Casa Chiapas looks to bridge gap for unique immigration group

Mexicans from Chiapas face unique challenges. Cielo Gomez is a lifeline for them.

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Cielo Gomez teaches basic Spanish to a student at Casa Chiapas. The student, a 25-year-old undocumented woman from Chiapas, Mexico, never received any formal education. Photo by Roberto Roldan
Cielo Gomez teaches basic Spanish to a student at Casa Chiapas. The student, a 25-year-old undocumented woman from Chiapas, Mexico, never received any formal education.Photo by Roberto Roldan

TAMPA — When the lights at Mort Neighborhood Park are shut off for the night, the lights in a small back room stay on.

Inside, a Mexican flag is positioned in front of a few metal folding chairs. English and Spanish workbooks line the bookshelves of a makeshift classroom.

Cielo Gomez, 33, is teaching Spanish to a 25-year-old woman from Chiapas, Mexico, while the woman's two children sit in the desks next to her finishing homework of their own.

Gomez is the head of Casa Chiapas, a community organization in the University Area that directly serves Hispanics, including the more than 5,000 Chiapan immigrants living in the area near the University of South Florida and Florida Hospital.

They come from one of the poorest and least developed states in southern Mexico. The average Chiapan has less than seven years of schooling, according to recent data from the Mexican government. And Chiapans do not speak Spanish. Most speak native Mayan languages Tsotsil and Tseltal.

Although they account for about 30 percent of the University Area Community Development Corporation's youth program participants, many Chiapans are hard to assist because of deep cultural and language divides.

Casa Chiapas hopes to change that.

Gomez left a position assisting students in English as a Second Language courses four years ago to create Casa Chiapas. Classes and community events were initially held in a small apartment in Tampa.

Gomez arranged math readiness, Spanish and English classes. Those who complete adult education courses can receive their middle school diplomas from the Secretary of Education in Mexico.

She teaches and runs Casa Chiapas with only a handful of volunteers and board members.

When someone in the Chiapan community is in need of medical assistance or other such emergencies, Gomez is the first person they call. Much of her work requires driving for people who have never had a driver's license.

Her unofficial motto: "By helping them, we give them the tools to help us or another person tomorrow."

Gomez's work with Casa Chiapas has helped to build trust between community outreach groups and a weary population, many of them undocumented.

At a recent Thanksgiving meal drive, Gomez brought 30 families in to the Community Development Corporation to receive free food.

"She has been that bridge for us to reach out to the community and say 'The programs here are for you,' " said Corporation chief executive Sarah Combs. "She's opened doors for us by walking families in."

Casa Chiapas also offers basketball and soccer leagues with the help of the Corporation. Romeo Gomez, 27, organizes and coaches the leagues. He said they are vital to tackling obesity, which is rampant in the Hispanic community. It also works to keep kids off the streets and away from drugs, which is a major struggle in the University Area.

"I like when the families are coming and enjoying watching the games," he said. "Our young people don't go outside, but this let's them move."

Casa Chiapas is run through small grants from the Chiapas state government and the federal government in Mexico. In recent years, those grants have gotten smaller.

The group receives roughly $5,000 each year from the Mexican government. It received an additional $18,000 from Chiapas when they first began in 2011. By 2014, Chiapas was sending only $14,000.

Most recently, donations from the Chiapas government have stalled, but the group remains hopeful it will come through.

Contact Roberto Roldan at [email protected]