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New Bedford's Maya community celebrates 15 years of the Centro Comunitário de Trabajadores

Dancers perform the Rey K’iche’ at the 15th anniversary of the Centro Comunitário de Trabajadores in New Bedford.
Kevin G. Andrade / CAI
Dancers perform the Rey K’iche’ at the 15th anniversary of the Centro Comunitário de Trabajadores in New Bedford.

With the energy of a preacher, Adrian Ventura grabbed a microphone and approached the stage at New Bedford's Our Lady of the Angels Cultural Center.

“¡Un fuerte aplauso que viven los latinos!” Ventura called to the crowd gathered for the 15th anniversary of the Centro Comunitário de Trabajadores (CCT), where he’s executive director.

Let’s give it up! Long live Latinos! Ventura shouted, eliciting cheers from the audience of about 350. “¡El pueblo unido!”

“¡Jamás será vencido!” the crowd shouted back.

The people united will never be defeated.

Since its founding, CCT’s focus on labor rights and immigration has brought one of New Bedford’s largely undocumented communities out of the shadows: Mayans.

Hundreds of thousands of Mayans fled violence and racism in their native Guatemala in the 1980s and 1990s, and many were drawn to New Bedford by the prospect of jobs in fish processing and textile plants.

By 2011, about 5,000 Maya were believed to be in New Bedford—many of those among the estimated 10,000 undocumented people living in the city.

As undocumented workers, they faced the threat of deportation if they spoke up about workplace conditions.

The desire to better their circumstances moved Ventura and others to organize CCT, in 2006, as a labor rights-focused committee under the umbrella of Organización Maya-K’iche’, local Maya cultural advocates.

“When we were a committee, we weren’t exactly a clandestine group,” Ventura said in Spanish. “But we were more in the shadows because we were organizing, and companies would shoo us away.”

Then came the historic Michael Bianco textile plant raid, in March, 2007, when 300 Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents descended upon the New Bedford plant and detained 361 undocumented workers.

Those detained came from Cabo Verde, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Portugal, and other nations. But Guatemalans were almost half of those taken into custody, and most of those were Maya.

Ventura said the raid motivated CCT to break with Maya-K’iche in 2009 and to become more assertive.

“After the raid, we focused more on organizing,” said Ventura. “It was then that we realized we were being used practically as slaves, in the classical sense, by a lot of employers. We were at their mercy.”

Since then, CCT regularly hosts workshops where experts, including state and federal officials, educate workers on their rights in Spanish and K’iche’.

They have picketed the factories, shops, and homes of business owners accused of exploiting labor.

But perhaps CCT’s greatest impact has been to help hundreds of workers obtain legal services and file complaints against employers with the National Labor Relations Board and other labor agencies.

“Thanks to CCT and the outreach they’ve done, and the victories they’ve had, workers are aware of these rights, and they’re actually accessing them,” said Tom Smith, executive director of Justice at Work, a Boston-based nonprofit that offers legal help to low-income workers. “It’s really been striking how prominent and prolific CCT is.”

He said CCT has referred more than 1,400 workers to Justice at Work for legal help, about one-third of the total cases since its founding in 2011.

Pescando Justicia

In 2014, worker Victor Gerena was mauled to a death by a shucking machine at Sea Watch International. That incident and several other deaths at area fish processors led CCT to launch the campaign Pescando Justicia — Fishing for Justice.

The campaign has since won several victories for workers. In 2019, it obtained a consent decree from the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission against temporary staffer BJ’s Service, Co., and Atlantic Capes Fisheries, a New Jersey-based shellfish harvester, after it found a pervasive culture of sexual harassment existed at the harvester’s Fall River facility.

The decree required the companies to track complaints of sexual harassment, revise their policies, and provide training in English and Spanish to workers on sexual harassment. It also awarded those claiming sexual harassment at the plant since 2013 $675,000 in damages.

In another major win, the campaign assisted Ruth Castro, a Honduran immigrant working at New Bedford processor Eastern Fisheries. She was fired in 2022 for labor organizing, she said.

“I have to take care of my children,” Castro said. “To be fired, just like that, for organizing, it made things hard for me.”

The National Labor Relations Board sided with Castro and ordered Eastern Fisheries to re-hire Castro and provide back pay for her months without work. Castro said the fight wasn’t about money.

“The bosses wanted me to take the money and come to a resolution with them,” she said – essentially, to leave the job behind. “But I came to them and said: I don’t want the money. What I want is justice.”

Shortly after Castro’s reinstatement, Eastern Fisheries ended its contract with BJ’s, letting go over 100 mostly undocumented workers, including Castro. The workers continue working at the company as the NLRB investigates it for unfair labor practices.

Ventura said CCT’s top priority now is helping undocumented workers to obtain deferred action for labor enforcement through a Department of Homeland Security program that went into effect in February.

The program puts on hold any potential removal for a worker involved in a labor investigation. He added that CCT has helped more than 300 people obtain deferred action.

“We don’t know how quickly it’ll happen,” Ventura said in Spanish. “But we hope to prepare the workers to organize themselves.”

People not documents

Back at the Cultural Center celebration, six teenage girls arranged themselves in two parallel lines on the dance floor. They began to move as a traditional tune with marimba played through the speakers.

The dance was called the Rey K’iche’. Watching the performers were local, state, and federal officials attending the celebration. Such a scene would have been difficult to imagine at CCT’s inception: a marginalized community of undocumented people celebrating themselves openly.

New Bedford’s Maya population has continued to grow. The most recent estimate from 2016 puts its number at 6,000.

The Cultural Center party to mark CCT’s 15th anniversary demonstrated what may be the organization’s greatest achievement: recognition for itself and recognition for its community.

Beyond that, Adrian Ventura hopes the organization leaves a legacy of humanity.

“In no way are the documents the ones doing the work,” he said. “Those who work are the people, not the documents.”

Correction: because of an editing error, Atlantic Capes Fisheries was mistakenly identified in one reference as Eastern Fisheries in an earlier version of this web post.

Kevin G. Andrade is a New England-based reporter focused on immigrant communities. Follow him on Twitter: @KevinGAndrade.