Work to be done
In Salem, she aims to increase diversity, one job at a time
Fourth in a series of occasional articles aboutblacks and Latinos living in metro Boston
SALEM -- The questions from co-workers started soon after Rosario Ubiera-Minaya began working as an internship coordinator two years ago in the Peabody Essex Museum's education department. ''Are you in security?," someone would inevitably ask the caramel-colored, 28-year-old Dominicana. ''Do you work in guest services?"
''They never think I might be [heading] the internship program," she says, ''or that I may be working in the education department."
Ubiera-Minaya believes that at the time, she was the only Latino holding a professional job at the museum. About 1 percent of the staff of 204 was Latino in 2002. By last year, the PEM's 282 employees had grown to 8 percent Hispanic, 2 percent African-American, and 6 percent Asian/Pacific Islander as the museum focused on diversifying its growing staff after moving into a larger, renovated space that opened in 2003.
It's difficult to know how these figures compare with employment numbers at other museums nationally because such statistics are hard to come by. One of the most recent surveys was done in 1999 by the American Association of Museums, which accredits museums nationally. An optional question about the race and ethnicity of ''top institution administrators" revealed that 1 percent of museum leaders were African-American and 1.3 percent were Hispanic/Latin/South American.
Cultural institutions aren't the only work environment where blacks and Latinos find themselves underrepresented. Ubiera-Minaya's racial and ethnic isolation at the PEM reflects the experiences of some black and Latino professionals throughout metro Boston who toil at companies with predominantly white staffs. Only about 8 percent of African-Americans and less than 4 percent of Latinos hold ''management, professional, and related occupations" in Boston, according to the 2000 Census.
Ubiera-Minaya doesn't blame discrimination for the hurtful encounters she and some of her interns of color have sometimes experienced at the museum. ''I think it was mostly ignorance," she says. Despite the rocky start, she's developed a close relationship with her bosses, gained both acceptance and respect at the PEM, and now intends to have a long career in the museum field.
The museum sits two blocks north of the Point, an ethnic enclave dominated by Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, where a majority of Salem's 11 percent population of Latinos lives. The community resolutely avoids Salem's tourism area. According to Ubiera-Minaya, one of her bosses had told her that the PEM's upper management had given up on courting Latinos, saying, ''Oh, Latinos don't usually go to the museum. . . . They don't belong to the museum. We don't have what they're looking for." Ubiera-Minaya's steely response was, ''Why don't we offer it then?"
Fortunately, reaching out to diverse populations was exactly what her bosses -- Vasundhara Prabhu, deputy director for interpretation and education, who is of Indian descent, and Ray Williams, director of education, who is white -- hoped Ubiera-Minaya would accomplish when they hired her for the job in July 2003.
Ubiera-Minaya began hiring more Latinos, Asians, and blacks into the internship program for high school and college students. One group filmed a 45-minute documentary detailing the history of the Point, the stereotypes locals have about its residents, and the discrimination people living in the Point sometimes feel. Another group of students is creating a video about their experiences as young people of color working at the museum, a work that Ubiera-Minaya hopes will be incorporated into diversity training sessions there.
''I thought I was going to be just managing this program," says Ubiera-Minaya, who has also translated museum literature and exhibition captions into Spanish in her efforts to make the museum more inviting to Latinos. ''But I have become a mentor, an educator, an outreach person."
Artistic rootsIt's not surprising that Ubiera-Minaya would become involved in the arts. Her uncle, a priest named Severino Ubiera, is a well-known artist in the Dominican Republic, she says. Her 29-year-old brother, Ruben Ubiera, toils as an artist in western Florida.
''Plus my mother was a fashion designer," she says. ''Everybody in my family loves to paint and draw."
Ubiera-Minaya became exposed to the various facets of the museum -- marketing, education, public relations -- through her involvement in the museum's ''Island Thresholds" exhibition, a contemporary Caribbean art show that ended in June. First, she suggested that the exhibition include a Dominican artist. Then, at Prabhu's urging, she served as the main museum contact person for the Dominican and Cuban artists in the show who spoke only Spanish. She also traveled to Venezuela and the Dominican Republic with the exhibition's curator to visit the two Latin artists. The exposure convinced Ubiera-Minaya, who graduated from Salem State College in 1999 with a degree in communications, that she had found the right career.
She now plans to get a degree in museum studies at Tufts or Harvard, and she's not letting the arrival of her first child (she's four months pregnant) or the fact she can't afford to attend school full time deter her. Both Williams and Prabhu are eager to help Ubiera-Minaya fulfill her higher education dreams, although no plan has emerged yet. Together, says Ubiera-Minaya, ''We're trying to find a way."
