Latinos en Evanston North Shore connects community amid pandemic


Daily file photo by Dylan Wu

Latinos en Evanston North Shore President Mercedes Fernández and LENS members hand out prizes at their Day of the Dead celebration.

Russell Leung, Copy Chief

Even past midnight, after a long day spent working multiple jobs, Rosa Velázquez is still eager to meet with her colleagues at Latinos en Evanston North Shore.

“I don’t feel tired. I feel like this is my third job,” Velázquez, the LENS program coordinator, said. “Come on, let’s go (get) coffee, and they wake up, because we need to do a lot.”

The organization’s work keeps her and fellow board members very busy these days. The grassroots nonprofit started in 2016 to provide programs and assistance to underserved Latine residents in the northern Chicago suburbs. LENS received its nonprofit status earlier this year. But since its founding, it’s had one focus: serving the community.

“Part of our mission is to promote our culture; that’s why we celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month and the Day of the Dead,” said Mercedes Fernández, LENS co-founder and president. “We also try to take the temperature in our community. We have ears to the ground, listening: ‘What do you need? What do you want?’ And we try to respond accordingly.”

The organization now spearheads a variety of initiatives, like hosting classes for English-language learners as well as celebrating Latine traditions like Día de los Muertos.

LENS Vice President Fabiola Alfonso said the pandemic inspired the organization to expand in both physical and digital spaces. LENS has ramped up its services, from setting up online donation pages to creating virtual programming to opening a checking account and providing the community COVID-19 funds.

Velázquez said it was difficult not only to learn Zoom, but also to teach community members how to navigate the program. Despite that, spreading knowledge proved a rewarding process, she said.

“We feel proud that we finished, we helped the community grow up, up, up, don’t stop,” Velázquez said. “If you need another resource? Yes, I can share. Why not, right? Because the community needs service.”

One of the most popular of these services is its Spanish-language book club. The LENS Readers Club started over Zoom and has two sections that meet weekly. LENS provides club members with free copies of the book and welcomes participants of all reading levels to take part.

Readers Club member Dolores Miranda said discovering a community of people who shared her culture helped break her from the isolation of the pandemic.

She highlighted the meaningful conversations she’s had with other members of the club, where they shared personal experiences and explored topics related to the books they were reading, all of which were written in Spanish. 

Everyone is respectful of one another’s opinions at the club, Miranda said, and members have told personal stories that made an impact on her. She recalled one woman reminiscing about the first dress she ever received from her mom.

“She said that they couldn’t afford a dress, but somehow the mom actually made her a dress, and she felt like she was the most beautiful girl ever because she was wearing that beautiful dress that her mom put together for her,” Miranda said. ”Just thinking about this, it just makes you tear up a little bit.”

LENS board members acknowledged committing significant time and effort to the cause has been a challenge. They all juggle family responsibilities and multiple jobs outside of LENS and said there aren’t always enough financial resources available to sustain the organization’s activities. 

But they said seeing the impact of their work continues to energize them. Alfonso said she enjoys working for the local YWCA, but she takes pride in specifically serving the Evanston and North Shore Latine community through the “small but mighty” LENS organization.

“It’s doing exactly what I wanted for many, many years, and (is) more focused in a specific way,” Alfonso said. “I enjoy everything when I do this job.”

Finance Director Sandra Silvern, who also coordinates classes through LENS for English-language learners, said she is especially happy seeing students improve their English and advance to higher-level classes in community colleges and other programs.

Silvern described LENS as a “missing piece” in her life after working for a Chicago nonprofit for 20 years. When she first immigrated from Honduras to the U.S., she said she faced many obstacles settling down. Now, she said she can finally give back to the Latine community by sharing her hard-earned knowledge of the process.

“We are all Latinos,” Silvern said. “We consider everybody, from Mexico all the way to Argentina, sisters and brothers. We need to support ourselves in this country — inform, educate, keep our culture and our traditions.”

Creating deeper connections between members of the Latine community has always been a priority for LENS, Fernández said. To do so, the group interacts personally with members and uses feedback to directly inform initiatives for LENS.

Mayra Moreno said she recognizes the significant impact LENS has on the community. 

As a family support advocate at Evanston/Skokie School District 65, Moreno said she met several Latine families who were struggling with food insecurity and financial issues near the end of 2020. When she saw LENS step in to help, supplying the families with food and purchasing them gifts for the holidays, she decided she wanted to volunteer. 

Moreno said being a part of LENS means being a part of something bigger than yourself.

“Something that I have noticed by their actions is they are grounded on the roots of the Latino community,” Moreno said. “Being able to see how these little seeds of knowledge, support, connection — among other things — (are) planted in people’s lives, it’s something that I believe is going back to the roots of being united.”

Katrina Pham contributed reporting. 

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