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To Build Strong Coalitions, ‘Engage Directly,’ says Volunteer Sylvia Galván

Posted on January 7, 2022

Sylvia Galván has been a leader for more than 40 years in Western Mass. In the 1970s, she came from Mexico, where she was born, to join her husband in Southampton, Massachusetts. In Mexico, Sylvia had been a dancer and she brought that talent to her new home, teaching flamenco and tango to Puerto Rican youth in Westfield. Her connection with the Latino community in Massachusetts started with a job working with Puerto Rican families in a 0-3 early childhood program as the only bilingual staff member. Later, she became the director of Casa Latina in Northampton, a job she held while finishing her BA at UMass and raising her two sons.

In 1982, aware that their sons were “losing their Spanish,” the family went back to Mexico City for three years. During that period, Sylvia more deeply understood the power of culture and community, and how it shaped her life.

She returned to Massachusetts in 1985 and began to work in Holyoke as a licensed bilingual teacher in the city’s growing Transitional Bilingual Education (TBE) program during the period Sylvia calls “the Golden Age” of bilingual education, which brought clashes within the established Holyoke community. She found herself “unable to remain quiet” about issues pivotal to the development of Latino children and became active in many nonprofit organizations in Holyoke, such as the Latino Scholarship Fund (co-founder), Enlace de Familias, Community Foundation of Western MA, and on the board of the CARE Center (where she continues to serve). After the election of the 45th president, she became active on the Southampton Democratic Committee.

Throughout these years, she has been continuously involved in local and national politics, joining with other women to get out the vote and energize her community. Many efforts seemed to spring from the vitality and spontaneity that she felt as a dancer! Driving home from a Saturday morning voter registration drive in Holyoke, she shared with her friend and community organizer, Carlos Vega, how frustrated she felt with the lack of political engagement in town. Then, on election day, Carlos placed a megaphone on the roof of his car. They played salsa music and drove from street to street around the Latino neighborhoods, using a microphone to call out registered voters who could not get to the polls due to a lack of transportation. They drove them to their respective poll sites and back. Realizing that some of the local poll workers were Polish women who could not understand the names of the voters, they accompanied voters inside to make sure that their names would not be rejected because of poor communication.

Through these types of efforts, a local group of activists helped elect Betty Medina Lichtenstein, the first Puerto Rican to be elected to the Holyoke School Committee, as well as Diosdado López, the first Puerto Rican in Holyoke elected to the City Council. This began a period of political activism in the 80s and 90s within the Holyoke Puerto Rican community that continues today.

Due to recent health concerns, Sylvia cannot physically participate in protests or marches, but she continues to be involved with political activism through Indivisible/Swing Blue Alliance in Western Massachusetts by writing hundreds of postcards since 2020.

Always forthright, Sylvia feels that Democrats are losing the Latino community because they rarely engage with them directly. She offered this advice: “Get to know the agencies and neighborhoods in a town: their community leaders, the people, their music, their cultures. Visit homes, listen and be genuine; take time.” Hispanic people, Sylvia added, will be polite but if they do not feel that you are honestly there to hear them, they will say thank you, and not return.

Sylvia Galván, like many grassroots activists, works locally with the people she knows, broadening her community through her remarkable vitality and enthusiasm. It is this ability to form local relationships that mark the success of so many working on our national political issues.

—  Janet Nelson is a retired clinical psychologist based in western Mass. She has worked on progressive campaigns since 1988, including serving as co-chair of the NJ Coalition to Save Darfur, 2005-2012.