“When I see the pictures of the kids who died in Uvalde, Texas, I see the same faces of our little kids who come to our after school program, and our Latino kids who go to school here in Columbia,” said Eduardo Crespi, the director and co-founder of Centro Latino.
Centro Latino is a non-profit community center that has served the Latino community, immigrants, refugees and the public at large for the past two decades. The primary services the center offers are English classes, Spanish classes, a commercial kitchen and an after school program.
Crespi is the father of two girls, one 28-year-old and one who is only 2 1/2 years old.
When he heard the news about the Uvalde shooting, his daughters were not the only children that came to mind.
“In a way that is not really comprehensible, I feel empowered to continue the mission of Centro Latino, which is to help our children succeed in life, through education, to empower our Latino families, to help each other and somehow protect each other from evil,” Crespi said.
When he is not volunteering his time to oversee Centro Latino operations, Crespi works as a travel nurse based in Florida. After getting his master’s degree in global public health, he specialized in barriers Latino individuals face to access health resources.
Crespi figured that if he could not stop the violence plaguing communities of color, he could at least work to preserve their lives through nutrition.
As a result, he started offering free vegetarian and vegan meals out of his commercial kitchen.
“It’s just to offer information and vegetarian food to people that would like to try it and see if that will help them in their lifestyle, and perhaps to take charge of their own health,” Crespi said.
Centro Latino used to host a summer program for when the school year let out, but since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the center has not had enough volunteers to keep the program running.
“What we would like to do during the summer is to implement free meals for children here at Centro Latino utilize our commercial kitchen,” Crespi said. “And we are working on that.”
With a smaller volunteer staff and Crespi’s demanding work schedule, the center can only manage to give out meals in bulk once a month.
Before the center’s dining room closed, these distribution days were large community events with lines outside the door. Nowadays, the staff count on regulars like David Beversdorf to not only pick up meals, but make donations as well.
“This is unreal, it’s absolutely fantastic food,” Beversdorf said. “And it is all for a great cause helping the Latino community in town. And it’s like, how the heck do you put those together and not go and support it?”
Even though Beversdorf works in Columbia, he says he is willing to make the half-hour drive from Rocheport “whenever (he) can” to get a meal.
Crespi said that because this weekend is Memorial Day weekend, Beversdorf was one of the few people that stopped by to pick up a meal.
Over the years, he has noticed similarities between how Americans observe holidays like Cinco de Mayo and Memorial Day with barbecues, beer and “erasing their memories” rather than preserving them.
“It is my personal opinion that Memorial Day should be expanded not only to veterans of war, but to those that are not with us because of violence,” Crespi said.
He said that the only Latino holiday Centro Latino recognize is Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. This holiday originated in Mexico and typically takes place in November. While the focus is fairly similar to Memorial Day, it remembers any family or friends that have died.
“Within our Latino population, Dia de los Muertos is a very important realization to give thanks that we are still here and to also celebrate the ones that are not,” Crespi said. “And that for me is an example of traditional Memorial Day.”
One of the traditions of Dia de los Muertos includes an altar full of pictures or garments of deceased loved ones. Centro Latino is home to an altar with pictures of former volunteers, notable civil rights figures and any other people that community members want to recognize.
When it came to the children in Texas, Crespi said his respects may look a little different.
“I will keep those children from Texas in my heart,” he said. “I feel like you will be invading the privacy of those angels, so just by realizing them today, for me, I think that is enough.”