Empowering La Comunidad

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After spending a year teaching English at a teachers training college in Northwest Argentina, I decided to put my experience to use back home in New York.  I learned about Mixteca Organization, Inc. from a friend and quickly started a position as an instructor for the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program.  I knew that this experience would be different from what I was doing before, serving as a teaching assistant for students who would become English teachers, especially since my students at Mixteca were starting at a basic level.  Nevertheless, I was up for the challenge (as well as the commute from the Bronx to Sunset Park, Brooklyn) and became part of a community.  The people I taught were adults of all ages and a variety of nationalities, the majority lived in Sunset Park, all hard-working individuals.

Founded in 2000 by a group of Mexican community leaders in response to a lack of resources for the Latin American immigrant community in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, the inspiration for Mixteca’s work began when founder and board president, local dentist Dr. Gabriel Rincón, noted the great number of HIV+ cases within the Latin American immigrant community in New York City while a fellow at Bellevue Hospital in 1991.  Rincón and his associates, entrepreneurs, all of whom were his neighbors in Puebla and now live in New York, realized a need in raising awareness of the virus as well as addressing other  issues for the local immigrants of predominately Mexican descent.

Mixteca’s quest for educating and empowering the Latin American immigrant community began in 1994, before Mixteca’s official founding, with a Power Point presentation on HIV prevention prepared by Dr. Rincón given at places where Latin American immigrants congregate: factories, schools, beauty salons, churches, etc.  With a full-time health promoter on staff, Mixteca continues to provide workshops on HIV prevention, counseling and treatment. Mixteca has established relationships with a local hospital and two local clinics to provide medical care to undocumented (uninsured) individuals for free or at the lowest possible cost, and also provides informational workshops on issues such as diabetes, high blood pressure, domestic violence, substance abuse, as well as explaining immigrants’ rights to health care, providing referrals and organizing health fairs to screen for potential health problems.

Academics and education services include ESOL classes, Spanish-language adult literacy and basic education courses, after-school tutoring for middle and high school students, and Spanish language computer literacy and Internet classes.  Mexican History classes are offered along with celebrations commemorating important cultural events.  Mixteca’s programming also addresses legal and social issues such as immigration policy and labor law by providing workshops on these subjects.  This summer, Mixteca will carry-out an educational awareness campaign and host a series of talks and workshops for parents, adults and college-bound high school students, on higher education options available to the Mexican and Latin American community.  This will be complemented with a seven-week intensive SAT Prep program for teens between 8th and 12th grade.

A group of 20 community and professional volunteers and small but committed staff are what make each program happen.  All this great work is lead by a 22-year old recent college grad, Executive Director Rodrigo Camarena. Camarena began his career at Mixteca as a volunteer, coordinating the ESOL program, and is now overseeing the organization, distinguishing himself as a leader within the Latin American immigrant community.  Finding themselves unable to dedicate the amount of time they had in the past, Rincón and Mixteca’s Board of Directors saw a need for an Executive Director.  After several interviews, they chose Camarena, a person who had shown themselves to be a valuable asset to Mixteca.  “Although Rodrigo had no experience, we knew him and how dedicated and responsible he is.  How can you get experience without an opportunity?”, Rincón states.  Together as a team, Rincón works closely with Camarena to ensure that he passes on all of his experience, adding, “[Rodrigo] is really committed. In the six months he’s been director, Mixteca has really grown.  He’s been a tremendous help.”

Name: Rodrigo Camarena, Executive Director of Mixteca Organization, Inc.

Age: 22

Born and raised in Mexico City. I’ve lived in Spain, Italy.

Where do you live? Boerum Hill Brooklyn.

How long have you been living in NY? Four years

NYU, B.A. in Economics and Philosophy

Professional experience: Formerly served as assistant to the Consul for Political and Economic Affairs of the Mexican Consulate in New York and as a researcher/translator for New York University School of Law’s Center for Community Problem Solving.  At NYU, I worked on the first-ever Study on the Health of Mexican Immigrants in New York City.  And as a student I translated, in Spanish, The Re-Entry Guide: A Handbook for People Coming Out of Jail.  I currently participate in the Coro Immigrant Civic Leadership program, a program that “seeks to enhance the capacity of leaders working to strengthen immigrant communities.

