Local support group for Latin American women promotes well-being and leadership

Sept. 18—New London‒ Two local Latinas and immigrants have created a safe space for women like them to find community and build the skills to become leaders in the greater community.

Mujeres Entre Culturas, or Women Between Cultures, is an alternative support group for and by women of Latin American heritage. Lizbeth Polo-Smith and Esmeralda Amparo Bustamante, two community health workers and local activists, run and lead the group.

“The goal is to empower women and make new leaders,” Bustamante said.

The group of women, the number varying per event, meet once every month to learn a new skill such as sewing, craft-making, gardening, CPR, and healthy eating. The women who attend workshops or classes come from a variety of countries — Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Haiti, Guatemala and Honduras. Some know English, some a little or not at all.

Bustamante said they intend to collaborate with different local organizations so the women are aware of what’s available to them in the community.

On Aug. 30 the group gathered at Spark Markerspace in New London to sew felt cases for reading glasses to donate to the city’s senior center.

Polo-Smith said they started the group in March on their own and it caught the attention of their employer, Ledge Light Health District, who alongside Health Improvement Collaborative of Southeastern Connecticut, are sponsors of the program.

The group, however, does not have a place they can call home and currently meets at the New London Senior Center. Bustamante said they would like to have a location or office where they can store donations they receive. She and Polo-Smith store donations in their garages.

Bustamante and Polo-Smith are both Peruvian and have resided in the US for more than 20 years. Starting the group wasn’t hard for them, as they are well-known in the Hispanic community.

Bustamante said often times immigrants come to the US from difficult situations only to experience more barriers, isolation and discrimination. She said they want to improve the lives of the women in the group; make things easier for them, not harder,

The women in the support group have few options for mental health services. The women either do not have insurance or the funds to pay for services, and/or they cannot prioritize their mental health among other needs. Even if they could, there is a lack of bilingual and bi-cultural providers.

Polo-Smith said the COVID-19 pandemic has left many with depression.

Victoria Camacho, 34, lives in Groton and immigrated to the US from Peru about seven years ago. At the Aug. 30 event, Camacho said she didn’t really know anyone before joining Women Between Cultures.

Since joining, Camacho said she’s met more people, learned how to sew and interacted with others, sharing stories. She said it makes her feel better because she’s not isolated at home. In September, Camacho will be giving a class to other members of the support group on how to make decorations made of fruit.

“Here, if you know something, you can share that and teach it to others,” she said. “I love decorating.”

Camacho said she was encouraged by those in the group to start a business of her own making balloon decorations for weddings and birthdays; she promotes it on her Facebook page.

Maria Peña, 64, has resided in the US for 27 years after she moved here from the Dominican Republic. Attending a couple of the group’s events, Peña, who is retired, said she likes helping people and has found a community with Women Between Cultures.

“It helps me get out of the house and out of depression,” she said.

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