They arrive each and every day – soundlessly, humbly, without fanfare or welcome. They arrive ragged and dusty, exhausted and disoriented from the long and heart-wrenching journey. They have felt every step and bouncing mile – felt them added to the unfathomable distance back to the family, friends, home and country that have made them who they are.

They are men, women and children, people who have uprooted their entire lives and carried them, like candles lit with the dancing flames of hope, toward the unfamiliar and the unpredictable. How overwhelming this immigrant’s journey, and how comprehensive a test of strength and adaptability. For some, this try at a new life is an unforgiving sink or swim trial, an experience that will make or break them. But for those who have left Guatemala and found themselves in or near Providence, Rhode Island, there is a figure keeping vigil, an experienced and caring guardian sent in advance from home. She is Consul General Patricia Lavagnino, and her mandate is to serve the Guatemalan community – assisting those in need and shepherding them through the hazards and complications confronting all who seek new beginnings in the United States of America.

 

 

 

 

The Consulate General of Guatemala is nestled in a repurposed industrial plaza at 555 Valley Street. The consulate is a sturdy brick building, uniquely identifiable by the blue and white Guatemalan flag flying proudly a few paces from its door. At first blush, the interior of the consulate bears the hallmarks of a government office – the rows of stackable plastic chairs, the take-a-number dispenser, the photography area for documentation – but the décor and the activity within tell a different story. Large and vibrant pieces of Guatemalan art – reminders of home for those who find themselves far from it – occupy the consulate walls. The staff is the opposite of the wearied, shuffling bureaucrats one might expect, moving instead with openness and energy that reflects a sense of purpose and a belief in the value of their work. Much of the openness and energy stems from Patricia Lavagnino herself, who also exudes a certain warmth and capability.

 

 

Born Patricia Eugenia Lavagnino Spinola in Guatemala City, Lavagnino’s path to the consulate began with a childhood and family life steeped in charity and compassion. She recalls once walking into her home’s kitchen to find a stranger calmly eating there. “Mommy, who is he?” she asked. Lavagnino’s mother replied that neither she nor her husband knew the man. However, they did know that he was hungry and needed a meal. Lessons like these became a part of Lavagnino’s being, and a central pillar of her career. “I will never keep on walking,” she says, “if I see somebody that is stuck and I know that he is in distress.”

 

 

Lavagnino joined the Diplomatic Corps of Guatemala at age twenty-four and never looked back. She had previously studied law with the hopes of becoming a defense attorney. She soon realized that she could do just as much, if not more, to protect the vulnerable in a diplomatic post abroad. The choice was undoubtedly the correct one, as Lavagnino has represented Guatemala’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in positions across the globe for more than thirty years. Lavagnino has served at posts in Canada, Mexico, Taiwan, Guatemala, Belize and the United States.

 

 

Though Lavagnino provided much-needed assistance to Guatemalan nationals in each post, she says that it was her four years working in Mexico that entwined her career, calling and mandate into one inseparable whole. It was in Mexico that Lavagnino witnessed what she calls “the saddest history of humans.” In seeking to protect Guatemalans crossing Mexico on their way to the United States, Lavagnino found herself dealing with kidnappings, as well as with repatriations, both of Guatemalans who had expired in the desert, and of Guatemalans who had lost limbs after being thrown from moving trains by callous human smugglers.

 

 

One experience that still resonates with Lavagnino is the case of Valdino – a young Guatemalan who nearly died after being run over by a train in Mexico. Valdino lost his leg at the hip and fell into a coma. Due to her diplomatic standing, Lavagnino was able to prevent Valdino from being turned over directly to the immigration authorities. Instead, Lavagnino had Valdino moved from Mazatlán to Mexico City, where a religiously disparate group of organizations with presences in the area collaborated on his recovery. These included a convent of catholic nuns, the evangelical World Vision organization and the masonic Shriners Hospitals for Children. According to Lavagnino, it was a deeply rewarding and affirming moment when, two years later, the recovered and prosthesis-wearing Valdino said “Look consul, I can walk again.”

