by Jenni Whalen
BU News Service
Jeison Peguero, 16, stands in the lobby of Sociedad Latina in Roxbury, Mass., distractedly twirling the front wheel of his bike and talking loudly in Spanish to a group of neighborhood kids.
Peguero looks clean-put and polished. His short black hair is perfectly styled, and he wears a knit sweater and mittens on a cold February day. He carries himself with the confidence of an older man, and he is clearly respected by his peers.
Like many of the high school students who sit around Peguero on couches and chairs in the lobby of Sociedad Latina, Peguero comes from a Roxbury neighborhood rife with poverty and gang violence, a neighborhood where perfectly styled hair and a clean-cut look are the least of concerns. But Peguero has plans to move beyond the Roxbury neighborhood where his cousin was killed in a gang-related shooting two years ago. He says that he dreams of a college degree and he hopes that some day, he will be able to help his mother pay her bills.
Sociedad Latina, a nonprofit organization located in the heart of Boston’s Mission Hill neighborhood, was founded in 1968 to provide cultural, social and recreational activities for the Latino population of Boston. Now, the nonprofit organization focuses on working with at-risk Latino youth, like Peguero, in the Mission Hill neighborhood.
Students who attend programming at Sociedad Latina are paid to do so.
The organization hopes to guide those students into college, providing them with jobs and internships to build professional skills, and teaching them to create progressive change in their communities.
Sociedad Latina’s donors hope that the organization can contribute to what Michael Ross, Mission Hill’s city councilor, sees as the neighborhood’s biggest challenge: job preparation.
America is experiencing a jobs crisis,Ross said in a phone interview, and Mission Hill represents a real example of that struggle. “We need to train our adults and students so that they are job ready. Sociedad Latina plays into that need very well.”
In many senses, Mission Hill represents the jobs crisis that President Obama has been tasked with repairing this term. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment in America currently rests at 7.9 percent. According to the Mission Hill Neighborhood Housing Services, 7.4 percent of Mission Hill residents struggle with unemployment as well, but Ross says that the sheer number of Northeastern University students living in the neighborhood skews that number. With 36 percent of Mission Hill households falling below the poverty line, there is little doubt in Ross’s mind that jobs training should be the neighborhood’s foremost focus in 2013.
At a grassroots level, Sociedad Latina is working to meet Ross’s challenge by keeping the Latina youth of South Boston off of the streets and in the classroom, and by training them to be active participants in the community. In a program that the organization calls “Mission Possible,”at-risk students are taught that they can go to college and that they can change the cycle of their community.
Peguero and many of the other students at Sociedad Latina are at risk for falling beneath the poverty line like their families before them, but Sociedad Latina staff members like Martin Figueroa, 31, make it their mission to help those students find their way out of a difficult system.
Figueroa, the Latino Cultural Coordinator at Sociedad Latina, acts as a mentor to Peguero, who is the Youth Leader for the Cultural Arts program. Because of Figueroa, Peguero has been given the opportunity to plan and run arts based events, like open mic nights and community art sessions, for Mission Hill residents and fellow students. Peguero is also learning to play the guitar, and he says that he has goals and dreams that would never have crossed his mind before he began attending Sociedad Latina’s programs.
Once afraid that he would fall into the legacy that his family had left him, Peguero is now excited about his future. “I’d like to keep music and street art as my hobbies,” he says, “but now I want to get a college degree in technology and business.”