Welcoming home Latino immigrants

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The first thing you notice about Marisol Chiclana is her smile – warm, genuine and seemingly always this close to laughing. Then her voice, soft, but firm, with a lovely mischievous tilt to it. Behind her undeniably sweet demeanor; however, lies deep determination, and a winning competitive streak.

Chiclana was recently named a Bush Foundation Fellow, one of only 21 to win the prestigious fellowships (out of hundreds of applicants) this year. To receive the fellowship, Chiclana had to go through a rigorous application process that made her truly examine her dreams.

“When I came here from Puerto Rico, I was lost, I didn’t have family here … and my dream is that other immigrants won’t have to go through that.”

To make this dream a reality, Chiclana wants to open the Home of the Latin American immigrant (La Casa del Inmigrante Latinoamericano en Minnesota), and to do that, she knew she needed to go back to school.

Currently a state-wide coordinator for the Infant Toddler Training Intensive Program (ITTI) Chiclana says, “I know about grassroots organizations, but I need to know more about public policy and the big picture. I know I need to go to school to sustain that dream.”

That is why Chiclana applied for the fellowship. But before she explains the process, she insistently first says, “I just have to thank my family here in Minnesota, in Puerto Rico and the community for the opportunities they have given me, without them, I wouldn’t have been able to do this.”

The support of her husband, daughter and her extended family, she says, was crucial in getting her through the challenging application process.

She says, “The experience makes you grow – just the application questions themselves help you find yourself. Its not just a fellowship, its an incredible, unique opportunity to evaluate what you really want to do in your life and find your passion. The process makes you fight for what you want. The process helps you identify what you want, figure out your passions and re-evaluate your options. It makes you stop dreaming and makes you start planning.”

With the Bush fellowship, she will be able to go to school full-time at the U of M’s Humphrey Institute and get her master’s degree. She begins school in September of 2006, and when she finishes her Master’s program she hopes to open the House, la Casa.

“I want a place where people can have a cup of coffee or a cup of chocolate and feel welcomed and cared for,” she says, but also notes that she doesn’t want to reinvent the wheel, “I want to help them connect with services that are already here. I don’t want to do things alone and I don’t want to do things that have already been done. I want to help bring people together to figure out how to coordinate efforts.”

She says she wants to start here in the Twin Cities and then use her Casa as a model for other areas, where she says, the need is growing.

“I didn’t know anything about the system when I came, despite being a US Citizen. I came in the middle of the winter – without a coat – and I didn’t know where to go. Basic information helps people immensely,” she notes.

Her vision for the project is as lovely and engaging as her personality, and it is easy to see how judges for the Bush Foundation were captivated, “I visualize it as a large house, lots of colors, with the smell of coffee and music in the background, no desks, only circles of chairs, and with people to welcome you,” she explains.

But beyond images, too, is an understanding of the true purpose for the Casa, “What I want to do is empower the community and new immigrants – they come with so many skills, and they can share and eventually help others. It’s not just my dream, it is the dream of the whole community.”

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