• Cynthia Matthews

Remember Where You Came From

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Laura Bush’s visit to one of our Head Start centers in the early 2000s. Pictured from left to right: Christine Alvarado, former Board Chair Kathy Freudenberg, former First Lady Laura Bush, former ECMHSP CEO Rafael Guerra, and former Senator Elizabeth Dole.


In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, we wanted to learn more about the organization’s Latino leaders.  Christine Alvarado, ECMHSP’s Chief Innovation Officer, shares insights about the farmworker community we’ve been serving for more than 40 years.

How did your career with East Coast Migrant Head Start Project begin?

In 1991, I had just returned to the U.S. after serving in the Peace Corps.  I answered a three-line classified ad for a child care center director that could speak Spanish and could start a program in a rural community.  I thought, ‘I can do that for a while before grad school!’ I applied and was immediately hired.  I had no idea it was a Head Start program, and didn’t know it was for farmworkers.  The center I started was Saint Martin’s Migrant Head Start, known today as ECMHSP’S Newton Grove Center.  At the time, Saint Martin’s was operated by one of ECMHPS’s delegate agencies.  When I learned more about the farmworker community in North Carolina, I knew I was ‘home’.  Their hard work, values, and strengths were relatable to those my family taught me.  I learned more about Head Start and knew I had found my life’s work.

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In your early career with ECMHSP, what were the main cultural barriers farmworker families faced in the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Program?

At that time, farmworkers were viewed as expendable commodities.  And in North Carolina, if you were Latino, you must be a farmworker.

I once attended a community meeting where the community wanted to pack ‘the Mexicans’ in a semi-trailer and ship them back to the states they had on their license plates (Florida and Georgia).

Living and working conditions were terrible.  Families lived in old tobacco barns, abandoned buses, tents, and their cars.  Many lacked running water or adequate plumbing.  We regularly encountered children of all ages in the fields, some working and some there because there was nowhere else for them to go.  Many workers were at the mercy of crew leaders and growers.

There was tremendous growth in the Latino community in general at that time, and there was very little leadership or advocacy at any level.

Things have improved; there are fewer children in the fields due to OSHA enforcement.  There are fewer families in the migrant stream and more H2A workers, so we don’t hear so much about the abuses, but it is still happening, just under the cover of the H2A visa program. 

Farmworkers still face many of the same challenges we worked on 20 years ago – substandard housing, dangerous working conditions, lack of access to health care and education, food insecurity.  We’ve made progress, but there is still so far to go.

The southeast has been slow to make progress, because there’s little organization and because economic conditions aren’t as good in the first place for anyone in the southeast. 

How did your cultural background help you build trust with farmworker families to better serve their needs?

It definitely helped, especially when I worked more directly with children and families.  While from different places, we shared a culture, which enabled me to empathize with families and begin to establish trusting relationships.  There is no greater honor than being entrusted with someone’s child or baby – this trust is essential to what we do.  While it is not essential to share a culture or language to establish this trust, when someone does, it gives them a head start in building this relationship that is so essential in working with children and families.  We also need to build safe places for families that face a lot of external challenges and threats.  Seeing someone who looks like them and sounds like them is always a relief and helps to establish that safe place.

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Capitol Hill visits take place every year in June. Our farmworker families and ECMHSP staff meet with policymakers to advocate for our community.


What does National Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you?

Pride, acceptance, and respect.

In your opinion, how has National Hispanic Heritage Month changed in the last couple of decades?

In the past, it was nonexistent.  I don’t even remember it being a ‘thing’ in North Carolina until 10 years or so ago.  Now it’s an opportunity to get to know the Latinx culture beyond the Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

PathStone - March

In early March, Christine Alvarado visited to our delegate agency PathStone. ECMHSP partners with PathStone, a multi-state community development and human services organization, to provide high quality Head Start services to the children of migrant and seasonal farmworkers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.


Since most of our farmworker families are Hispanic, what is the best advice you can give them, so their children grow up being proud of their heritage?

My father told me once ‘remember where you came from’. Simple, but SO important when facing pressure to assimilate and become something you’re not.

I grew up in a biracial family, although at that time we didn’t call it that; we were ‘Mexican-American’.  At that time, my family and community thought that the best way to get ahead was to fully assimilate, which meant that the Spanish language was not supported or perceived to be of value. 

Now we know, of course, that being bilingual and bicultural has social, economic, and even cognitive benefits for children and families.  So, value and recognize the importance of and acknowledge the assets that come from your heritage, whatever it is.  Recognize that the languages and cultures you share are gifts.

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