A Higher Calling

A former nun spends her days in the Second Ward, trying to bring a better life to its Latinas

HISD officials "don't want the parents in the schools," she says. "It's easier for them if the parents don't know what's going on. If those things were happening on the other side of town, it wouldn't be tolerated for a New York minute."

But May is careful to walk the line between assisting her clients and fostering dependence. It's one of the reasons she doesn't live in the Second Ward. For May and her co-workers, El Centro is not so much about doling out services, but respecting clients' wishes.

"I think we do people a disservice when we try to take over their lives," she says. "We are here to cooperate and support, not dictate."

Sixteen-year-old Betzy (foreground) has been attending the after-school group for three years. The casual environment allows for lots of conversation.
Deron Neblett
Sixteen-year-old Betzy (foreground) has been attending the after-school group for three years. The casual environment allows for lots of conversation.
Mary Medina, known as the Godmother of the Second Ward, says May's race doesn't matter to local residents.
Deron Neblett
Mary Medina, known as the Godmother of the Second Ward, says May's race doesn't matter to local residents.

The two rooms tucked in the back of the bottom floor of El Centro are covered in about 20 different colors of paint. The words "El Centro de Corazon" have been painted in bright purples, reds and oranges on one wall, and handprints cover the rest. A few comfy couches sit next to a table, where recent art projects are drying, and a paint-spattered boom box plays Tejano music at a low volume.

It's here that the after-school program for girls meets every weekday. The group is run by Ana Montellano, who grew up in the East End and is getting her master's in psychology at the University of Houston, and Amanda DeRosario, an artist who has worked with Hispanic youths for the past six years. Both are in their twenties and give off a cool-big-sister vibe. Because many of the girls have no way of getting to the meetings, Montellano and DeRosario often pick them up and drop them off. They also arrange field trips and bring in speakers to talk about everything from sexual health to photography. Recently the girls participated in CowParade Houston, decorating one of the artworks in partnership with the Houston Center for Photography.

"Girls are tougher to work with," says DeRosario, who worked with male juvenile offenders before coming to El Centro two years ago. "I believe they mature a little faster. But unlike other places I've worked at, I feel here you really get to know the kids."

DeRosario and Montellano steer clear of a classroom setting and instead try to create an easygoing mood, where the girls work on homework or art projects at one large table. They then pick up on the girls' conversations, adding insight and opinions when they feel it's necessary. The local news or current events sometimes guide the topics of discussion, and the older girls often talk about sexuality and boyfriends.

On one recent afternoon, DeRosario catches one girl casually using the word chuntaro, derogatory slang for a Mexican person. She argues that it's just like black people using the N-word.

"I'm not getting after you or saying, 'Don't use it,' " says DeRosario evenly. "But to me it's a big problem. I don't like it." She says it fosters a negative image of Mexicans. Several of the girls around the table give their thoughts on the topic, telling DeRosario whether they agree with her or not.

Soon the conversation branches off into a discussion about the differences between Mexican and American cultures. DeRosario and Montellano say the clash between generations and cultures is something that comes up often during meetings. They say some recently immigrated parents may not entirely understand or value a young daughter who wants to go to college. They may not discourage early marriages. And they often don't talk about birth control or boys. But both women say they are careful to try to respect the aspects of the immigrant culture, something that's not always easy for the girls in the program.

"You know, I don't feel like I'm 100 percent American, but I don't feel like I'm 100 percent Mexican, either," says one girl. "I go to Mexico and my cousins say, 'Say my name in English,' and I'm like, 'I came here to speak Spanish!' "

A longtime member of the group is 16-year-old Betzy, who started attending meetings at the age of 12. Born in Mexico, Betzy moved to Houston when she was three. She says she wants to go to college and be a computer technician. The oldest of four children, she has already fixed her family's radio and television set.

"Amanda and Ana tell me just because you have a boyfriend, it doesn't mean you can't do this or that," says Betzy, who admits that while with one boyfriend she was "afraid to show the real me" and was always acting shy or not speaking up.

"Here at El Centro, I'm the one cracking them up or making them laugh," she says. "They say, 'Betzy, express yourself! You're not quiet.' "

DeRosario believes it's the setting of the meetings that provides for much of the group's success. A good part of that is May's influence as director, she says. Other agencies worry more about pushing clients through certain programs, but May encourages her employees to come up with their own ideas and to work independently of her.

The fact that May is white means little to DeRosario and other employees, she says. It's the former nun in her that is slightly disarming.

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