El Centro Hispano has been a fixture in White Plains for four-and-one-half decades, providing assistance to local Hispanics in many ways.
Founding Executive Director Isabel Villar discussed her role in opening the center in 1974 in an interview last week. She said the center, which offers 27 programs, helped about 16,000 people last year.
“I am a political refugee who came from Cuba,” Villar said. “I was expelled out of high school because I was going to church.”
Villar said she had “no choice” and needed to come to America in 1966. Villar said she chose to come to White Plains because her uncle, a teacher, who was also a refugee from Cuba, was living in the city.
Villar said the first thing she wanted to do in White Plains was attend a church that provided a Spanish mass. Villar became the director of the Hispanic Choir at the Church of St. Bernard on Prospect Street, which offered mass services in Spanish, she noted, adding that she continues to sing at the church.
“[At the time] there was a very active monsignor here by the name of Monsignor Charles McManus,” Villar said. “He said Isabel, I need your help.”
Villar and McManus, who is now deceased, worked together to establish the center for the Hispanic immigrant community. At the time, Villar had just graduated from college in 1973 and obtained a teaching job in Norwalk, Conn. because she could not find a teaching position in White Plains, she recalled. McManus agreed to open the center at 3 p.m., seven days a week, to allow her to arrive back in White Plains, Villar said. “I could not refuse him. He was my spiritual pastor,” Villar said.
“At the beginning it was very difficult,” Villar said. “I had three strikes against me. I am a woman. I am Hispanic and I was very young. So I had to prove myself. How did I prove myself? By working very hard. Doing whatever I felt was necessary for the community.” But Villar’s work not only helps the Hispanic community; it’s open to everybody else,” Villar added.
In 1977, Villar was joined at the center by Deputy Director Judith Aucar, a position she still holds.
Throughout its history El Centro Hispano has been located at 346 S. Lexington Ave., in Chapel Hall of The Church of St. Bernard, Villar noted. It assists Hispanics from throughout Westchester County. “We are a multi-purpose center with an emphasis on education, technology and immigration,” Villar said. “When we came to this country my mother said to me you have to go to college because look what happened to us. We came to this country with the clothes on our backs. However, whatever you learn, nobody can take that away from you.”
El Centro Hispano provides immigration and translation services, computer and technology education to adults, education and cultural programs for youth and each year awards scholarships to high school students who are college bound.
The center’s 45th anniversary will be celebrated with a dinner dance on Saturday, Oct. 26 at the Crowne Plaza White Plains. For more information about the event call, after noon, at 914-289-0500 or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.