Published in The Day

By G.A. Peck

When Alejandro Melendez-Cooper came to the United States in 1987, he was highly educated—he’d studied architecture at the National University of Engineering in Lima, Peru—but he spoke little English.

When he settled with his family in New London, he discovered, like so many immigrants, that life can be challenging without a support network.

He decided to work to create that community, forming the Hispanic Alliance of Southeastern Connecticut in May 2000. His goal was to provide networking, educational and supportive services in a number of key areas: health, college, community, arts and culture, social services and entrepreneurship.

The founder spent two decades developing programs and partnerships with philanthropic and educational organizations, and changed for the better an untold number of lives along the way. When he died in November 2021, the loss was profound for his wife and children, as well as for the entire community he’d uplifted.

“I was always inspired by Alejandro’s work, by his ideas and his vision,” said his wife, Maria Amparo Cruz-Saco, Ph.D., a full-time professor of economics at Connecticut College who helped transition the organization her husband started in the months following his death.

“The mission of the Hispanic Alliance is to advance the contributions of the Hispanic community in New London and surrounding areas,” she explained.

She and their son, Claudio Melendez-Cooper—who is preparing to start law school in the fall, his mother noted—led the organization through the transitional period, until the Alliance could recruit a new executive director. Lina Agudelo assumed the role in August.

Agudelo is not new to the organization. In fact, she considers herself “a product of the Alliance,” which helped her family settle in as immigrants, start a business and flourish.

“When we came to New London, we had just arrived in the United States a year or two before that,” she explained. “We were interested in purchasing a local business.”

Agudelo was only 20 years old at the time, and one of the first people she met in New London was Alejandro Melendez-Cooper. He helped the Agudelo family tap into local resources and create a blueprint for starting their business, she recalled.

Agudelo joined the Alliance’s La Latina Network and was embraced by its supportive community. For the past few years, she’s worked as a housing coordinator for two nonprofits, including one that matches domestic abuse survivors with affordable housing. The experiences perfectly prepared her for taking on the executive director’s role with the Hispanic Alliance.

“I am very proud to continue Alejandro’s legacy,” she said.

Today, the Alliance is focused on four primary initiatives, including its flagship scholarship program. Over the 22 years since its founding, it’s given out more than 320 scholarships. Recently, the Alliance formed a partnership with Eastern Connecticut State University, which will enable scholarship students to study at the college.

Students who have been awarded scholarships have gone on to become doctors and nurses, teachers, social workers and lawyers, Cruz-Saco said.

Another initiative is the Alliance’s La Latina Network, a group of women that meets every other week to talk about community issues and opportunities. The group recently started another program known as BRILLA—which translates to “shines” in English, a one-week workshop, partly funded by the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, for Latina students in their junior year of high school. Held in July, this year’s BRILLA brought in guest speakers from major area employers, like Pfizer, General Dynamics/Electric Boat and Citizens Bank to speak with the students about career opportunities.

“The BRILLA students are provided training to facilitate self-identification, self-awareness and strategic thinking about their future college education and career,” Cruz-Saco explained. BRILLA students also took field trips to Eastern Connecticut State University and Connecticut College for immersive college experiences.

A third Alliance initiative focuses on local arts and culture, and this work manifests in a number of ways. The organization hosts art shows for emerging Latino artists in its studio on State Street in New London. In August, Alliance youth members will be performing a play, The HisPANICk Zone, written by Chilean author Guillermo Reyes, at the Chestnut Street Playhouse in Norwich.

The Alliance is also working to help families in crisis with emergency support and funding through its AYUDA (meaning “help”) Program.

Through AYUDA, the Alliance has gotten COVID-19 test kits and PPE out to the community in collaboration with the Connecticut Department of Public Health; helps Spanish-speaking residents navigate processes like preparing and filing tax returns; and, in partnership with the New London Area Food Pantry has helped to distribute food and pantry items to families in need.

Food insecurity doesn’t just happen to people who have lost their jobs, Cruz-Saco noted. “We also assist people who have jobs but their income is not high enough to provide for their families, especially families that have grown a little bit larger than they were before COVID.”

The pandemic made multigenerational living a practical necessity for so many, she said.

Cruz-Saco said the organization’s approach has been modest and quiet, but effective. She said there’s no shortage of goodwill across southeast Connecticut. In addition to grant funding, the Alliance is also sustained by private donations and passionate volunteers.

“We have people who come from Groton Long Point, from Stonington and Old Saybrook just to volunteer their time working here,” she said. “It’s amazing.”