What is Mixteca’s overall mission/goal?
To serve as an effective and trustworthy resource for families. To be a place that educates people on health, legal, social, and domestic issues and provides families with options and services to achieve success. Mexican and Central American immigrants have both one of the highest labor force participation rates and number of workers per household, but also suffer one of the highest poverty rates among all ethnic groups in the city with one in three Mexicans living below the poverty line. They live in the shadows, work tough jobs for exceptionally long-hours (some even working seven-days a week) only to come home to an over-priced and over-crowded room where violence is not uncommon and sickness quickly spreads.  Their life-style, especially when considering the industries that they’re employed in, is extremely dehumanizing and difficult to change.  Those that do find the time to better their English or make an appointment to see a doctor find it extremely liberating to be able to come to a place where they get to focus on themselves for a change, and not the family they they are feeding in their native country of the countless difficulties, abuses and battles they they suffer on a daily basis.  People come here and find exactly what they’re looking for.  We have already provided nearly twice as many services in the first six months of this year than we have had in the past and have distributed 7500 condoms.  Our goal is to provide over 5000 services this year and we are well on schedule to achieving it.

How many people are part of Mixteca? Hundreds of community members and business owners, dozens of professional and community volunteers, three full-time staff members, and an outstanding board of directors.

The people who come to Mixteca are: From all over New York,  as well as Long Island and even New Jersey.  They are from many nationalities: Ecuadorian, Dominican, Honduran, Salvadoran, Colombian, and Peruvian.  Around 80% are Mexican.  I think that people are attracted to the communal atmosphere here at Mixteca not to mention the wide-range of unique programs that we offer.   I don’t know any other organization that offers what we do, especially in Brooklyn.  Our programs offer our clients the ability to earn credentials that they can use both in their home countries and the United States.  Our computer certificate program, for example, is collaboration between us and the internationally renowned Mexican private university, El Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey.  Likewise, our adult literacy and basic education program is offered by us through the Mexican Institute for Adult Education, which allows us to issue diplomas for adults through the department of education in Mexico.

Since its inception Mixteca has been working off of this solid base and has been fortunate enough to attract a great number of its clients on reputation alone. Nevertheless outreach also forms an essential component of what we do, especially in our work with HIV.  We hope to become a guiding force for Brooklyn’s Latin American immigrant community.  A place of refuge, solace and hope.

What has been the biggest challenge for Mixteca? Testing for HIV in women.  They are disproportionately less likely to get tested then men.  This is extremely worrying when considering that HIV infections among women in NYC are on the rise.  We are currently exploring and addressing this challenge through our HIV women’s initiative and hope to fund complementing initiatives and programs in the years to come.

How did you get involved with Mixteca?  How did you become the first Executive Director? I am the first full-time ED, and my being here came about entirely by chance. After volunteering over the course of a year and a half I became increasingly involved in the organization, its clients and the community.  I was moved by what this tight-knitted community had achieved in such a short amount of time and without any staff to speak of.  When the position for an ED opened I jumped at the opportunity.

What was it like for you coming from Mexico City and seeing so many Mexican immigrants in NY?  Is that what motivated you to volunteer in the first place? I had never considered NYC as a city with a strong Mexican presence.  I reserved those assumptions for cities in the South and South West or those with a long and ingrained history of Mexican immigration, such as Chicago.  Arriving in New York and seeing so many of my co-nationals was eye-opening.  The sheer size and presence of the population was overwhelming.  I was finding myself missing home less and less. I love my country and more so its people.  Coming here and finding a such familiar and welcoming community definitely attracted me to my work.

Why do you do what you do? As an immigrant myself, I am well-familiar with many of the challenges that immigrants face.  I was fortunate enough to have overcome many of these challenges and found the experience incredibly empowering.  It is satisfying to be in a position that helps others achieve this same fulfillment.  We’re shaping and ensuring a bright future of what might one day well be New York’s largest community.

What do you like most/least about living/working in New York?
New York is an exceptionally dynamic and vibrant place.  People aren’t only interesting but also sincerely interested in making and contributing to change.

When you came to NY for college, what did you think you’d be doing once you graduated? I thought I’d work as a journalist or researcher of some kind.  Admittedly, I was trying to be realistic.  Since I’ve graduated and entered my position my hopes and expectations have multiplied and outgrown me in some ways.  I’m constantly thinking of the future and the hundreds of small and lasting changes that I achieve with the organization and it’s community.

Best place you’ve had Mexican food in NY: I’m not telling…

For more information about Mixteca Organization, Inc. and how you can volunteer, visit or call (718) 965-4795.