By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
Immigrants face a number of challenges as they try to navigate a new culture, said Mayra Hernandez, who came to the United States from Mexico as a child.
While language barriers and documentation issues can cause stress for families, “many other things stand in the way of immigrants being able to fully thrive,” she said. Navigating the education, housing and health care systems can be challenging, too. “Something as simple as a lease can be a completely unknown concept to people new to the country.”
For the past year, Mayra, 22, has been helping immigrants and others at the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa in Iowa City (CWJ). The University of Iowa graduate started there as a Diocese of Davenport Catholic Campaign for Human Development intern. She has since moved into a permanent position as Community Organizer.
Mayra lived in Brooklyn, Iowa, with her family before moving to Iowa City for college. Growing up, she attended Mass at St. Patrick Parish in Brooklyn and St. Mary Parish in Grinnell. Her Catholic faith, as well as her family experiences, motivate Mayra to humbly look for opportunities “to help those who are in positions we once were in.” Her work at CWJ allows her to do that. “We empower people and give them the tools to find independence.”
As an intern — and now a full-time staff member — Mayra helps with administrative work such as updating memberships, sending email blasts to allies, managing some of the social media, helping translate, making and answering phone calls and working on campaigns. She is bilingual in English and Spanish.
She also helps with the CWJ My Home to Yours campaign, which began in March to help individuals in the Iowa City area cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. “We are focusing a lot of efforts into helping families in financial need. A lot of families have come to us with issues trying to pay their rent and utility bills. … there are a lot of people who don’t qualify for unemployment benefits, and it’s not just immigrants.”
She noted that CWJ is also assisting workers who haven’t been eligible for unemployment benefits. The financial fallout of the pandemic has also been hard on people who’ve had their hours cut.
“We’ve been working with some of the other organizations in town that have funds for rent and utility bill assistance. We’ve been trying to coordinate with them to see that people are getting help for those things, as well as hospital bills and transportation.”
Through her work at CWJ, Mayra has learned a lot about the needs of immigrants and other vulnerable populations in the workforce. She’s also learned a lot about herself. “I’ve realized some of my own weaknesses. There are times when I have to really think about whether what I’m doing is helping, or whether what I’m doing is overstepping. A lot of times I want to do everything for people; it’s better if we show them the ropes and help them learn to do things for themselves.
She believes people are most empowered by the following process: “I tell people, ‘These are the resources. Try calling them and see if they can assist you. If you run into issues or language barriers, call me and I can help you through the process.’”
Loxi Hopkins, former director of the diocesan CCHD program, said Mayra has been doing a terrific job with CWJ and is pleased to hear she has an opportunity to continue working there.
Mayra said she often thinks about how fortunate she is to be able to empower immigrants and other vulnerable workers and families at CWJ. “This is the kind of work I’ve always wanted to do.”