Written by Maria Assaf
When four Spanish women established the Centre for Spanish Speaking Peoples (CSSP) in 1973, they simply intended to provide translation services for their community. Government pamphlets and public services were available only in English or French, and the founders wanted to make them accessible for those whose first language was Spanish. But as the 1970s became a decade of turmoil for Central and South America, the centre’s role expanded. Exiles from Chile, as well as those banished by the dictatorship in Spain, arrived in the city. The role of the CSSP – or “El Centro” as it was also called by its early members – rapidly expanded from being a translation service to becoming a legal centre and agent of political change.
El Centro lived up to its title. Its original location at 107 Dupont Street soon became a focal point for a community that was not previously united. In the 1950s and 1960s, Latin American immigration in Canada was limited to a small group of highly educated professionals. They were followed by the first exiles of the Chilean dictatorship in the 1970s, many of whom were also highly educated, but fled their country for political reasons. Unlike the first wave of Latin American migrants to Toronto, political exiles were strongly drawn into smaller communities of their own compatriots who shared similar concerns about politics in the homeland. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the different waves of Latin American migrants began to consolidate into a single entity.
Despite the fact that many of those who arrived in the city during these decades planned to return to their homelands, time passed and the political and economic instability remained. Toronto became their new permanent home. Having already planted the seeds, the CSSP continued to grow, and with government funding, played an increasingly important role for the community.
Politics was always an integral part of El Centro as many of its managing board members were politically-engaged social workers and activists. One of their aims was to help bring to Toronto Latin Americans who were facing political persecution, and in danger of “disappearing” under the brutality of the military regimes. Evelyn Murialdo recalls her time as a teacher in Chile under the dictatorship and seeing, one by one, the seats in her classroom emptied. These experiences pushed women like Ms Murialdo, Gloria Montero and Encarnacion Escobar, among others, to use the power of an organization funded by the government to try and create social change.
After moving to two other downtown addresses, CSSP relocated to the Jane and Wilson area. The board believed that, although the Latin American community was spread out among several downtown neighbourhoods, this area was its new heart. One of the main functions of the CSSP at this new location was to act as a legal clinic, providing access to free legal services. Volunteers helped with the preparation of legal documents and citizenship papers, as well as translations and writing for their predominately Spanish-speaking clientele.
One of the CSSP’s main challenges became apparent through the legal volunteers’ meetings with recent immigrants. Many of those who visited the centre held temporary worker visas. These permits were generally of three months duration and were usually granted to labourers from less developed countries in the Caribbean and Latin America who worked in agriculture in the summer, then returned home. The CSSP legal clinic found many problems with these visas, such as the fact that workers were forced to pay taxes but were granted no benefits, and that they worked under dangerous conditions without adequate safety and employment rights. These issues became important problems that the centre addressed, advocating for change.
Another issue for the CSSP was that immigration, transition and resettlement was especially difficult for Latin American women. Unlike in many Spanish-speaking countries, women in Canada were an active part of the workforce beyond the home. In the homeland, women took on domestic roles, such as taking care of the children, while men went out to work. Since they did not generally work outside the home, they had fewer opportunities to learn and speak English and less time to interact with Canadians. To assuage these cultural differences and give women an outlet to express themselves and become a part of Canadian society, the CSSP dedicated numerous newsletters and workshops to Latin American women.
The CSSP knew from the start that it was vital to maintain elements of Latin American heritage in Toronto, both for the newly arrived and for Canadian-born children. Consequently, cultural preservation was at the core of many of their programs. For decades, El Centro has held workshops highlighting Latin American culture, art, folk dance and food; organized fairs such as Las Manos del Immigrante; and promoted similar events with the Spanish media services in the city like the El Directorio Hispano.
El Centro was also helpful in assisting immigrants to adapt to their new culture, and initially provided free English lessons to Spanish-speakers of all generations. However, funding slowly diminished, and the program did not last.
People of Latin American descent have now been in Toronto for more than half a century. There are other agencies now which provide translation and settlement services, and the community is well-established, with third-generation children growing up in Toronto. Still, the CSSP continues to represent people from more than 20 countries, and its services remain available to all, regardless of language or nationality. Although El Centro might not be as large as it used to be, it operates with a combination of government grants and private donations, and on any given weekday, its waiting room is full.
Interview of Barbara Jackman, Evelyn Murialdo, Maria Angelica Enriquez, 2012
Heritage Toronto is pleased to acknowledge the support of the Government of Ontario, through the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, for this project.