The recently completed census confirms that Philadelphia continues to see rapid growth, and that one of the main factors driving this growth is Latino immigration. Those numbers make Ceiba’s mission – to promote the economic development of the Latino Community – more important than ever.
Ceiba’s program director, Marcos Lomeli, who emigrated to Philadelphia from Mexico with at age 15, understands the immigrant experience, and feels fortunate to be able to help others climb the economic ladder.
“We have success stories of immigrants from Central America who come to us applying for a tax ID number for the very first time,” he said. “That individual doesn’t have a bank account, , someone who’s living off the bare minimum. By helping people like that with what we do, and what some of our partners do, we can get them all the way from that position to finding immigration relief and financial security.”
In fact, Lomeli tells the story of a client who comes in every year to get his taxes done. When this man first approached Ceiba several years ago he was undocumented, earning cash working in restaurants and keeping his money at home under the mattress.
“Once we helped him get his tax ID number, he was able to open a bank account, which is always preferable to keeping your money at home,” Lomeli notes. “As he moved forward and had children who were born here, we connected him to immigration legal services providers for free. They were able to help him obtain immigration relief and put him on a path to citizenship. We also connected him with Finanta [now known as Community First Fund], a community development financial institution that specializes in homeownership loans and business loans to people with alternate or no credit histories. He went through our matched savings program for people who are looking to become homeowners or to pursue a post-secondary education. Finally, he was able to purchase a home. This gentleman now has the peace of mind that comes from having stability both in his immigration status and owning a home.”
Ceiba serves as a hub of connections so clients who come in for routine services like free tax preparation, can then be referred to a variety of other like-minded organizations in eastern North Philadelphia’s Latino Collaborative. It is success stories like these that truly demonstrate the vitally important role that Ceiba and other organizations play within Philadelphia’s Latino community.
“We’ve been building this coalition, promoting collaboration rather than competition among the various members,” Lomeli said. “Inclusion in The Promise gives us the opportunity to more comprehensively address the needs of our community. It gives us the ability to increase our capacity and more proactively pursue addressing the great needs of our community. We’re the poorest ethnic group in the city. Our poverty rate is double the national average for Latinos.”
Despite those statistics, Lomeli calls these exciting times, citing the increased attention fighting poverty is receiving.
“As you can see with The Promise initiative, the city has changed its approach to addressing poverty,” he said. “This is the moment we start building. We’re bringing in additional team members. We’re looking at building collaboration even outside the members of the Latino collective, including a project with the Mexican consulate and another with Children’s Crisis Treatment Center, among others. There’s a great deal of opportunity to create a strong safety network.”
Ceiba adjusts to the differing needs between the recent immigrant community and 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation families. There’s even a geographic separation between those communities, with the recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America living mainly in South Philadelphia (in the 19148 zip code) and the more established families in North Philadelphia (in the 19122 zip code) where Ceiba is located. The agency serves clients from both neighborhoods.
Helping families rise out of poverty means more than economics. Lomeli says there is a neighborhood and community identity aspect to it.
“There’s a resilience to this community,” he said. “We know Philadelphia is stronger because of the Latinos who live here, and with this additional assistance and coordination we can do so much more. To me, this is the greatest city in the world. It took me in and has been amazing. Our goal is to bring others along that same path.”