by Irene Racz
They come from 16 Spanish-speaking countries in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America and range in age from 30 to 70. They live in several area communities and are engaged in a variety of occupations, hobbies, and volunteer activities. But when asked to describe themselves, they offer a single answer: “family.”
Informally known as La Gente De La Zona, or “the locals,” the group has met every Tuesday evening for a little more than two years. The brainchild of Terisa “Tee” Thomas, the group formed to provide an outlet for native Spanish speakers who have settled here and others who want to develop or maintain their Spanish language skills.
The 35-year-old Thomas, originally from Iowa, came to Montpelier in January of 2016 to take a position with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. Her husband, Carlos Reyes, 33, a native of Uruguay, was set to arrive two months later and Thomas wanted to ease his transition to American life, so she arranged a gathering at Bagitos, a bagel and burrito café in downtown Montpelier, and began posting on Front Porch Forum to recruit attendees.
The group has grown steadily and evolves as people come and go. About 15 to 20 regulars show up each Tuesday, and that number can double on special occasions, such as the anniversary parties.
The group recently upped its celebratory game by adding a dance party, dubbed LatiNite, on the fourth Tuesday of the month. The first such event, held March 27, was a spirited affair with participants singing along and dancing to recorded music in such genres as reggaeton, cumbia, bachata, and salsa.
To a person, participants describe their experience in the group as that of a family. They have celebrated holidays and birthdays together, helped each other move, pitched in to babysit, and assisted in emergencies. They know that no matter what they need, someone will respond.
Nicaragua native Jairo Sequeira, 53, came to Montpelier in 2000. He works for Washington County Mental Health Services and plays music in his spare time. He said he would have loved having a community like this when he first arrived and is ecstatic that it has come to life now.
Ileana Merriam, 55, a native of El Salvador, who has lived in Montpelier since 2009, maintains a busy schedule working for Vermont Health Connect, the state’s health insurance marketplace, and volunteering for the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. That didn’t stop her from dancing her heart out at the March dance party.
“I love it. I love that I can speak Spanish and mingle with people from different backgrounds,” she said. “I really enjoy the company,” which on any given night can include anyone from agricultural workers to those in white-collar jobs.
Gilberto Diaz, 55, came from Cuba about three years ago and was joined by his family a year later. He works for a dean at the University of Vermont and teaches reading and writing to English language learners at Community College of Vermont. He also volunteers at the Montpelier Senior Activity Center.
One of the things that attracted him to Montpelier was that he heard people didn’t have to lock their doors here. Encountering fellow Spanish speakers was a bonus. “I never expected to find so many,” he said. “We function as a family, and it’s such a blessing to have kindred spirits.”
Steve and Heather Bailey, 67 and 70, are among the U.S. natives in the group. They moved here four years ago after retiring from teaching careers abroad and in New Jersey, where Heather taught Spanish. They also served in the Peace Corps in Panama. For the Baileys, the group has served the dual purpose of enabling them to continue speaking Spanish and to acclimate to a new community.
As for Reyes, he adjusted easily to life in Vermont. He established his own Spanish school (info at learnspanishvt.com) and put his equestrian experience to work at Pease Farm Stable in Middlesex. He also teaches English to Chinese children through an online platform. He and Thomas served on the screening committee for the recent Green Mountain Film Festival and could be seen at the Savoy every day checking tickets, introducing films, and cleaning up.
Thomas has high praise for Bagitos owner Soren Pfeffer for his generosity in allowing the group to meet at his cafe with no strings attached. Pfeffer is equally as complimentary of Thomas and her circle.
“They have provided a home for the group and for individuals who might not feel like they have that many places to go where they feel comfortable and accepted,” he said. “One of my business visions was having live music, and I’ve carried through with it.”
Irene Racz is a former journalist and communications consultant who is brushing up on her rusty Spanish through classes taught by Carlos Reyes at the Montpelier Senior Activity Center