Esperanza Center marks 50th anniversary by restoring mural

Emblazoned over Broadway are the words of a mother to her son, translated from Spanish to say, "The dignity created through a rich history of efforts, sacrifice and work is, for me, a symbol of Hispanic pride."

The message, conveyed in a mural commissioned to encourage immigrant participation in the 2000 Census, was restored and then rehung Saturday as part of the festivities to mark the Esperanza Center's work in Baltimore for half a century.

The Fells Point facility, which served more than 5,600 people from 77 counties last year, has been a gateway for immigrants to transition to life in Maryland with English classes, computer literacy programs and health services. The center primarily serves Hispanic immigrants — "esperanza" is the Spanish word for "hope" — but is open to any one.

"The Esperanza Center is a place where folks in the community know they can come, find services, be welcomed as friends," said Val Twanmoh, its director. "They know they're safe. They know they will find help and assistance and encouragement, and that's what keeps families coming back."

The center, originally named the Hispanic Apostolate, opened on Sept. 16, 1963, from a single classroom in a local Catholic school. At that time, the majority of Baltimore's Spanish-speaking immigrants were from Cuba.

Eventually, the center moved to 430 S. Broadway, in the heart of Baltimore's Latino immigrant community, and took over all three floors of the building in 2008. Catholic Charities, which runs the facility, welcomes clients regardless of religion.

A small staff is supplemented by teams of volunteers. From the top floor of the building, attorneys and law clerks provide immigration-related legal services, including helping guardians navigate the courts on behalf of abused, abandoned and neglected children and teens who have come to the U.S. without their parents.

On the second floor, doctors, nurses and dentists treat adults and children who don't have insurance. The medical personnel provide HIV and AIDS screening, fill cavities, and perform vision tests and annual gynecological exams.

And on the first floor, individuals can prepare for their naturalization or learn to speak English. The center also works with immigrants who need help enrolling children in school, dealing with landlord troubles or navigating public transportation, Twanmoh said.

Francisco Plasencia, who provides client outreach services at the center, said a pregnant woman recently asked for help spelling the name she planned to give her unborn child, as well as her name and the child's father's name to provide to hospital when she gives birth.

"The center is the place to go for whatever thing they need," Plasencia said. "People come here for simple questions and complicated problems. In short, it's the go-to place for whatever they need."

Over the years, Twanmoh said, the center has been critical for a vulnerable population. In surveys, the immigrants have talked about the stress and uncertainty they face daily, she said.

"Folks talked about the difficulty of waking up in a new country, not being able to speak the language, wondering, 'Will I be able to find the food I need today? Will I be able to use the transportation?'

" 'Will I anyone who will speak my language and who will help me?'"

The center will celebrate its 50 years with a ceremony Monday.

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