The Power of Community
Noe Martinez-Romero is no stranger to hard work. Born in Mexico, he hoped to go to college right out of high school but it was too expensive. So he took a job at his family’s restaurant. Then came marriage and children, and his dreams for college took a backseat to his responsibilities. Together with his wife, Adriana Aquicira, Noe decided to see if they could create a better future for their family in the United States. Noe traveled to the U.S. before them to see if it would be a good fit. In January 2001, with temperatures hovering in the single digits, Noe arrived in Minnesota. He soon found a job at a restaurant, and gave himself six months to see if he thought Minnesota would be a good place for his family. The harsh weather and isolation of the first five and a half months were especially difficult, but nearing the end of the six months, he began playing soccer on weekends with other families—and for the first time felt a real sense of community. “Of course, it helped that by then it was summer,” he laughs.
After returning to Mexico to discuss the matter with Adriana, they packed up their home; and along with 7-year-old Noe, 5-year-old Abraham, and 2–year old Samantha, made Minnesota their home.
Although Noe had learned to speak English in Mexico, when he arrived here he realized he only understood about half of what people were saying. “I worked at a restaurant and didn’t know what a bagel was, or a muffin … or decaf coffee,” he says. “I learned a lot of English on the job.
“But imagine what that must have been like for my wife and children,” he continues. “They didn’t speak any English at all.”
The children learned English at school, while Adriana enrolled in English classes at Neighborhood House, and worked to understand a new language and a new culture. Most days, Noe would leave the house at 5 a.m. and work two jobs before returning home. “It was not easy, especially in winter time. I worked as a cook 14 hours a day, standing on the line, making food.”
Their hard work paid off. Noe and Adriana managed to save enough money to eventually send their children to college. The oldest child Noe became an electrical engineer; Abraham works in finance and management systems; and Samantha is studying to be a nurse. “My kids were not born here so I always thought it [would be] difficult for them to study for a career,” he says. “But we wanted our children to go to college, not do what I was doing. We also wanted to set standards for them—and for future generations to come.”
Though Noe is proud of his children’s accomplishments, he still has a dream for his own life—he also wants the chance to further his education. “I was 49 years old and the restaurant I had worked at for 17 years suddenly closed. They gave us only two weeks’ notice,” he says. “I realized maybe it was time to do something different—not still be standing on my feet in five years. I wanted to do something with my mind.”
He enrolled in GED classes at Neighborhood House in January 2019. “Once I was there, I realized I didn’t need the GED because I had graduated from high school back in Mexico. I already had my diploma,” he says. “But I also realized I was out of date, so I kept going to classes to refresh.”
Noe set a goal of attending Inver Hills Community College to study accounting. He applied the same hard work to his studies that he had to his work in the restaurant business, and soon Cara, one of his Neighborhood House adult education instructors, suggested he apply for the Constance Currie Scholarship—a scholarship to assist community members pursue post-secondary education. “Cara helped me apply for it,” he says. “Sometimes you question yourself—if you really want to go and do that or do the same [thing you’ve always done] and keep on working. Am I doing the right thing? Should I get another job?”
Despite his doubts, when Noe received the scholarship he was thrilled, and grateful—and it solidified his determination to go to college. “Every time you go to Neighborhood House, it feels like there is something else—there are more opportunities, more options to do,” he says. “That’s why I continued to go; it was always motivating—teachers helping you. It feels like family.”
Noe and his family want to pay it forward and contribute to the growth of the community by staying involved with Neighborhood House. Adriana recently returned to English classes; Abraham has volunteered in the Food Market; and Noe is volunteering in the Beginning English classes Tuesday mornings. “It’s a good place. It’s so much more than just a place to learn English or Math. And I couldn’t just leave now that I have the opportunity to go to college,” he says. “My goal now is for every student to feel what I feel here. The teachers will take care of teaching the classes but I want to help students feel the warmth of the community and understand the opportunities they can have.
“Here, you don’t feel fears that most immigrants feel. You see help and opportunities. If I were going to use one word to describe Neighborhood House, it would be: limitless.”