saying that the foundation is now strong and “it’s time to pass the baton.” Her last day is June 1. She has not yet chosen her next challenge.
We talked last week about how she views Sacred Heart Center's role in Richmond.
It is Wednesday morning. What’s happening at the Center?
Wickham: Tuesday and Thursday are our busier days, but today during the day we have citizenship classes and then tonight we will have several levels of English as a Second Language and also GED in Spanish classes. The Latino Leadership Institute also meets on Wednesday and every other Wednesday, the college- and career-bound program will meet. The idea there is for high school students to supplement career counseling they may or may not be getting in their high schools. One thing that has really changed is DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which temporarily shields undocumented youth brought here as children from deportation.] So, DACA is new and the other thing is access to in-state tuition for DACA students who qualify as residents. A lot are choosing to go to community college and then transfer into four-year colleges. It’s been exciting to see those opportunities open up for young people. It makes a world of difference.
If you could say to the larger community about the Latino community here: ‘This is who they are; know them by this,’ what would that be?
Wickham: That’s a hard question because I think that maybe the most important thing that people need to understand about the Latino community is, one, it’s here. It’s here to stay and it’s been here for a long time. People are settled in the Richmond area. The other thing that people don’t fully get is how diverse the community is. It’s diverse in terms of educational background. You have professionals. You have people who have never been to school. It’s diverse in terms of socioeconomic levels, in terms of the countries they come from, and even in terms of languages. You have people who would be considered members of the Latino community whose first language is not Spanish. Because of that diversity, it’s very hard to say, ‘This is who the community is.’
But one thing I think characterizes the community is a real commitment to family. Most people that are here are here because they wanted to make a better life for their children and they have made sacrifices to create a better life for their kids.
One of the perceptions -- or misperceptions -- common among hard-liners is that this group of immigrants is different from past groups and does not want to assimilate.
Wickham: I think it’s a matter of invitation. I think part of what Sacred Heart Center does is invite people to be part of the larger community. This community has a lot to offer the larger one, and the more barriers we can eliminate so that this community can advance, the better off we will be. If someone wants to advance their education, let’s give them an opportunity to do that. If somebody wants to be a leader in their community, let’s train them and teach them how our system works, so they can participate. At the Latino Leadership Institute, they are learning how our representative government works, both on the local level and the state level, and how can they have a voice in this community. If we are willing to help a little bit, they will teach us things. They will contribute. They are contributing.
What are some of the barriers?
Wickham: There are language barriers. There are legal barriers. An important one is a lack of driver’s licenses for undocumented people. It creates a huge problem because you have to make a choice about what is worth driving to. You could make a mistake, you could be picked up and that has, in the past, led to detention and even deportation. So, we have people who can’t come to English class unless we pick them up. Then there are barriers of misconceptions and pre-judgments. Nationally, there is a lot of vitriol against immigrants on display, but I do think things have gotten better locally. I think there is more appreciation for the Latino community than there was when I started five years ago.
You think that based on what?
Wickham: Just anecdotally, based on the reaction I get from people. In the school system, for example, I think there was an attitude of, ‘These aren’t our people,’ and I think the school system is working on improving that. It’s not that everybody is there, yet, but I think that leadership is definitely there. And, you know, I think the city is coming along. I think people realize they want to reach out to this community.
Despite Rudd’s? [The city’s code enforcement office targeted Rudd’s and other city trailer parks home to Latinos with “comprehensive” and controversial inspections. At Rudd’s, that led to the condemnation of trailers and an exodus of families. Rudd’s owners recently sold the park.]
Wickham: Rudd’s is heartbreaking for me. It’s heartbreaking because it’s like a game of Chutes and Ladders. You see people who have been working hard to develop assets and they just go back to square one. A lot of people suffered from that experience and I don’t think the city decision-makers were appreciating what it was meaning to people’s families and to people’s lives. On the other hand, there were a lot of people who were supporting the residents and were asking, ‘How can I help?’ That was gratifying.
In keeping with the goal of helping this community become part of the larger one, Father Jack told me you did a tour this past Saturday.
Wickham: Yeah! We have a partnership with the Valentine history museum and the Valentine wants to tell the story of the Latino community here. Part of it is teaching the members of the Latino community the history of Richmond. So, the Jackson Foundation sponsored a history tour of the city and we had a big tour bus and the tour was in Spanish. I had the privilege of giving the tour, which was very fun and interesting to prepare for. Did you know, for example, that the first European settlement in this area was a Spanish settlement?
Wickham: Yeah. Nobody knows it. 1571, it was Jesuit mission. I don’t know if we know exactly where it was, but they definitely came up the James. Finding that out and now crossing the James and being able to reframe what my understanding of what our history is, is just really cool. And then it was interesting to try to summarize some things in Spanish, you know, like what was the Civil War — (laughs) — in 200 words or less. ... But this is part of the invitation: inviting people in their own language to understand and be part of the Richmond community.
Can you think of a moment at Sacred Heart where you felt a sense of satisfaction or contentment, where you thought, ‘This is the way it should be.’
Wickham: There are many, but I think getting to know the members of the Mixteco community has really been a joy to me. When I first started, we had a small grant for a Mixteco women’s artist co-op. So, here’s a moment: being in a trailer at Rudd’s with a member of the Mixteco co-op, and — a trailer is a small space — seeing her sitting in a chair with her five children all sitting in the same chair, and all being so happy and content to be together. And that is the most important thing, just that sense of love within a family.
Also, just realizing the trajectory of some of the families. I remember being in one trailer and asking, ‘How does this compare to where you are from?’ And they said, ‘Oh, this is much better. Where we are from we would have a dirt floor.’ Someone might look at these families and see only desperate poverty, but for so many of them, this is really the beginning of the American dream. They are on the way up. Not the way down.