 

 

Lavagnino does admit that the job of an international diplomat – separated from home, family and friends and subject to rotation – can be a lonely one. However, each new posting offers a chance to serve and become a part of a new community. Lavagnino assumed the role of consul general at the Providence Consulate General in December of 2010. She has found a number of ways to connect to the community, including Facebook. Lavagnino uses the social network to keep the Guatemalan community up-to-date not just with official consulate services, but also with translated news and current events that are pertinent to them. Lavagnino says having the official sanction of the consulate behind her posts gives them more credibility. This is especially helpful in combating misinformation – such as discrediting untrue statements about the Affordable Care Act, or warning the community about scam artists who make false threats of imprisonment and deportation to extort money from undocumented Guatemalan immigrants.

 

 

Fortunately, Lavagnino has some help in accomplishing her mandate. She is an admirer of the resources that the state of Rhode Island offers to immigrants and their families. She is happy as well with the many organizations active in the area. She cites The United Way and Year Up as two organizations making very positive impacts on the well-being of the Guatemalan community. Lavagnino is unequivocal in her belief that Guatemalans are arriving in the United States out of real need. From her long experience in international diplomacy, she knows that Guatemalans, and immigrants from all over “long to belong” in their new country. She says that at the beginning of each year the consulate is full of Guatemalans applying for passports, simply so that they can receive Individual Tax Identification Numbers, or ITIN numbers, and file state and federal income tax returns.

 

 

Lavagnino knows that there is a larger goal on the horizon – that of a more integrated, accepted way of life for the Guatemalan community. Empowerment is imperative. Lavagnino would like to see it extended to all walks of life, and sees professional achievement as the route to the proverbial American Dream. Lavagnino’s belief in the power of this pathway was fortified by her experience at the January 2011 swearing in of Angel Taveras, the Dominican-American mayor of Providence. “I was sitting right beside his mother,” she recalls. “And I just heard the story about her, and I heard the speech of Mayor Taveras, and then I said wow… Her American Dream wasn’t her own. Her American Dream was looking at her son being sworn in.”

 

 

Patricia Lavagnino’s mandate consists of three specific parts. The first is to provide necessary documentation to Guatemalan nationals, especially passports. In addition to Rhode Island, the Providence Consulate General serves four other states: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont. When traveling as the “mobile consulate” to offer documentation services in these areas, Lavagnino often overflows with pride over the Guatemalan diaspora. “You are the brave ones,” She tells those she speaks with, “the representatives of bravery from Guatemala. And now you are here with us speaking the language, but you are making it. Somehow you are making it. And it’s because you are determined.” Even in the recounting, Lavagnino is animated. “I have a very brave, determined community,” she says.

 

 

The second part of the mandate is to protect and assist the community. This means looking after individuals who are sick or detained, and protecting the rights and health of all Guatemalans. Because of the essential connection between Lavagnino and her community, she says her work often extends beyond her official duties. “They are my nationals,” she says. “They are my brothers and sisters.” So in addition to consular information and legal advice, Lavagnino also offers judicious personal guidance, where it is appropriate.

 

 

The third part of the mandate is to work with the community and with local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to expand information, legal protection and services to members of the community. In this area, as with the others, Lavagnino needs cooperation. She would ask that new arrivals to the United States “Respect the law”, explaining that even if someone should use an “informal border point” to enter the country, therefore breaking immigration law, there is still no reason that they shouldn’t obey local laws from that point forward. However, Lavagnino realizes that compliance is not always a simple matter. She recalls exhorting the community not to drive without driver’s licenses. One man asked her what time she arrives begins her work. To Lavagnino’s reply of eight a.m., the man replied that his shift begins at one a.m., and that getting to the job without driving would be nearly impossible.

 

 

Though she has become a pillar of the community, Patricia Lavagnino will not be at the Providence consulate forever. Her advice to her successor is simple. “Keep the doors open,” she says. It is both a literal and figurative request. Lavagnino works determinedly to keep her community well-informed and well-protected from the dangers that confront the vulnerable on a daily basis. For any Guatemalan striving to make a new life in New England, knowing that someone like Patricia Lavagnino is working on their behalf is a reason to sleep a little easier, each and every night. And for those Guatemalans not yet arrived, unsure of what challenges and possibilities await them in the United States, Lavagnino is ready. She will use all of her means to reach them, to help them and to empower them. It is her mandate, her career and her calling.

 

Written By: David Sano

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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