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October 24, 2002 Master's student helps Latin americans adapt to Montreal



Carmen Puga Peña poses next to a map of Central America.

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Melanie Takefman

Carmen Puga Peña is taking on the world — and, according to her, Montreal is the best place to start.

The Concordia student is in her third semester of a self-designed MA Special Individualized Program (SIP) in Human Systems Intervention and Hispanic Studies. The degree’s title obfuscates the idealism and enthusiasm of the woman behind it.

The daughter of a Spanish father and an Ecuadorian mother, Puga Peña is familiar with the Latin American immigrant communities of Montreal. While she affirmed that Canada has many “wonderful” programs for immigrants, no support system exists for the specific needs of Latin Americans. Moreover, while immigrants from each Latin American country are cohesive, Puga Peña believes that they can benefit from sharing common experiences and resources.

Essentially, she wants to create a central resource for Latin American immigrants in Montreal similar to those created by established communities like the Italians and Jews. Her research will be twofold: to determine what resources are available to immigrants in Montreal and in Latin America and then to improve and add to these services.

She will focus on immigrants from Chile, Argentina, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and the Dominican Republic. Most of them arrived in Montreal as refugees of brutal dictatorships or civil wars in the 1980s. Although Puga Peña stressed that people from each country are distinct, they are all traumatized by their experiences and in dire need of therapy.

“Because they were oppressed for so many years, they are afraid to voice their opinions,” she explained.

In addition, Latin Americans tend to be intimidated by people of other cultures, even if they are trying to help them. She gave the example of a Venezuelan girl who was trying to enter Canada as a political refugee because her family was an opponent of the government. She only divulged that government officials had raped her to her Canadian-born lawyer the day before the trial, which made winning the case difficult.

Puga Peña envisions an internal support system in which people like her would accompany immigrants to lawyers and trials, effectively acting as a link and fostering trust between the two parties.

She would also like to seek government aid for families whose aging parents live with them. While it is often the custom here, Latin Americans do not typically send their parents to retirement homes.

Puga Peña knows that other immigrant communities share these values and she hopes to collaborate with them.

Having earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish language with a focus on translation, she is also in a position to translate official documents in Spanish, French and English. Puga Peña described existing translations as “shameful.”

It was her dissatisfaction as a professional translator that led her to the SIP MA program at Concordia. “I needed to be around people, and to get something in return,” she said.

Her desire to help the situation in Latin America led her to a master’s degree in international relations at McGill, but she found it too theoretical. “It comes to a point when you have to stop debating and just do something,” Puga Peña said.

Though she’s brimming with energy, she is very focused on her studies. She will conduct exhaustive research over the next two years to find the best way to help.

Catherine Vallejo, chair of the Classics, Modern Languages and Linguistics (CMLL) Department and Puga Peña’s advisor, said that Puga Peña’s degree is an example of the flexibility that SIP allows students.

Since CMLL does not offer master’s degrees within the department, SIP “is an opportunity to keep students and get them into graduate school,” Vallejo said.

The SIP allowed Puga Peña to choose the courses that would best suit her career objectives from both departments. Vallejo said, “Carmen basically decided what she wanted to do with her life, and then she did it.”