From Cuba to Columbus

When Nelsa invited me into her home for Cuban coffee and a chat, I couldn’t help but notice the unique, colorful works of art reminiscent of stained-glass windows that were featured in her immaculate and beautifully-decorated living room. Though Nelsa’s house in the Hilltop neighborhood of West Columbus is modest, it is superbly cared for and artfully decorated. Later, after our formal interview was over and we were sitting around the table sipping strong, sweet Cuban coffee and nibbling ham-stuffed pastries, I learned that Nelsa’s husband is a carpenter and that Nelsa worked for many years as a seamstress; Together, the couple had refinished and upholstered their furniture. Much of the artwork on the walls was created by Nelsa in her trademark mixed-media style, a Cuban concoction of glass, paint, and colored aluminum candy wrappers.

I already knew Nelsa was an artist—I wanted to hear more about her journey from Cuba to Columbus. I was particularly curious about the role Catholic Social Services’ Our Lady of Guadalupe Center had played in the process of Nelsa and her husband making Columbus their home.  With Ramona Reyes, Director of Our Lady of Guadalupe Center, acting as my translator, I had the privilege of hearing about Nelsa’s journey to Columbus, and how the Guadalupe Center helps immigrants like herself thrive in their new home.

Nelsa was born and raised in Cuba. After spending 5 years in Costa Rica, she and her husband immigrated to Miami, where they lived for 18 years. In Miami, Nelsa fulfilled her childhood dream of working as a professional seamstress—a profession that was not common in Cuba. Though she enjoyed her work, it didn’t pay well, and at one point in her career Nelsa earned less than four dollars an hour.

When Nelsa’s husband lost his job in Miami due to a labor strike, the couple moved to Columbus because they heard of better job prospects in the area. Nelsa again worked as a seamstress, and she and her husband became US Citizens. Nelsa was forced to retire early due to chronic pain that inhibited her from performing required work tasks. Though Nelsa had worked all her life, due to her move between states and the minimal wages she earned throughout her career, her retirement stipend is $408 per month and doesn’t do much more than cover the cost of medications for her various health issues.

Nelsa found the Our Lady of Guadalupe Center after 5 years of living in Columbus by using HandsOn Central Ohio’s useful 2-1-1 program. This program refers clients to local resource centers, including the Guadalupe Center, after determining their eligibility based on the Federal Poverty Guidelines. All of our food pantry clients are referred to us through HandsOn, which means that all of them are below the poverty line. Once clients are referred to us at the center, we use a voucher system that assigns points to clients based on their specific needs. Then clients can shop for their choice of items at the center.

Nelsa had used other food pantries before, but the others only provided American food, and she likes that the Guadalupe Center provides options that allow her to cook her cultural foods. (When Nelsa served me her Cuban pastries, she told me she had made them with meat she had purchased at the center.) Nelsa also uses the center to acquire personal hygiene and cleaning items that her food stamps don’t cover; by getting these at the Guadalupe Center, Nelsa’s $152-worth of food stamps and her small allowance stretch further. Moreover, Nelsa says that, at Our Lady of Guadalupe Center, the CSS staff treats her like family.

Over time, Nelsa became more involved in the Guadalupe Center community, and in 2014, she took part in—and won—an art competition at the center. At once, she began brainstorming for the next competition and remembered a Cuban technique in which artists glue colored aluminum chocolate wrappers onto glass to create brilliant and unique works of art. Nelsa began experimenting with the technique until she had created her own version of it.

When Reyes saw Nelsa’s work, she planned an art and coffee event, and Nelsa sold multiple pieces. Reyes helped Nelsa connect with a local Hispanic artist, who was able to advise Nelsa on fair pricing, and Nelsa gained further exposure at the Pasos de Arte exhibit at the Columbus Cultural Arts Center.  This led to a further notice, and her art is currently on display at the Denmark gallery in downtown Columbus (through March 2018). Through the Guadalupe Center, CSS was able to improve Nelsa’s life by attending to her basic needs, while empowering her to turn her passion into a microbusiness that supplements her income and, in turn, enriches the Columbus community.

Nelsa believes that the Guadalupe Center provides the immigrant population in Columbus with much-needed services like immigration aid and legal advice, and that the access to hygiene items is a big help to the community. Our Lady of Guadalupe Center is located in the heart of the Hispanic community in West Columbus. This population is vulnerable and in the midst of rapid growth in Franklin County. According to The Ohio Development Services Agency’s report on poverty, the overall poverty rate of this population is 43% and the child poverty rate is 49%. Hispanic children, often hungry and overwhelmed by the hardships of poverty, lag behind in school performance and lack the confidence and education to flourish. At the Guadalupe Center, 88% of our clients are Hispanic, with 48% making less than $5,000 per year, and 80% making less than $12,500 per year.

In 2017, CSS was able to expand the center to triple its former size and transform it from a food pantry into a more holistic community center. Now, we have secured funding to hire a bilingual case manager specifically for the Guadalupe Center. This is a huge step in our goal of being able to provide not just emergency assistance, but also holistic wrap-around services. By connecting the community to services such as ESL classes, job training, and legal assistance, the Guadalupe Center will be able to go one step further toward achieving CSS’ goal of breaking the cycle of generational poverty in West Columbus. Our goal for the Guadalupe Center is for it to be a place of welcome and pride, and to serve as an inspiration to the Hispanic community while supporting them toward economic stability and success, recognizing that these families contribute to the rich culture and growth of our region.

Considering that the Hispanic community in Columbus has four times more children under the age of 5 than adults 55 and older, this population is the future of our community. When its people thrive, they enrich Columbus, just as Nelsa enriches Columbus with her art—and her Cuban coffee and pastries, too!

You, too, can help people like Nelsa make Columbus home. In doing so, you can help CSS stop the cycle of generational poverty and foster a vibrant community on Columbus’ west side.





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