Alexa Cuellar, a young leader who volunteers at Centro Presente, discusses empowering the immigrant community and why she wants a career in humanitarian work.read more
Tell us about your background and some of the events that have shaped you.
I was born and raised Honduras Central America. I grew up in a small village. My father was a peasant, a member of an Indigenous community in Honduras. I come from a very, very poor family in a rural area. We didn’t have drinking water or electricity. The house of my grandmother had no bathroom inside; you had to go outside. So, I grew up poor, but my dad was a big influence on me. He was the first to go to college in our family. He was not able to finish, but he became an elementary school teacher. He always was fighting for justice. I think he was my leader. I also went to a Catholic college with nuns who were very progressive. And I was also a big fan of Monsignor Romero. [Óscar Romero was a Salvadoran archbishop who was revered in Central America, much as Martin Luther King, Jr. is here. He was assassinated in 1980 and canonized by Pope Francis in 2018.]
When did you come to America and did you come with your family or alone?
I came here to Boston directly from Honduras in 2004 during a very strong winter. It was a shock. I came a few months after my father died of cancer, which he had been fighting. I was very fortunate because I married someone from the U.S. who was doing international work in Honduras. I didn’t know about privilege, but I learned about privilege when I came to the U.S. I came with proper documentation, so I realized that I was in a very privileged situation. It took time to understand all the privilege I was having at that time.
How did you become involved in the kind of work you’re doing at Centro Presente?
I was introduced to organizing in Honduras. I am a journalist by training and I started working for a Catholic Charities in Honduras. It’s a little more progressive there than it is here. During that time, I also developed a lot of my political thinking. I learned a lot about all of the systemic problems that were plaguing Honduras—poverty, corruption, violence—and I realized the connection between the U.S. foreign policy and Central America. That was a very important moment for me because it helped me develop that critical thinking and analysis.
So, how did you find yourself working for Centro Presente?
That’s a really beautiful question. When I moved to Boston, my English wasn’t a hundred percent there. In my country, in order to be bilingual, you have to be a member of a rich family. I never had the opportunity to have a bilingual education there. I came to the U.S. with zero knowledge of what it was like, zero ability to speak English. So, it was hard for me because I was looking for work and I was working as a cashier for some years, then I was a volunteer with a Latino newspaper. And then, when I was connected with the Latino newspaper, I found Centro Presente. I found a very beautiful and a strong person who I really respect and admire. She is Elena Letona and she was the Executive Director of Centro Presente at that time. So, she’s my advisor and mentor and she recruited me! She was very intentionally mentoring me. The good part of that is that I was learning so much. I started as a board member and that was a very empowering process for me—to be an immigrant and a board member of an important organization in Boston. And then I became board president.
In less than a year Elena hired me as an organizer. And then I was the organizing coordinator and every time she was promoting me, I was telling her that I wasn’t ready yet. And then she sent me to Boston University to do an associate program in nonprofit management. And I took the program without realizing that she was preparing me to become Executive Director. The following year, she said, “I’m leaving and I think I have the next director and it’s you!” Of course, the board had to approve of it, but in the end they offered me the position.
I think that Alexa and I have the same kind of connection that Elena and I had. [Alexa Cuellar is the emerging leader chosen by Patricia for the Annual Report.] She is only 20, but I was only 29 when I became director of Centro. She’s amazing. I see her directing an organization and becoming a strong leader. She’s already a leader.
Alexa came to Centro as a volunteer, but she went to an event that we organized at City Hall when TPS was terminated. She was very inspired and she said, “I want to work with you. I admire your work.” She was very persistent. And then she started coming to meetings and said, “It doesn’t matter if you don’t pay me.” In the end, she was working with me last summer as an organizer. After that, she went to college and she joined our board. She’s a good leader, strong in heart, of the community—and she has a lot of potential. So, even while she was in college, I wanted to keep her engaged and that’s why we invited her to be a board member.
You’ve mentioned Alexa’s persistence. Are there other qualities that you think leaders should have to be really effective?
Commitment. A lot of empathy with people. And, for me, passion and mission and a political analysis. I’m not talking about political parties; I’m talking about being socially justice oriented.
This is such a time of change—with the pandemic and the focus on immigrants and Black Lives Matter and social and racial justice. When you think about the next decade or so, what do you think are the greatest challenges we’re facing? Beyond that, what would be the best ways to meet those challenges?
Domestically, our biggest challenge is inequality. It’s extremely important. And we have to understand that inequality is caused by an economic system that is in place to keep people poor and to keep disadvantaged communities in the place where they are right now. That economic system is also connected with racism.
Also, of course, systemic racism and the patriarchy and all of the attacks against women and people of color and disadvantaged communities.
I think we also have to change the way we have been approaching immigration. We have been seeing immigration as a domestic issue, but our analysis should be that immigration is a global issue. It is a result of so many policies that the United States has been implementing. In the case of Central America, since the 1980s, so many of the conflicts have been financed by the United States—destroying local economies and the environment I think we should try to change the narrative and understand that forced migration is the result of U.S. foreign policies in many ways. That’s the analysis we use at Centro Presente, but we never talk about that in the wider community. We are a small nonprofit of only seven people and it’s very hard to amplify the message. But, for us, it’s always a priority. We are actually forming and sending delegations of local and state policymakers to Central America, because we believe it’s extremely important to make that connection. I think it’s important to understand how migrants are facing human rights violations and detention centers and through deportations. But we need to talk about why they come and why Central America is unstable. Why there is so much systemic violence there. Almost 56 percent of the Honduran population is living on less than a dollar a day.
It feels like we’re in a tremendous time of self-analysis and considering our own role in the inequities you’re talking about. Do you think this might be a time of opportunity because of all the soul searching that’s going on?
Absolutely. I think this is a time for reflection, change and opportunity. It’s about all of us rethinking and reimagining our society and challenging the status quo and the political leadership structure. And I think that we need to challenge ourselves too—each one of us.