Conexión Américas builds a community without borders
According to the 2000 Census Report, there was a 446 percent growth of the Hispanic population in Nashville between 1990 and 2000. There were few resources, however, to assist these newcomers in integrating their lives with that of the Nashville community or in accessing the services available to them. María Clara Mejia, José González and Renata Soto formed Conexión Américas and teamed up with the Hispanic Family Resource Center to meet this need.
What began with an information and referral service has grown to encompass the Spanish Help Line for Middle Tennessee, and Conexión programs now serve over 2,500 families each year. Soto, current executive director and co-founder of Conexión, explained, “Our programs now cover so many dimensions—from helping Latino families buy homes and start business to helping them learn English—that it’s really amazing.”
Two years ago, Conexión achieved one of its long-term goals with the creation of a true community center, a central hub for education and organization in the interest of “social, economic and civic integration of Latino families.” In December 2012, Conexión moved into its new center, Casa Azafrán, which now houses ten nonprofit resident partners, from Family and Children’s Services to the American Muslim Advisory Council and Justice for Our Neighbors.
“Bringing these ten nonprofit partners together under one roof, we created a central location where immigrants can access essential resources,” Soto explained. “Our partners share the goal of helping make these people integral parts of our community and getting them recognized as such. They provide clinical health services, immigration services, financial and mental health counseling, and community building and organizing. Beyond direct services, we are advocates for the values that helped build this country, including helping change unfair laws.”
Conexión’s mission—and the common immigrant experiences that led to its creation—make it sympathetic to the plight of the LGBT community. According to Soto, “We have locally partnered with and supported the work and vision of the Human Rights Campaign and the Tennessee Equality Project, and we raise our voices whenever we see injustice.”
Though this may seem beyond the organizations mission, she added, “We experience exclusion based on our origins, and recognize that other exclusions are equally unjust. We are part of a larger movement against unfair exclusion: We seek to build a society where no one is excluded!” This is more than a theoretical commitment. “We active seek LGBT inclusion in our organization through our hiring practices and our choices in partners and clients. We want to foster an understanding that LGBT individuals are integral parts of our communities,” Soto said. “We have openly gay employees and board members, some Latino and some not, and that’s absolutely an expression of who we are.”
When I mentioned that some LGBT immigrants hesitate to seek help from immigrants’ groups, Soto understood their worry. “People feel the exclusion of being an immigrant,” Soto reflected. “If you are also LGBT, you might be feeling excluded from your own family and community. We understand these people might carry a heavier weight.”
But Soto was clearly moved to hear that there are LGBT immigrants in Nashville who are deterred from seeking assistance from places like Conexión. “I don’t take lightly,” she said with emotion, “the fact that there are those you have talked to who don’t know about our services or don’t feel that there is something here for them. We clearly have to do more to let them know that this is a place for them, for everyone.”
Conexión and its partners are well situated to be at the forefront of LGBT immigrants’ services. Soto recalled one example that illustrates this clearly. “The mom is part of our parent engagement program, which helps parents ensure their children are getting what they need at school. In that program, we highlighted our counseling programs.” Later, this particular mother approached Conexión, explaining vaguely that she was having difficulty with her son.
When she made an appointment with resident partner Family and Children’s Service, “She opened up to the parent engagement counselor, explaining that her young teen had come out,” Soto said. “She needed a third party person to help her learn to be supportive and to have another adult who could be there for her son as well. This gave the mom a person with whom she could share her fears and questions, and gave the son an outlet as well.”
For Soto, this exemplifies the services of, and need for, organizations like those brought together at Casa Azafrán. “In the end, she wanted to be supportive and lower her social biases—she just needed support. We were grateful for the opportunity to be there in that time of need, to help her prepare and to support her son.”