By Nicole Salemi, Director of Community Outreach

Patricia Montes is the Executive Director of Centro Presente (Centro), one of the longest-standing immigrant-led, immigrant-rights organizations in Massachusetts. She spoke as a guest speaker at our November 3 service on “Whose Welcome is it?”. Patricia is a recognized immigrant-rights leader and a tireless advocate for just economic and social policies, including a just U.S. immigration policy. She is an immigrant from Honduras, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She has generously provided a transcript of her testimony from that Sunday service.

Patricia shares openly about her background in Honduras and her journey to Centro in her testimonial. She agreed to speak with me on the mission of Centro as a way of raising awareness of the complexity surrounding immigration justice work.


Q: Let’s start with some basic information. What is Centro and its mission, and how long has it been in existence?

Patricia: Thank you for reaching out and making a closer connection to Centro. It is an honor for me to share about the challenges the immigrant community currently faces, especially the Latin American community which has been invisible up until now.

Centro is an immigrant’s rights advocacy organization located in Boston. Established in 1981, Centro is a member-driven, state-wide Latin American immigrant organization dedicated to the self-determination and self-sufficiency of the Latin American immigrant community of Massachusetts. The organization is operated and led primarily by Central American immigrants, and it works toward advancing immigrant rights and for economic and social justice. Much of this work is done through the integration of community organizing, leadership development and basic services. Centro at its heart strives to give our members voice and build community power.


Q: How long have you been with Centro and how has the organization evolved?

Patricia: I have been directing Centro for the past 12 years. It has been a school for me as I have grown along-side Centro in serving the increasing needs of the Central American community.

Centro has been working with the Central American community since it was established in 1981, that’s almost 40 years working with this community. The history of the organization is extremely connected to the civil conflict in Honduras in the 1980’s. The organization started shortly after to serve the growing Central American immigration community, to educate them on migrant rights and the legal services available to them, to advocate for policies and to educate policy makers, allies, and the media on the reasons behind forced migration from Central American.

One of the most important elements of Centro is education on the root causes of forced migration. This is important for work for allies of Centro as well. Over the years, the organization has focused on advocacy through education to create a deeper understanding for people making policy and to also change policy. We focus on politicians because most of them have no knowledge of why people come to us from Central American countries without documents. The advocacy has also expanded to educating the general public to give an understanding to the question “why are they coming to us?” The organization works to create an understanding of the driving factors of forced migration: extreme poverty (of the 9.1 million people in Honduras, more than 60% live in extreme poverty), violence, corruption and impunity. What many do not know is that many of these reasons for forced migration are connected to US foreign policies—many of which have been operating in Latin America to shape the economy and democracy since 1965—that are not actually helping to improve democracy in these countries.

This is a priority for Centro—here we are 40 years later with people escaping worse conditions in these countries than in the 1980s, according to data from the UN and Amnesty International. Many more people are dying now than in the 80s, a time of open armed conflict.


Q: What does the type of education of Centro look like? What does it entail?

Patricia: In particular, there are three strategies Centro implements to educate general public on what is going on in Central America.

The first is a delegation that travels to Central American countries. Centro is an acting member of Alliance Americas. This organization organizes delegations—comprised of community members, activists, politicians, and members of faith organizations—that travel to Central American countries to have a first-hand experience of the conditions and the effects of U.S. foreign policy in these countries.

For example, one particular delegation was made up of only elected officials. The trip was a really good experience for them to understand a little bit more what is going on in Central America. They met with various members of civil society organizations in Central American communities to gain a more informed perspective. This traveling delegation is a strategy that has been working well.

The second strategy is that Centro organizes panel discussions and round tables with members coming from Central America. We use a story-telling strategy to create connection and a shared experience. Here a person who has undergone forced migration shares their story of what happened in their home country, what forces pushed them to come to US, what happened at the border, what happened during the migration, and what are the challenges they face being undocumented and facing deportation. While these story-telling sessions are educational for allies, they are also cathartic to the person sharing their story. It gives them the opportunity to speak their story, be heard and acknowledged, which is a very powerful experience for them.

We often run these discussions or round tables in East Boston, or at universities and churches, where we host a conversation after services.

The third strategy is we bring international human rights activist from Central American countries to organizations for discussions and round tables here in the U.S. The focus of these discussions are human rights issues and people working within the system to advocate for human rights.


Q: We talked a lot about educational outreach. Are there other services that Centro offers?

Patricia: We’ve already discussed the advocacy work on policy change and education of allies and the general public.

There are a number of other services Centro offers the Central American community. Centro has a legal department that is supporting thousands of migrations to provide affordable legal services for low income migrants.

Centro also has built a Leadership Development School for women. This is a permanent project of Centro and its fundamental purpose is to develop analysis and critical thinking skills, and to learn about self-care and healing.

The school has been running for the past 7 years. Originally the school served all people from the Central American community but over time it has transformed into a school for women because most of the people coming to Centro are female. We have changed the curriculum to cater to them. In the program, students learn about the US government, language, feminism, and take yoga classes. Many of these women are carrying a lot of pain and frustration. The school creates a safe space for them where they can carry their stories and connect to others like them facing the same challenges. These women are coming from a very patriarchal system. The healing starts with their sharing and recognizing the value of their experiences.


Q: What role do allies play in Centro’s work?

Patricia: Centro does all this work with very few resources. Our allies are an important part of this work. Our main goal is to empower our members, when they are able, to share their stories – it provides relief, and their stories are important to change minds and hearts. Our allies can work with Centro to hold discussions and round tables with members of our community. This is important to our organization because it offers an opportunity and process of empowerment, resilience, and courage to our members, as well as empowers and educates our allies about the challenges our members are facing.

For further education and inquiry—a list of additional resources:

The Beast, a book by Oscar Martinez

Harvest of Empire– documentary

Additional resources from the FRS Justice Action Ministry.

Read the Testimonial from Patricia Montes, Executive Director of Centro Presente

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