Centro Romero is a community-based organization that has served the immigrant and refugee population for over 35 years, located on the northeast side of Chicago. This historic site is publically accessible today due to the efforts of volunteers ranging from student tutors to professional attorneys. Centro Romero was founded in 1984 from the volunteer efforts of Salvadoran immigrants in response to Chicago’s rapidly increasing Latinx immigrant and refugee population. Given the continuously unmet needs of these underserved communities, Centro Romero’s mission is as significant now as it ever was in helping new American residents and their families adjust to life in the United States.
Backstory and Context
During the 1950s and 1960s, amidst the Cold War spreading to Latin America, civil wars were breaking out in several Central American countries. Due to the U.S.’s foreign policy patterns of backing right-wing dictators, the U.S. was accepting fewer and fewer political asylum seekers from countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala. As Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration & Nationality Act of 1965, capping Western countries’ immigration to 125,000 per nation, the Central American refugee crisis intensified. In response, many U.S. churches offered asylum to these refugees, alongside priests and laypersons in Latin America speaking out against these human rights violations. One such priest was Saint Óscar Romero, after whom Centro Romero was named.
Óscar Arnulfo Romero, recognized as a Saint by Pope Francis in August 2018, was made the fourth archbishop of San Salvador in 1977. He quickly rose within the church hierarchy and witnessed firsthand the suffering of El Salvador’s poor. Romero experienced increasing government sanctioned violence against socially active priests, but despite the threat to his life, began broadcasting his sermons over radio stations to denounce the violence of the civil war, and the patterns of abuse and injustice which fueled it. Romero, dubbed “the Voice of the Voiceless,” became internationally recognized for his efforts, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. As if predicting his own eventual martyrdom, Romero said prior to his death, “As a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people.” Romero was assassinated during Mass on March 24th, 1980.
Today, Centro Romero carries on Saint Óscar Romero’s legacy of being a voice for the voiceless, advocating for unprivileged and often overlooked refugees and immigrants in the Chicago area since 1984. Centro Romero’s mission, according to their website, is to bridge these disenfranchised communities of immigrants and refugees into mainstream American society, and to improve their opportunities for upward social mobility. The Chicago Tribune has reported on Centro Romero as having helped thousands of newcomers find their way, from learning how to use a computer, to ironing out legal issues, and especially to read and speak English better. The Chicago Tribune Charities, a McCormick Foundation, are one of Centro Romero’s funders. Other donors include Alianza America, UnidosUS, Chicago Citywide Literacy Coalition, Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, and others, as well as various funding at the federal, state, and local level.
The four overarching services that Centro Romero provide are Adult Education, Family Services, Legal Services, and the Youth Learning and Leadership Program. For adults trying to acclimate to life in the United States by furthering their education, Centro Romero provides 180 hours of instruction per week, taught by sixteen instructors and over one hundred volunteers annually. Among their twenty-seven courses, Centro Romero offers four levels of English classes, Spanish literacy classes, computer classes, citizenship preparation courses, GED programs in both Spanish and English, and a health care bridge for those going into the medical field. The legal services Centro Romero provide include Direct Service Representation, Immigration Education, and Advocacy Services to low-income, primarily Spanish-speaking immigrant community members. Centro Romero hopes that by assisting immigrants and asylum seekers in gaining legal status either as lawful permanent residents of U.S. citizens, the person, family, and the greater community will be enhanced.
Other legal services Centro Romero offers fall under their Family Services, which include the Domestic Violence Prevention Project. Through this program, Centro Romero offers legal advice and counseling to victims of domestic violence, up to and including helping victims and survivors obtain legal residence. Other Family Services Centro Romero offers are their Immigrant Family Resource Program, which aids families in accessing public benefits such as SNAP, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which assists families in dealing with home energy bills, energy crises, and home repairs that are a result of weatherization. Centro Romero also helps families fill out applications for services such as Child Care, Child Support, Medical Card, Social Security Disability, and offers referrals to many more.
Finally, Centro Romero offers its Youth Learning and Leadership Program. The Chicago Tribune notes, “Though grappling with a shortage of both space and volunteers, the group continues to run its after-school program, which provides homework and reading assistance to first- through eighth-graders in small groups four days a week...” As well as taking students on field trips to places like Northwestern University, museums, the zoo, waterparks, and offering cooking and photography lessons. Centro Romero’s efforts to incorporate meaningful experiences to round out the education of the children of immigrants and refugees are notable, and are especially important to not be overlooked.
Through their dedicated efforts and the array of services they provide, Centro Romero continues to carry on the legacy of Saint Óscar Romero, in caring for others and in acting against the injustices of society.
Centro Romero. Edgewater Chamber of Commerce. . Accessed May 31, 2019. https://www.edgewater.org/businesses/centro-romero/.
Saint Oscar Arnulfo Romero. Franciscan Media. . Accessed May 31, 2019. https://www.franciscanmedia.org/saint-oscar-arnulfo-romero/.
Rubin, Bonnie Miller. Centro Romero Gives Immigrants a Helping Hand. Chicago Tribune. December 03, 2014. Accessed May 31, 2019. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-holiday-giving-centro-romero-met-20141128-story.html.
Jenco, Melissa. Centro Romero provides tutoring assistance to Latino children on Chicago's Far North Side. Chicago Tribune. November 09, 2011. Accessed May 31, 2019. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2011-11-09-ct-met-holiday-giving-centro-1109-20111109-story.html.