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Empowerment through skill: Nonprofit promotes skills for immigrants

From right, Sonia Medina, Verónica Salazar and Iliana López work on computers at Encuentro as computer repair instructor Bonifacio Dimas looks on. (Kevin Robinson-Avila/Albuquerque Journal)
From right, Sonia Medina, Verónica Salazar and Iliana López work on computers at Encuentro as computer repair instructor Bonifacio Dimas looks on. (Kevin Robinson-Avila/Albuquerque Journal)
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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Encuentro, a nonprofit education and advocacy group for Latino immigrants, offers free classes promoting self-improvement

Verónica Salazar grew frustrated last year after paying a repairman $300 to fix her broken TV.

PLAZA: “Creating their own paths forward”

PLAZA: “Creating their own paths forward”

“It took him five minutes,” said Salazar, a 33-year-old immigrant from Mexico City. “He changed out a couple of gadgets and then charged me $300.”

Not one to sit back and complain, Salazar decided she needed to learn some basics about electronics, not necessarily to fix television sets, but to have the confidence to tackle simple problems with things such as computers.

Now, that self-motivation is about to flourish into a computer-repair business.

Salazar and four other women, all Spanish-speaking immigrants, are eight months into a year-long computer hardware class that is teaching them the basics of computer electronics.

Once they graduate in December, the women plan to launch their own low-cost computer repair service. They also will give back to the community by teaching others how to fix things themselves.

“Having this kind of knowledge and skills makes people stronger,” Salazar said. “From now on, I hope to overcome my own fears to try things myself and to teach the same things I’m learning to others.”

Verónica Salazar studies a computer board in class. (Kevin Robinson-Avila/Albuquerque Journal)

Verónica Salazar studies a computer board in class. (Kevin Robinson-Avila/Albuquerque Journal)

Encuentro-taught

Salazar and her classmates are learning about computer repair through a free, yearlong class sponsored by Encuentro, a nonprofit education and advocacy group for Latino immigrants in Albuquerque’s Barelas neighborhood.

The class and other Encuentro-sponsored programs aim to empower Spanish-speaking immigrants with skills and knowledge that can help broaden their job prospects and improve their lives, said Encuentro Executive Director Andrea Plaza.

“People who come to us say their No. 1 concern is a job and having skills and strategies to earn an income,” she said. “In this case, these immigrant women are completely capable but have lacked opportunities, so now they’re creating their own paths forward.”

The women’s initiative also shows there are good, untapped prospects for building community-based businesses, Plaza said.

“They’re not just making burritos,” she said. “There are bigger opportunities out there, and they’re taking advantage of them.”

Salazar and her colleagues are true self-starters. They already collaborate together as independent contractors on computer-related work, such as offering Spanish-language computer literacy courses and creating marketing and promotional materials for nonprofits that serve the immigrant community.

‘The Community Speaks’

The women met years ago at Cesar Chavez Community Center in the Southeast Heights, where they were enrolled in a computer literacy class. Together, they moved beyond basic computer operation to develop broad knowledge of software programs and systems, which they eventually turned into highly marketable skills.

They formed a women’s group called “La Comunidad Habla” (The Community Speaks), which won a variety of contracts to create products and services for the immigrant community.

Among other things, for example, they were selected for a $12,000 state contract to translate an English-language computer literacy course used by public libraries into Spanish and then teach the class to Spanish speakers.

“We didn’t just translate the curriculum,” said Sonia Medina, a 32-year-old immigrant from Juárez. “We adapted it to make it simpler and more user friendly for the immigrant community.”

Encuentro hired the women in 2011 to teach that computer course as part of Encuentro’s educational programming. It’s now offered in fall and spring, with about 50 students per semester.

Hispano Chamber assist

The Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce hosts the course at its computer labs, said Synthia Jaramillo, who directs the Barelas Economic Opportunity Center.

“What they’re doing is very important for the Spanish-speaking community,” Jaramillo said. “There aren’t many programs that offer what they offer. They address a population that’s sometimes overlooked and under served.”

But class work is often hampered by limited knowledge of computer hardware.

“We face a lot of challenges when there are problems with the computers, because we often don’t know what to do,” Medina said. “That’s been very frustrating at times, for us and for the students.”

The computer repair course is changing all that. The class, which started in January, is taught in Spanish by two engineers, Bonifacio Dimas and Hector Colunga, also Mexican immigrants who volunteer their services at Encuentro.

Colunga is an industrial engineer who co-owns the Downtown computer repair shop MC Computers. Dimas is an information technology program manager for the Special Operations Wing at Kirtland Air Force Base.

CAMINOS model

 Verónica Salazar learns about computer repair at Encuentro with the aid of instructor Bonifacio Dimas. The computer repair course is taught in Spanish. (Kevin Robinson-Avila/Albuquerque Journal)

Verónica Salazar learns about computer repair at Encuentro with the aid of instructor Bonifacio Dimas. The computer repair course is taught in Spanish. (Kevin Robinson-Avila/Albuquerque Journal)

Dimas, who lived for years in San Francisco, taught computer repair courses to Spanish-speaking immigrants in the Latino-heavy Mission District. That program, run by the California nonprofit CAMINOS Pathways Learning Center, serves as a model for Encuentro, given its success in empowering immigrants with marketable skills.

“(At CAMINOS), we opened a community-based computer repair business where students in the course were required to do volunteer work for people who brought their computers in,” Dimas said.

“Many of the students later opened their own computer-related businesses. They offered everything from computer repair to providing Internet access to people without computers.”

Likewise, the women plan to launch their own business after graduation. They’ll also help Encuentro open a low-cost, community-based service where people can take their computers and attend classes.

But for now, the women are immersed in learning the nuts and bolts of computer hardware.

“It’s both theory and practice,” Colunga said. “We teach them all the abstract things they need to know, including the basics of how electricity is generated and AC-DC conversion, and we have them do hands-on work directly on the mother board.”

Apart from acquiring highly marketable skills, Salazar said the course is boosting her self esteem.

“Before, I didn’t even know what electricity was,” she said. “Now I understand what it is and how it works. I feel a lot more confident.”

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