Q & A with Ramona Casas, Mercy associate, community animator

by Soli Salgado

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Mercy Associate Ramona Casas was 12 years old when she crossed the border in the trunk of a car, buried in clothing as her uncle's friends drove her from Mexico to the Rio Grande Valley. After three years of working as a babysitter, she returned home to her parents and 18 siblings in Mexico.

She got married in Reynosa, Mexico, and a few years later came back to the United States with her new family, settling in Las Milpas, Texas, an underserved and impoverished neighborhood in the cit of Pharr, Texas. It wasn't until President Ronald Reagan's amnesty bill — the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 — that her status became legalized.

The following year, she met Mercy Sr. Gerrie Naughton, an Irish immigrant who came to the United States with a vision to transform the community by empowering its immigrant women. Naughton founded ARISE (A Resource In Serving Equality), and she and Casas began a program that would quickly grow from a handful of women eager to learn English and basic life skills to a grass-roots network with hundreds of members. Programs include early childhood education, driver's license training, baking and sewing classes, English language development, and leadership training. Today, Casas is a community organizer and advocacy networker, and she directs ARISE's Border Witness Program.

Casas said she knew she and Naughton (who died in 2009) were ambitious from the start, but she never imagined ARISE would be what it is today, with three centers each serving different greater neighborhoods.

GSR: Tell me about the original vision for ARISE.

Casas: Gerrie said she wanted to help with our community's needs but said she didn't want to do anything for the community [that] the community could do for itself. I didn't have a clue what that meant at the moment, but soon, I started to know what that means.

As we discovered the needs of our area, she would tell us that there are a lot of gifts in each family, that all of us have everything you need to survive on your own. The only thing we need to discover are all the individual talents and gifts, put them together and work together. That's how I want to help, she said, by helping each person be the best person God created them to be.

We started from our own homes. She rode her bike throughout town, going door to door trying to figure out what it is every family needed. It was good for me to see one sister be interested in us by herself, that one person who's willing to be open and respectful of our culture can do so much for so many people.

She began by teaching us basic English, the vocabulary that we would need to work in schools and introduce ourselves to people. She had asked me to find women who were interested in learning English, so I invited 50 people into my home for her to meet, which scared her at first. But together and with my neighbors, we organized small groups. Since the beginning, ARISE has put value in having small groups so that we could develop strong relationships as tutors, as animadoras — the community animators.

When we started, I didn't know how to turn on the car or where to put in gas — nothing. I started immediately learning English, from the alphabet to sentences to organizing classes. She said she wanted to call me the 'animator' for students. Share your dreams, your roles, and why you want to learn English. Motivate them. Even if you struggle to pronounce [a word], don't be embarrassed, and encourage them not to be embarrassed.

What would you tell women who are interested in starting a similar program in their community?

We wanted to have a lot of programs but needed to learn how to prioritize. That was one of our greatest challenges. We wanted to respond to all the needs, but Gerrie always said no, we can't go too fast and lose our focus; we can't respond to everything, so let's focus on education and English and open doors for organizations around us to help with other community needs.

She helped us figure out our skills and gave us responsibilities accordingly, and mine was with handling and receiving visitors, organizing our classes and groups. Together, we have all the resources. That's why I believe God made different talents — so that together, we can accomplish.

The structure of ARISE is a circle. Everybody is important but has different responsibilities. I cleaned the toilets this morning, and even that made me feel proud, even if a few moments later I'm working with the media. It's OK to do the hard work in general and be in leadership.

Everyone could be able to start an ARISE if they have the love to listen to needs and the belief in others — be open to working hard together, building the trust in each other. This is one of the very essential requests to work as a nonprofit, to invite everyone at the table no matter their faith, because we see God in each person. If we can do it, anyone can.

Gerrie always said, 'I want to see ARISE in the hands of the community, of the immigrants, because you know your needs. I don't want to see a gringo advocate for your needs, because they don't pay attention to me; that's not my pain, it's your pain.' She encouraged us to be our own advocate and speak out on our needs and problems. That's one of my recommendations.

How do you seek the Holy Spirit in your work?

In the strength and happiness that I feel working here. The Holy Spirit really allows me to make decisions and allows me to stay here and continue the work here and enjoy it. That I enjoy my job is the work of the Holy Spirit. Every time I see a child finish the early childhood program, I feel joy. When I see the ladies talking in English and communicating with staff, I feel the Holy Spirit. When I see our first table, our first building, then [our first] computer, and then we see another center, more staff, more programs — I don't have the words to explain to you how good we feel as a staff and how happy we are, how blessed we feel. I believe God made the call for everyone else. And I feel I am in the place that God has made for me.

When Gerrie explained associates to me, I thought, 'What a gift!' I can learn from the sisters, but I was married with children, so I couldn't be a sister. But this way, I can share their mission and associate with them. I was so happy and privileged to be a part of them and learning how they see God, which is now the way I see God. I was always taught that God is in heaven and Earth, but I never saw him as part of my heart too, as inside of me, too. It's a spirituality that I had to learn.

[Soli Salgado is a staff writer for Global Sisters Report. Her email address is ssalgado@ncronline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @soli_salgado.]