Nov. 15, 2011
CHELSEA — Founded 6 years before Boston, Chelsea’s history is the immigrant story: First came English settlers, then the Irish escaping famine and then, in the early 1900s, Russian Jews escaping religious persecution.
Immigrants flocked to Chelsea through the 20th century, filling low-paying jobs in city’s many factories and shipyards. Today, the factories are gone — some converted into lofts — and there is only one shipyard left.
Also gone are the city’s once-thriving Irish and Russian communities, replaced again by a new wave of immigrants. Juan Vega is the president of Centro Latino, an organization that offers English classes and other services to help new immigrants get on their feet.
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“Around the ‘70s you began seeing a mass movement of Central Americans, particularly from El Salvador,” said Vega. “The 1980s I would characterize as being a decade where you saw a lot more South Americans." Most recently people from Latin America have called Chelsea home.
According to the latest Census numbers, 62 percent of people now living in Chelsea are Hispanic or Latino, compared to just 9.6 percent statewide. And everywhere you turn, that identity is on display. From its bodegas to its taquerias, Chelsea teems with ethnic flair.
A built-in support system for newcomers
Vega is a lifelong resident of Chelsea and the son of immigrants. He says the things that brought people to Chelsea 100 years ago, such as its close proximity to downtown and its well-established social services, are still attractors today.
“There is a structure that exists here and a vibrancy that goes along with that, that allows newcomers to kind of land here and be able to really find their way in a relatively short period of time,” Vega said.
Mauricio Ramirez is one of those newcomers benefiting from Centro Latino’s services. He came to Chelsea 2 years ago and said that he has no intention of leaving.
“Wherever you go, everyone speaks Spanish here. It’s easy to get a phone. It’s easy to get shoes because you can talk to the people,” he said.
Ramirez left his homeland of Costa Rica only 6 years ago but said the move was something he’s dreamed about since he was a kid.
“That was the only thing I had on my mind: United States. America,” he said.
His reason for leaving was simple: He wanted his piece of the American Dream.
“I want to get a better education than what I have right now. I want to go to MIT. That’s my dream so far, but you have to work." He laughed. "You have to work hard.”
And he does.
Getting ahead, hour by hour and byte by byte
At 5:00 p.m., Ramirez was getting home from his day job as a screenprinter in Watertown. On this night his wife was working, so he waited for their 10-year-old son Edgar to come home. After a quick peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Ramirez was back out the door. He dropped Edgar at his grandmother’s then was off to Centro Latino, where he crammed into a small, stuffy room with 12 other Spanish-speaking students, all hunkering down for a long night of learning.
Ramirez is taking a computer certification program, and it’s intense: 4 hours a day, 4 days a week, for 6 months.
“We’re fixing computers, all the hardware, software and all the components of the computer — troubleshooting,” said Ramirez.
Nestor Uribe, himself an immigrant from Columbia, is the teacher. He stood at the front of the room. Working from a Powerpoint presentation, he taught the class in half Spanish, half English.
“The key is to keep the computer terminology in English but explain the functions in Spanish,” said Uribe. “The whole point is to help them transition with the technology and avoid the language barrier to get in the middle of learning the computer skills that they need to pursue a job.”
Uribe said that when they graduate, his students will be qualified for well-paying jobs in the IT field, bringing them one step closer to the American Dream.
“Instead of working two jobs, now you can work one job,” he said. “Maybe after this you might be able to afford and go and complete your education. You get a college degree, eventually buy a house and start being part of the system.”
A dream deferred?
But despite all the hard work, many of the people living in Chelsea today still fill those low-paying jobs. The average family income tops out at $42,000 a year, making it a struggle to meet the basic benchmarks of the American Dream. In Chelsea, only 31 percent of people own their own home and just 12 percent have a college degree.
But that’s not a deterrent for Mauricio Ramirez.
“Of course we want to buy a house," he said. "You know what thing I like in America? Whatever you see, you can get it." In his home country, he said, it wasn't like that.
Centro Latino’s Juan Vega said it’s that American ethos — the belief that freedom and hard work will pay off — that brought immigrants hundreds of years ago and keeps them coming today.
“A search for a better life,” he said, “and more than that, a search for a better life for our children — that similar thread that drives people to abandon a homeland, to leave something behind in search of something better.”
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