“All we have left is to unite” – the Latino group trying to give East Boston a voice

A scale model of the Suffolk Downs redevelopment plan presented at the first neighborhood-wide public meeting on Oct. 2 in East Boston. Photo by Emily Carson / BU News Service

By Katharine Swindells
BU News Service

The offices for Neighbors United for Better East Boston (NUBE) are unassuming, to say the least – a mid-sized, open space above a pizzeria on Maverick Square surrounded by South and Central American cafes and shops.

Inside, a pitbull mix named Leia lays contentedly by the large table, chewing a piece of wood. NUBE co-founder Gloribell Mota, 44, along with colleagues Enilda Lovo and Giovanni Miranda, spoke with Leidy Quiceno via speakerphone about their plans for an upcoming presentation at Charlestown High School. By the end of the meeting, Leia’s wood was a pile of splinters.

Teaching about systematic oppression in a way that appeals to a ninth-grade civics class is no small feat. Quiceno pointed out that they should try to think of some positive examples, “so we don’t depress the kids.” They suggested small actions in the community that the students might have seen.

“If your father is a homeowner and he’s renting to undocumented immigrant people, he’s probably not charging them the overpriced prices that other people would,” Quiceno said. “He’s not threatening or intimidating a community that’s vulnerable.”

The discussion turned to the case of Ms. Vasquez, the Latina woman and her daughter who were attacked on Maverick Square in February for speaking Spanish to one another by assailants shouting, “This is America! Speak English!”

Lovo gestured to the window of the NUBE office. “Right there,” she said, and Mota echoed her. “Right on our doorstep.”

On Super Tuesday afternoon, Mota was on the road, picking up older voters who needed help getting out to vote or translating at the polling station.

NUBE is a non-partisan organization, but Mota couldn’t help herself from weighing in on the candidates and their reception in the community.

“My mom’s like – I’m gonna vote for the old guy!” Mota said. “You know what they’re calling him? Tío Bernie!”

Mota parked on the curb by East Boston High School’s polling station, watching the steady stream of after-work voters file in. She waited to collect her friend Estrella-Luna, who was part of NUBE’s founding and had been volunteering to support the poll workers all day. Just two hours later, a segment about this particular polling station aired on Telemundo New England.

Estrella-Luna related her experience of the day including higher turnout than usual for a presidential primary and, especially exciting, high numbers of inactive voters filling out paperwork so they could vote for the first time in years.

Citizen engagement is NUBE’s bread and butter, even if national politics isn’t their usual ballgame. Mota said voting is key to make politicians take notice.

“Just by the nature of them being active voters, the candidates are going to look at who is this person? What are their issues?” Mota said. “Versus them seeing us as, oh, let me not bother. They don’t even bother voting.” 

Born in Brooklyn to a Salvadoran mother and Dominican father, Mota moved to Boston in 1980 when she was four. They moved around the city and settled in East Boston where she began high school. She attended East Boston High, a school that is now 82% Hispanic and where 77% don’t speak English as their first language. 

In 1990 however, East Boston was still a primarily Italian-American community.

“We used to get the cops called on us if we had parties,” Mota said. “I remember on Marion and Bennington, there was this little market that said only Italians could park there.”

In 1990, Latinos were 18% of the area’s population, by 2010 they made up 53%. Bennington Street now houses El Salvador’s Boston Consulate General. 

Mota ran for state representative in 2007 and, although she lost, her campaign created momentum among the local community. They decided to capitalize on that momentum, and created NUBE.

Enilda Lovo, the only other paid member of staff at NUBE, began working there in 2011. She moved to the United States alone, leaving a large family behind in El Salvador, and began working as a cleaner.

“When I met Gloribell, I realized that there was a different world and opportunities opened up to a world that I didn’t think existed here,” Lovo said, speaking only Spanish. “We have to fight a lot with the political system of this country, fight for human rights and fight against everything. All we have left is to unite, I believe.”

Mota said housing is the dominant issue for East Bostoners. They worry about being able to afford rent, facing barriers and discrimination to renting because of their citizen status and being able to stay in the community their children go to school.

Most recently, NUBE is fighting over the proposed development of luxury housing in Suffolk Downs, which they say will strangle the racial and class diversity of the community. They demand all consultation materials be provided in Spanish so that the whole community can have their say.

NUBE volunteer Giovanni Miranda first got involved through a campaign to make it easier for undocumented people to get a driver’s license. He then became involved in housing activism.

“I realized about the injustice in this sense, and when one thing connects to another,” Miranda said in Spanish. “When one sees the majority of injustice is for immigrants and more specifically for the undocumented – this has made me involve myself more.”

Mota said the Vasquez assault is a prime example of the importance of having grassroots organizations ready to rally around the community.

“That’s the stuff that I feel is the hardest to digest, the rhetoric, the criminalization, whether it’s the Muslim community or the Latino community, the African-American community,” Mota said. “This political climate has definitely allowed us space to talk about those things.”

But, she said, these issues won’t go away if a Democrat is elected in November. She pointed out that Obama had the highest number of immigrant removals of any president.

“So, it’s really about the system and what kind of system we want to be in this country,” Mota said. “Come November, whichever party takes control. It’s gonna be up to the locals to really demand what we want. That’s what I’m hoping for.”

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