Lazos offers ties for Morris' Hispanic community
MORRIS, Minn. - For many members of Morris' growing Hispanic community, life in Morris is a time set off by parentheses, a time to work before going back to the lives and families they left behind in Mexico.
One of the major goals of Lazos, a community group that reaches across the various demographics of Morris, is to inspire members of the Hispanic Community to make something better out of their time in parentheses, to get to know their neighbors, to improve themselves and to grow as a person while they are here, said Edna Mar, owner of La Tienda and co-founder of Lazos.
Lazos - which translates to "ties" in English - was founded last spring to try and help local Hispanics connect with each other and with the Morris community, said Lazos co-founders Windy Roberts and Hilda Latner.
Lazos will be holding its second annual "Cinco de Mayo" dinner fundraiser on Friday, April 20 at the American Legion. The proceeds from this fundraiser, which attracted more than 200 people last year, are used to support Lazos' efforts to connect the Hispanic community in Morris. The fundraiser also serves as an opportunity to share their work with the community and try to recruit more help for projects.
"The hard thing has been explaining that it's not that we have a 'needy' Hispanic community," said Roberts. "They are very able, they have their jobs, they have beautiful families. We wanted to find ways to integrate them better, to create opportunities where they could mingle with each other and the Morris community in different ways."
One of the group's biggest successes and ongoing projects is support and organization for English as a Second Language (ESL) classes offered in partnership with Morris Community Education and the University of Minnesota, Morris.
In the past, ELS offerings in Morris were available, but they were isolated and without many resources. Working with Robert Frischmon at Riverview Dairy, Lazos developed a more focused ESL curriculum that includes new books and resource materials for instructors, placement tests and four different class levels based on ability.
Keni Zenner, a University of Minnesota, Morris senior and member of Lazos, is one of the volunteer ESL instructors. Zenner said the classes are designed to teach English as a means of social empowerment for participants.
"It is about teaching English for integration, but also teaching English so that people can feel comfortable going and talking to different people or feel comfortable defending themselves if they need too," said Zenner.
Lazos member Citlali Ibañez, has been participating in the ESL classes for two years. Ibañez moved to Morris about two-and-a-half years ago with her husband and children, nine-year-old Natalia and five-year-old Mario.
"When I first came, Edna helped me with everything, with everything I didn't know," said Ibañez. In addition to helping her navigate Morris better, learning English has helped her communicate and support her children.
Mar, who serves as a resource for the Hispanic community in Morris, said she has seen a positive evolution related to the classes, that people who previously didn't see a need to learn English are making an effort to learn.
Zenner added that the classes are always looking for more community members to help teach new ESL classes; most of the classes are currently taught by UMM students. Potential instructors - who do not need to be able to speak Spanish - will go through literacy training and have resources available to help them learn how to teach.
"Having adults from the Morris community would be a really great link, a nice 'safety net' - ESL students would be able to go talk with those teachers that they know are supportive of them," said Zenner.
Money from the fundraiser has also been used to help sponsor a community meal, coordinate a winter indoor soccer league and summer soccer tournament for the local Hispanic community and purchase soccer equipment and games for a weekend event at the Regional Fitness Center.
Long-term, the goal is to make the projects Lazos has started and supported self-sustainable so the group can move on to connecting organizations and developing other programs.
Roberts, a Spanish teaching specialist at UMM, is currently working with Stacy Aronson, associate professor, and students Jordan Wente and Cristina Montanez to chronicle the Latino experience in Morris through a project with the Center for Small Towns.
Wente and Montanez are meeting with focus groups in the Latino community to learn more about whether Latino community members are receiving the support and services they need. Lazos could eventually step in to try and improve those services, like they've done with the ELS classes.
"We can help spread the word and get other organizations to be more active about making this place even better," said Roberts.
Allyce Amidon of the Center for Small Towns contributed to this story.