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Latina teens create online space for young Baltimore immigrants to trade advice and find community

Yamilex A. Cruz, 19, is one of five young Latinas in Baltimore who have crafted a website made by and for Spanish-speaking immigrant youth who struggle with adapting to American culture.
Yamilex A. Cruz, 19, is one of five young Latinas in Baltimore who have crafted a website made by and for Spanish-speaking immigrant youth who struggle with adapting to American culture.

The five Latina teenagers, all young immigrants to Baltimore, shared the same struggles: trying to find friends, feeling embarrassed when not understanding English, and working to make their way in a new country.

One of them, who immigrated to Baltimore from Mexico, felt so unmotivated that she wanted to quit school. But the last several months taught her and the others the value of connection.

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Sparked by an internship this summer, the Latina teenagers started a series of conversations via Zoom about the larger themes in their lives — from the intersections of their many identities, to bullying, segregation and isolation. They wound up crafting a website made by and for Spanish-speaking immigrant youth who struggle with adapting to American culture and feeling like they belong. Called parqueologiamigrante.com, or Migrant Parkology in English, the site has attracted hundreds of views from young immigrants since it was launched in August.

“A challenge was having those conversations, but it was also gratifying that through these talks we could create welcoming spaces where everyone can connect and understand where we come from,” said one of the site’s founders, Yamilex A. Cruz, 19, who starts in January as a freshman at Community College of Baltimore County.

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In Baltimore, where 41% of immigrants are from Latin America, and the city’s Latinos are young (81% are under 45), immigrants and advocates say a place to trade advice and commiserate over struggles is key for teens who often have nowhere else to turn. Developing the website also was cathartic for the young women, said Melisa Argañaraz Gomez, who helped with the project from its inception.

“They felt more confident talking about topics that are difficult to talk about in spaces of formal education, topics like immigration or race and ethnicity, or why we are not welcome in certain spaces,” said Gomez, who is working on a doctorate in geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

She knows the immigrant experience well, having immigrated to Spain from Argentina at 13 years old, and later moved to Baltimore.

Melisa Argañaraz Gomez, of UMBC, is working with five Latina teens on a website by and for young Spanish-speaking immigrants in Baltimore.
Melisa Argañaraz Gomez, of UMBC, is working with five Latina teens on a website by and for young Spanish-speaking immigrants in Baltimore. (Melisa Arga–araz Gomez)

The website’s founders are 16- to 19-year-old students from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala. The young women attend Patterson and Benjamin Franklin high schools, Baltimore City Community College, and Community College of Baltimore County.

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They have more than 70 followers on their Facebook page and want to increase their following and reach. Their Facebook posts share everything from citizenship preparation classes at BCCC to where to find so-called ESOL programs — English for speakers of other languages — across Baltimore.The page and website are public.

CASA de Maryland, an advocacy and assistance organization, and the Dresher Center for the Humanities at UMBC provided support with funding and scholarships. Gomez also involved the young women in the research process. Her dissertation explores how immigrant youth fit into the narrative of Baltimore as a welcoming city.

Two of the site’s founders, Yolet Fabian Pérez and Carmen Galindo Varela, are cowriting an academic article with Gomez on Latino studies and how to make virtual spaces more inclusive.

Carmen Galindo Varela taking part in a Zoom call. She is one of five young Latinas that created a website made by and for Spanish-speaking immigrant youth who struggle with accessing opportunities in Baltimore, adapting to American culture, and feeling like they belong.
Carmen Galindo Varela taking part in a Zoom call. She is one of five young Latinas that created a website made by and for Spanish-speaking immigrant youth who struggle with accessing opportunities in Baltimore, adapting to American culture, and feeling like they belong.

The Parqueologia Migrante website is a hub for sharing culture and resources, from what to expect on the first day of school in Baltimore, to colloquial Dominican phrases and a curated Spanish playlist for Thanksgiving. The young women’s written testimonials have a transnational component and compare experiences between their home countries and their lives in Maryland.

“Baltimore has so many opportunities to study. In Guatemala, it is expensive to study and I wouldn’t have continued studying if I stayed,” said Yanni L. Najera, 18, and another founder of the site. “Also Baltimore has more opportunities for women. In Guatemala, it is more difficult if a woman wants to work.”

This month, the Parqueologia Migrante group is partnering with Roots and Raices, a civic engagement and art collective that celebrates immigrants in Baltimore, to get advice on social media engagement and creating new content. Upcoming articles will touch on Baltimore mobility and how to obtain college scholarships.

Site founder Maryi Tatiana Segura, 16, also wants to share content on food donation centers during the pandemic and Baltimore programs where youth can host talks.

The site also features an interview series with notable Latinas in Baltimore. They share their experiences navigating the city as young immigrants and how they achieved success in their careers. One of the interviewees was Xiomara Ochoa, a real estate agent and board secretary for Nuestras Raíces Inc., a community cultural organization.

“Now more than before, because of the interviews we did, I know that with effort, you can achieve many things,” said Pérez, 18.

The project has given the young women a platform — and the confidence to amplify their voices, Najera said.

“I learned how to overcome my shyness, how to make a website, write formal emails and speak up for myself more,” she said. “It helped me a lot to think about the things I had when I arrived. It gave me encouragement to see that I’m not alone and one can achieve whatever one sets out to do.”

Pérez said her dream is for immigrant youth to feel less alone, get motivated for their futures, or simply, for those who lack family support, find community. A section of the website enables others to contribute with articles of their own and share their truths.

“This was a window in the middle of this terrible situation with COVID, where we cannot talk to other people or have these relationships with others,” Gomez said. “We were able to create a safe space virtually.”

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Moving forward, Najera dreams of expanding the website’s reach by hosting articles in multiple languages, not just Spanish, and connecting with immigrants who have come from areas besides Latin America. Cruz wants the site to compare and document the immigrant youth experience across different U.S. cities.

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“There are some young people who want to get ahead,” Pérez said. “Maybe there are opportunities for us, but we don’t have a guide. I would have liked to have a place where I could get informed about Baltimore when I came.”

Stephanie Garcia is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers issues relevant to Latino communities. Follow her at @HagiaStephia.

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