By Valerie Franchi, Contributing Writer
Marlborough – A young nonprofit collaborative organization is providing assistance to Brazilian residents in Marlborough and throughout the Metrowest region. ProGente Connections offers Portuguese and English language classes, education on immigrants’ rights and advocacy, and opportunities for cross-cultural experiences.
Seven religious entities came together in 2014 to create ProGente, including the Bethel Presbyterian Church in Marlborough, two New England ministries, and four Episcopal churches in Hudson, Framingham, Walpole and Medway.
According to Executive Director Lori Mills-Curran, there is certainly a need for the organization, considering the large population of Brazilian residents in Massachusetts.
She noted that, while it is impossible to know the exact population of Brazilian residents, the U.S. Census Bureau has named the Boston metropolitan area as the region with the third-highest population in the country. And, according to the website ePodunk that profiles communities in the United States, Framingham ranks fourth-highest among U.S. cities and towns with Brazilian populations, and Marlborough is ranked 10th.
“ProGente means ‘for the people’ in Portuguese,” she said, which describes the group’s grass roots approach.
The organization’s Português Plus program is a language and heritage program for children ages 5-14. Led by a small group of dedicated teachers, classes are held in Marlborough and Framingham on Saturdays throughout the school year from September to June. The classes focus on Brazilian culture and geography, with art, music, crafts, folklore, and drama. To encourage participation, fees are kept low, just $55 per month with discounts for families with multiple children, and scholarships are offered.
Like all of the program’s teachers, Marlborough resident Marta Abrenhosa Dos Santos was educated in Brazil. She moved to the U.S. about 20 years ago, and after having her son, decided teaching Portuguese was what she wanted to do.
“I had friends who were proud that their children didn’t speak Portuguese,” she recalled. “That didn’t sound right. I thought they should be staying in touch with their heritage.”
Without any formal training, she dedicated some of her time to teaching her son Portuguese beginning when he was 4 years old. Now 19 and in college, he is finding that being bilingual has advantages in the work force.
“It has opened up opportunities for him,” Dos Santos said.
After this experience, she decided that she wanted to help bring the Portuguese language and culture to more Brazilian-American children.
In 2014, she joined Português Plus as an intern, and also interned at Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School in the Portuguese as a Second Language program. She found it difficult to find a Portuguese language teaching degree program in the U.S., so she earned her bachelor’s degree online through a Brazilian university in 2015. The same year, she was hired as a regular teacher for Portuguese Plus.
She teaches children ages 4 to 6, the first of three levels offered. She said the children love to learn and she loves encouraging an interest in their heritage.
“I believe it is a gift to give to the kids,” she said, adding that it allows them to develop stronger relationships with their family members still living in Brazil.
The teachers also have the children participate in events that help keep the culture alive, such as traditional songs, dances and plays. ProGente also holds an annual gala and celebrates Festa Junina, the traditional Brazilian harvest festival in June. Dos Santos said the children in her class love to watch classic Brazilian cartoons as well.
She now has a 4-year-old daughter and Dos Santos intends to make sure she learns her native language and heritage.
“It is important that our heritage continues with the young people,” she noted.
The organization received startup funds from the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, but they are in need of donations to continue their work.
For more information or to donate, visit www.pgcmetrowest.org.