Mexican immigrant Obed Arango Hisijara was struck with a bout of homesickness while walking through Norristown with his family one day in 2006, when he vowed to a make a community center for the Montgomery County borough’s growing Latino community.
“One winter afternoon, deeply missing Mexico, I told them as I pointed to an abandoned building, ‘Girls, one day we will found a cultural center there, so that all of us can achieve our dreams, so that the immigrant community can exist,’ ” he recounted.
Twelve years later, on Tuesday evening, the Mexican government presented its highest honor for people and groups outside of Mexico to the Center for Culture, Art, Training and Education, or CCATE, which Obed would go on to found in 2011. Other notable recipients of the Ohtli award include organizer Dolores Huerta, actress Eva Longoria, and the immigrant legal aid group RAICES.
With only two employees, the organization now offers 32 classes to 350 people each week. Although open to anyone, the center caters primarily to Norristown’s rapidly-growing Latino community; about one in four residents of the borough is Hispanic.
Alicia Kerber Palma, Mexico’s consul general in Philadelphia, presented CCATE with an Ohtli Award — named for the Nahuatl word for “path” — for the group’s work creating opportunities for and supporting the Mexican community outside the country.
“The mission of CCATE has been to empower the community,” said Kerber Palma, by making a space for each person to contribute “the best of their talents to create a multiplier effect in the local community.”
Now located in The Centre Theater building in Norristown, CCATE takes the typical community center model and turns it on its head. Those the organization serves are not seen as clients, but “as people with skills and talents and dreams that they want to share,” said Holly Link, director of educational programming and research at CCATE. The center applies the teachings of Brazilian education philosopher Paulo Freire, who called for students to become active participants in their learning, blurring the line between teacher, volunteer, and student.
At CCATE, that means taking participants’ interests and turning them into classes or clubs, leading to programs from ceramics to photography to SAT test prep to cello and guitar lessons.
“Education has to be a dialogue,” said Arango. “Then education can be meaningful. Then education can be love.”
Diana Lugo is one person who has thrived under this model. She first came to CCATE when her 15-year-old son was young, to take part in an adult reading circle and to be with other people in the Mexican community. Now, she is the center’s volunteer programs coordinator and dreams of bringing GED classes there.
“For me, it’s a second home, a motivation, and inspiration, learning from everyone from professionals with degrees and successful jobs to people like me who didn’t finish school,” she said.
The Ohtli is just the latest in a string of awards for the center, which has been recognized by local and state organizations for the artwork produced by its members and for its community impact.
Another form of recognition has been quantitative. The Norristown Area School District tracks the improvement of its students in some qualifying after school programs, and has found CCATE has had a measurable effect.
“CCATE is one of the high performers in the school district in terms of bettering kids’ grades on their report cards,” said Link. “What we’re doing works.”
High student Alexis Flores lives in Norristown and said he began coming to CCATE in the summer, and mostly works with younger students to help them edit film.
“It feels safe… It’s like a family here,” he said.
At the award reception, Kerber Palma presented Arango Hisijara with a small, silver medal on a green, red, and white ribbon, as well as a diploma. In true CCATE fashion, Arango said the award belongs to the community.