“IF YOU GET TO THE TOP, REMEMBER TO HOLD SOMEONE ELSE’S  HANDS AND HELP OTHERS TO ACHIEVE THEIR GOALS” 

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Cecilia Hernandez
Country of origin: Chile
Occupation: Social Support Group Coordinator at Melbourne City Council State of residency: Victoria. Favourite place in Australia: Melbourne. Upon arrival: Surprised by how close the beach was from her house.

Interview by Carlos Colina. Translated by Claire Bower. Edited by Zoe Gleeson. Digital by Cristy Abela. 

Cecilia has always supported the aging Latin American community in Melbourne. During her 8 years leading United the organisation has faced many challenges but her constant contribution and support has seen them through difficult times. During her time on the board it has grown from servicing 50 clients to over 200 clients. For 15 years she has supported Foster Care organisations; providing gifts for children during Easter and Christmas time. Since 2017 she has contributed to the establishment of a Foodbank program to assist international students which continues to support many in the community.

 

TELL US YOUR STORY 

It was May 1986; I was 21 years old when I arrived in Melbourne with my parents, my brother and my little sister.  All this started in 1965 when my uncle Eliseo Fuentes, who was an adventurer, left Chile looking for new opportunities. Over the following years the rest of my Dad’s family (six brothers and six sisters) started to immigrate one by one, following my uncle’s footsteps. We were the last ones to leave Chile. We came through the Family Reunion Program. I will never forget the day we arrived. I still remember the mixture of emotions that I felt while waiting for the doors to open so we could see and hug our loved ones, who were waiting for us at the airport. Some of my uncles and aunties had left Chile when I was just a little girl. Waiting at the airport were some cousins and uncles who we had never met before. My heart was divided, we had left all of my mum’s family in Chile, our church community and my childhood friends.

Cecilia’s wedding day on 30 July 1988. From left to right: Edgardo Fuentes (RIP), Cecilia and Antonio, Sandra Smith
Cecilia’s wedding day on 30 July 1988. From left to right: Edgardo Fuentes (RIP), Cecilia and Antonio, Sandra Smith

The idea was to come for one year to “try it out” and we ended up staying, for what has now become the majority of my life. Australia was the country of opportunities and dreams and we truly received so much support from our family since day one. We stayed at my uncle Sammy’s place for a few weeks and then we moved to a bungalow at my grandparents place. Later on my parents rented a house in Sunshine and in less than one year my parents were able to buy their first house in St Albans, we were really blessed. 

Since my uncle Domingo was the pastor of one of the first Hispanic Christian churches (“Jesus es el camino / Jesus is the way“ in Maribyrnong, now located in Footscray). My siblings and I joined the church youth group where we felt really welcomed and connected to the church community. It was there where I met my now husband Antonio who I married in 1988.

When I arrived, my goal was to study English so I could continue my engineering degree. In 1990 we were blessed with the arrival of our son Roberto and later on in 1992 our son Joshua arrived to complete our family. Unfortunately our lives changed forever in August 1993 when my brother Edgardo and my sister in law, Rosita died tragically in a car accident. My parents were also in the car and survived but were left with major health injuries. This tragic event changed my perspective of life in many areas. I realised that my parents were going to need all the support my sister and I could give them. So I decided to focus my study in community services. 

Cecilia holding her double degrees

Cecilia holding her double degrees

In 1994 I studied for a certificate in Home and Community Care, followed by a full time Traineeship in Community Care at Melbourne City Council in 1997. Since then I have worked in a range of roles but always in the same sector. In the years that followed, and with the support of my husband, I was able to study and work part time, while we raised our children and also supported my parents. 

In 2006 I started organising activities for children in Foster care. Over the last 14 years, with the help of my church, we have raised money to purchase gifts for over 25 children for Easter and Christmas. During the pandemic we were able to deliver gifts to 60 children. From all the things I have been able to contribute to the community I can say that this is the most rewarding one. Around the same time I started to become more involved supporting programs for the group of the third age at church and I also started volunteering with CELAS. 

In April 2013 I was appointed as president of CELAS, today known as United Spanish Latin American Welfare Centre. Since then I have given the best of my abilities to support different programs for our community. My volunteer work at United has allowed me to hear the experiences of a community that arrived here in the 60-80s: They came to work hard so they could provide a better future to their families. That generation is aging rapidly and my hope is to continue to develop and grow our services to have all the resources and appropriate services they will need in the future.   

