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Kentucky by Heart: Sister Juana Mendez offers hope and direction to members of Hispanic community

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared at KyForward.com on August 14, 2018

Steve Flairty
KyForward Columnist

Juana Mendez remembers well the difficult conditions her family faced while growing up in the American territory of Puerto Rico in the 1950s.

“We lived in the country and we didn’t have running water or electricity,” she said. “We didn’t want to leave Puerto Rico but my father moved here (United States) because he was looking for a job.”

Juana and the rest of the Mendez family joined him in America in 1958 when he established employment. Now in her late sixties, Juana stayed here and raised three now-grown children from an annulled marriage, made so because of spousal abuse toward her. She knows the pain of hardship and rejection, and she wishes to help others avoid the same.

Juana Mendez

Since a little while after becoming a member of the Sisters of Charity 20 years ago, Sister Juana Mendez, Diocese of Covington, works tenaciously and with compassionate understanding for Hispanic immigrants seeking direction. She does so out of her office in the Cristo Rey Parish, in Florence, Kentucky, and also on a mobile basis. Her days are usually long and stressful, and often require trips to court in Louisville, and sometimes trips to Mexico to interview those connected to her clients. She listens to stories of frustration from mostly undocumented individuals who hope to someday receive their “green cards” as American citizens. Using her hard-earned training background, she works through the process with her clients, leading many to reach the goal—and to secure a much better life.

In many ways, Juana sees her own past struggles in theirs.

I recently sat down with Juana at her church office, and we discussed her background and her work — now having reached a caseload of about 250.

“I started working for the Diocese of Covington in 2000. They hired me as a “pastor associate,” she explained. “Our parish was in Covington at the Cathedral, (and) there was a group of Hispanic immigrants who would come to mass there every Sunday at noontime and basically that’s all they would do…go to mass and then go home.”

A servant at heart, she decided to learn more about them. What were their lives in a new country like, and what were their serious concerns?

“I decided to visit people and see what they needed for me to be able to meet their needs,” she explained. Finding that the immigrants desired an English as a Second Language (ESL) and a General Equivalency Diploma (GED) program, she contacted Leo Calderon, Director of Latino Programs and Services at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) for guidance. Along with another person at NKU, both programs were established, and students at the university acted as volunteers during their semesters.

“It was wonderful, and then we expanded into a housing program,” she continued, “and then we got Catholic charities involved.” Additionally, another NKU official started a tax preparation program for the immigrants, and that person continues the project today.

Juana realized early how difficult it was for those not born in America to become documented. About 95% of her clients were in that predicament, so she needed to attain skills that she could use to help them. A lawyer from Ohio offered her expertise on Saturdays by meeting with Juana for a while and afterward continued to look over Juana’s work for accuracy. Going much further in her commitment to serving, in 2007 she acquired the needed certification from the Board of Immigration Appeal in Chicago after taking classes. She renews it every three years.

“Right now, that’s the bulk of my work, immigration work,” she said. “Now the program has been changed and I have to apply through the Department of Homeland Security, so it’s a little different.”

Circumstances change every day with Juana’s dealings, whether it is with government policy, inconsistency with directions from immigrant officials, language barriers, or a myriad of children-related issues. These are just a few of many.

Ironically, children tend to learn the English language “right off,” according to Juana, especially as they congregate around other kids in a school setting. “A lot of times they will be the interpreter for the parents,” she said, eyes twinkling.

I asked Juana the obvious question that many people set before her: Are these individuals not law-breakers, and shouldn’t they be treated as such?

“I understand you need to enter legally, but sometimes there’s no other way,” she said. “There’s (things like) violence, no food, no work, or they have a family who is sick, or they seek shelter. Most want to work…have a better life for their children. They think ten dollars an hour is a lot of money, and they’ll work day and night.”

Steve Flairty grew up feeling good about Kentucky. He recalls childhood day trips (and sometimes overnight ones) orchestrated by his father, with the take-off points being in Campbell County. The people and places he encountered then help define his passion about the state now. After teaching for 28 years, Steve spends much of his time today writing and reading about the state and still enjoys doing those one-dayers (and sometimes overnighters). “Kentucky by Heart” shares part and parcel of his joy. A little history, much contemporary life, intriguing places, personal experiences, special people, book reviews, quotes, and even a little humor will, hopefully, help readers connect with their own “inner Kentucky.”

Most undocumented immigrants, it’s fair to say, try to stay out of trouble and are willing to do what it takes to get their green cards, but there is generally a fear that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will deport them, and even small children often feel the anxiety.

Juana told about a client family with three kids, and the youngest didn’t want to go to school and couldn’t eat. “He thought that he would go to school and he would come home and Mom and Dad would be gone,” she said. “All three boys were born in the United States. However, Mom and Dad are undocumented.”

Sister Mendez is no stranger to push back from those resistant to her ministry. “Several years ago we had a town hall meeting and we were talking about immigration rights,” she said. The meeting was open to the public, and she received approval from her diocese bishop to do so. A non-Hispanic man stood up and made this statement, she said: ‘You’re going to hell because you are helping these illegal aliens coming into the country and you’re helping them. I am going to go to the bishop and tell him what you are doing.’

And though tries not to be overly critical toward ICE and its difficult work, she has mentioned that she has been threatened with jail by ICE officials who wanted immigrant information of which she didn’t have access. Her work would not be stopped, despite such challenges, she said, “and I’ll continue to do it.”

Much of the long-term answer to solving the immigration problem, she noted, is to for change to happen in their native countries. She mentioned issues such as government corruption and severe poverty being rampant in those places. She recalled a visit to a family’s home in Mexico not long ago: “They four walls and no ceiling…and they thought they had the most wonderful home.”

Not all of the interaction with immigrants is of matters regarding the quest for American citizenship and navigating life in a different country. Something Sister Mendez obviously sees as very important, spiritual growth, is also a big focus for her at Cristo Rey Parish.

“On Tuesday night from 7 to 10 pm, between 80 and 130 come in and we just break open the scriptures and then we pray,” she said, eyes sparkling. “They’re here because they want to learn more about God. Raining, snowing…they’re still here. That gives me a lot of hope.”

And for sure, Sister Juana Mendez has imparted a lot of hope to others of her Hispanic community.

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)      

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