Alumna draws on experiences to support South Carolina’s Hispanic residents.
BY ELIZABETH ANDERSON
Debbra Alvarado, ’16, remembers when the privileges of citizenship came into sharp focus for her. A native of Puerto Rico who moved to the mainland United States as a teenager, Alvarado hadn’t really thought about immigration issues while she was growing up. Puerto Ricans didn’t discuss the topic much, since they’re already U.S. citizens, she says. And TV, which was limited to local channels then, didn’t cover global news.
Then in October 2008, when Alvarado was a student at Mauldin High School, there was an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid at the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant in Greenville. Hundreds of workers were arrested and deported. Alvarado recalls the anxious conversations among her Hispanic friends, many of whom were frantically trying to reach relatives or loved ones and getting no response.
“That was a turning point for me in realizing I have privileges that other students don’t have,” she says. “I think that’s where I really started understanding how I could be more civically engaged in my community. If Greenville is going to be my home, then I really need to start learning more about how things are being done here.”
Since then, Alvarado has dedicated herself to that education process, working to improve the lives of the Upstate’s Hispanic residents. She has spent the last four years at Hispanic Alliance in Greenville, where she is the operations and network manager. As part of her job, she looks for ways the organization can better serve the community with its services and programs.
Her own experiences have taught her how difficult it can be to adjust to a new culture. When Alvarado’s mother, who worked for Fluor Corp., was transferred to a job in Washington state, Alvarado stayed in Puerto Rico with her grandmother while her mom and two younger siblings got settled in their new home. Then, at 14, Alvarado went to join them.
“It was a drastic change,” she recalls. “I think the only word I knew how to say in English was hello.”
Then, just as she began mastering enough basic English to become more outgoing, her mom was transferred again, this time to Greenville. It was yet another culture shock, Alvarado says.
“I remember my first time at J.L Mann, the bus driver asked me, ‘Y’all getting on the bus?’ I didn’t know what ‘y’all’ meant, so I said no,” Alvarado says. “We got stranded at school and my mom had to come pick us up.”
For her junior and senior years, Alvarado attended Mauldin High School, where she encountered many more Hispanic students. The diverse Hispanic population exposed her to many different cultures, languages and foods – and immigration statuses. After the poultry plant raid, Alvarado began paying closer attention to the challenges faced by some of her fellow students and the community.
“It wasn’t until I moved here that I learned the difference between being a citizen, a resident, and what undocumented was, what a visa was,” she says.
After graduation, Alvarado planned to go back to Puerto Rico. She wasn’t sure she wanted to attend college in the United States, and she missed her grandmother and friends. But her mother advised her to attend Greenville Technical College for a year, after which she could go back to Puerto Rico if she wanted.
Alvarado agreed. She enrolled in the Bridge program, which would give her the option to transfer to a four-year college after two years. After spending a summer in Puerto Rico, Alvarado realized that as much as she loved her home, she couldn’t see herself there long term.
USC Upstate offered Alvarado just what she was looking for in a college. She wanted to be close to her family, and she didn’t want to be on a campus where she was just a number. Her younger sister, who had already started at Upstate, assured her that classes were nothing like the overcrowded lecture halls they used to see in movies. Instead, her sister said, classes were small, the professors knew her name, and she often went to office hours.
“I was thrilled when I got my acceptance letter,” Alvarado recalls. “It was a very proud moment for me.”
Alvarado majored in communication with a minor in Spanish. She loved the welcoming environment on campus, and got to know many of her professors. “I truly enjoyed the small classroom settings, because it allowed me to form relationships with my professors where I felt comfortable coming to them if I had a question or wasn’t understanding something,” she says.
After graduation, Alvarado was offered a part-time administrative assistant job at Hispanic Alliance in Greenville. The job quickly became full time, and Alvarado transitioned into the programs area of the organization, where she supported such events as citizenship workshops, bilingual college fairs, health fairs and personal finance classes.
After a year, she was promoted to her current position overseeing operations. “I wanted to find ways where we could improve the programs we were offering,” she says. That involved surveying participants after each event to find out what more they wanted and then finding ways to act on those suggestions.
For instance, Alvarado says the team noticed a lot of people at the personal finance sessions asking how to start their own business. This led to the development of a three-day entrepreneurship series led by volunteers with legal and business expertise, Alvarado says.
She and her team also retooled the annual health fair in 2019 to provide more than informational resources. The event, held on a Saturday, offered health screenings for families whose work schedules don’t allow for weekday medical appointments, or who can’t afford to miss work time. Visitors were able to attend seminars and cooking demonstrations to learn how to make healthy meals.
“We made it more of a place where people could come and get things done, rather than just get a card to call up the medical office and make an appointment,” Alvarado says.
When the COVID-19 pandemic put all events on hold last year, Alvarado and her team pivoted to get information out quickly to the community. They made their web pages available in both English and Spanish, and worked with Greenville County Schools and AccelerateSC, the state’s online COVID-19 information center, to translate information into Spanish.
With help from grants and donations, they also started a program over the summer called Canasta Básica, or “basic basket,” that provided culturally appropriate food to families experiencing food scarcity. Alvarado says the program was in response to calls her organization began getting where people were asking how to use some of the items they received from local food banks.
By partnering with local Hispanic grocery stores, the organization was able to purchase food items that better matched the staples used in Hispanic households – and help small businesses, which were struggling as well, Alvarado says.
With infection rates gradually dropping, Alvarado is looking forward to a time when she can resume her quarterly trips to Puerto Rico and see family members. Her busy schedule no longer allows her to coach or referee soccer for CESA, which she had done since becoming certified in high school, but she still volunteers at games when she can.
She also makes sure to set aside some time for herself every week at Knight Performance Factory, a fitness center in Greenville. “It gives me motivation, and I’m always challenging myself – can I do better,” Alvarado says.
It’s the same spirit she brings to her work, where she’s always looking for ways to make Hispanic families feel welcome, whatever their backgrounds.
“The most rewarding thing about my job is being able to connect with our community and offer them solutions where they feel they are part of an inclusive community, where everyone has access to opportunities for success and prosperity,” she says.