We come from a culture that holds great respect for our elders, however the complexity of aging isn’t easy, and there comes a point that despite our children’s best efforts to care for their parents, they are not able to meet all their complex needs. We do everything we can with the funding we receive from the government but at times it isn’t sufficient for the needs that exist. There is a great need for counselling and mental health services. Older people are feeling lonely and isolated. There is a great number of people who are getting older and will need these supports. Older people can no longer drive and we have access to home care packages to help them with medications, transport, etc. but they are limited. Social connection is so important, but we need people who speak Spanish to work with our older adults. If someone is reading this story and wants to volunteer with United please contact us, we always need more hands.

I am a dreamer and I have always dreamt of being able to leave a legacy after I’m gone. The Spanish community in Victoria has never been able to work together and achieved the dream of a residential facility for our people, my dream is to be able to do my part for that dream to become a reality one day. 

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Cecilia attending the September Latin American Festival.

CHALLENGES 

Language - The first few years weren’t easy. I was 20 years old and I had to leave behind family, friendships, language and a culture. Even though I had studied a bit of English before we came, when I arrived, I realised that I didn’t have a good grasp on the language. We couldn’t attend university because we didn’t have the English skills and we weren’t able to enrol in high school because we were already 18 years old, therefore, I started to work in a factory with my aunty. I learnt a lot of the language through working in the factory. Leaving your home country is never easy. I had to wait many years before I had the strength to go back to university, learning a new language was one of my biggest challenges. However I am very proud that in 2012 I was able to complete a Diploma in Community Services and a Diploma in Community Development at Victoria University.  

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Community and values - In Chile I grew up connected to our local community, school, church, family and neighbours. When we arrived here, many years passed without meeting our neighbours. In the beginning this was a bit odd to me. Everyone was living in their own world. Many things were also located far apart, it felt as though it took hours to go from one place to another. We had come from a place where everything was pretty close by and you could get anywhere quickly. My lifestyle has been shaped by a mix of experiences, from my time in Chile but also for my experiences here in Australia. When we got married, my husband and I wanted to raise our children in a Christian family that would hold all of our values and culture. I am so grateful that in Melbourne we had the support of family, church and our relatives.

Service gaps - The need for community services in our language was and continues to be a challenge. Obviously today we have more services available than 33 years ago when I arrived. This has been one of the motivations that has kept alive my volunteer work at United for the last 8 years. Being president hasn’t always been easy. Our Spanish speaking community comes from 20 different countries and we all have different ways of thinking and doing things. Covid-19 has changed the way we live and work and it has been a big challenge for the community, however the programs have not stopped. I feel really proud of what we [at United] have achieved; we have excelled despite the challenging circumstances.

 

PIECE OF ADVICE  

Cecilia with her family in Santorini, Greece celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary in 2018.

Cecilia with her family in Santorini, Greece celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary in 2018.

Be prepared for a challenge - Learn English as much as you can, do not hope that everything will be easy, come prepared to face challenges. Come ready to embrace a new culture, come ready to work hard the first few years and then aim to never stop learning and upskilling yourself.

Never give up - Prepare yourself to face dissolutions and setbacks in your career and be willing to start from the bottom up. Dream higher, give your best, follow your passion and never give up. If you get to the top, remember to hold someone else’s hands and help others to achieve their goals 

Remember what brought you here - When things get difficult, remember why you decided to leave in the first place. Be strong as you have already taken the first and most difficult step of leaving your country to follow your dreams. All of us that have had the opportunity to leave our place of birth and continue our life somewhere else in the world, will always have a slightly broken heart loving people in two countries. You will learn how to navigate these feelings with time.

IN THE NEXT FEW YEARS…

Cecilia would like to continue her volunteer work in the community, strengthening and growing new services and programs.  In 2024, she will nominate herself again for the local government elections. She is passionate about advocating for her community; the young and old.  

She strongly believes in the power of communities working together for one goal. She wants to see her kids continue to succeed in life and achieve their dreams alongside their families.

The story Latin Stories Australia - Cecilia Hernández first appeared in Latin Stories Australia

 

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