Invisible boundariesShe first arrived in Salem 13 years ago with her mother, father, and Ruben, the youngest of her two elder brothers. They came for a summer visit with her grandmother, who like many Dominicans had moved to Salem from New York City. It was a family of reluctant immigrants. Her father, a journalist and lawyer, had started a resort as a side business in the Dominican Republic, says Ubiera-Minaya. When the bank that was funding the venture declared bankruptcy, it left the once economically comfortable family -- and many others in the country -- in dire financial straits.
Ubiera-Minaya, then 15, had no idea that her parents planned for the family to remain in Salem as illegal immigrants. That summer, she and her brother roamed Salem's historic district like tourists, and they quickly discovered the invisible boundary lines of the Point that keep many of the Point's residents from moving beyond the comfort of their community to visit other areas of Salem.
''It was just strange to other people in the neighborhood to see that we were doing that," says Ubiera-Minaya, who became a legalized resident in 1996, after her parents divorced and her mother, who died last year, remarried a US citizen.
Ubiera-Minaya's husband of six years, Jose Minaya, 32, had no qualms about crossing those boundaries two years ago when he discovered the internship coordinator opening while perusing the museum's website. Minaya told his wife, ''Rosario, you can do this." At the time, Ubiera-Minaya held a part-time job as a counselor for Salem State College's Upward Bound program, which helps acclimate high school students to college life. Before that, she worked in marketing and promotions at the Spanish language TV station Telemundo and had been a community organizer who focused on smoking prevention for the Massachusetts Prevention Center of the North Shore.
Stressful startThe job at the PEM was the first one she'd held in an overwhelmingly white workforce. Ubiera-Minaya immediately felt the difference. ''I couldn't help but look around and say, 'Where are the Latinos?' " she says. ''You know, you try to look for other people you can relate to, and I couldn't find anybody."
In those initial months, Ubiera-Minaya felt so isolated she began inviting friends and family to the museum. Unfortunately, when they visited, she says, ''they didn't feel welcome."
The museum wasn't always welcoming to Ubiera-Minaya either. She found it difficult to gain respect.
''Because of my accent," she says, ''they think . . . I don't have the education, I don't have the expertise. They weren't taking me seriously. It took me awhile to get over my own fear of talking and being comfortable with my accent."
She remembers the problems she experienced when she took over the now four-year-old internship program; her first group of interns, hired before she started the job, were all white.
The story is different today. Ubiera-Minaya gets up from her chair, opens her office door, and gestures toward a poster on the door plastered with photos of the 30 interns she hired this summer.
''It's a lot of girls," she says, offering a quick assessment of the group, which includes 24 females, four Latinos, two African-Americans, and one African-American/Latino, ''and it's not as diverse as I wanted it, but we have a couple of people."
Leading with confidenceA recent meeting of 24 of those interns during their regular Thursday art project sessions showed Ubiera-Minaya's confidence in her job. The students were decorating small boxes, which would be in a two-week exhibit that ended earlier this month at the museum's Phillips Library. As the two adult artists overseeing the creative arts portion of the internship led a discussion, Ubiera-Minaya glided around the room having one-on-one interactions with the students she fondly calls her ''kids" to see how their art work was faring. Ubiera-Minaya also offered guiding words as the students and artist mentors planned the exhibition, making sure that all the elements were in place for a successful event.
Most of the interns work in various departments at the museum, but Ubiera-Minaya also hires a group of students through the Point Neighborhood Initiative, a program that she, Prabhu, and Williams developed in the fall of 2003 to work on specific projects. The first interns chosen for this group, who were all Latino except for a Caucasian girl and an African-American boy, made the documentary ''What's the Point: The Hope of a Growing Community," which screened at last year's Roxbury Film Festival.
Because the interns brought in from the Point dressed in oversize pants and T-shirts or wore their hair in braids, they weren't the type of kids the museum staff was used to.
Some people on the staff said, '' 'Well, we're not getting the same quality of interns,' " says Ubiera-Minaya. ''I was getting the same [students] in terms of education and skills. The thing that was changing was the look."
The museum's guards would follow the interns, she says. ''[Security] was like, 'What are you doing here?' Even me, I look young. When my kids are here, I wear jeans, I wear sneakers, I have a ponytail. So they thought I was an intern. So they would harass me."
One older member of the volunteer staff complained that she felt intimidated by one intern.
''He's right here," says Ubiera-Minaya, rising from her seat to point to a photo of a Dominican intern with light brown skin and a huge Afro. ''These kids," she says indignantly, ''would come every afternoon after school -- plus weekends -- to me in this little office. So it's like, 'After three months, she's afraid of them?' I don't get it.' "
Through all of these clashes, Ubiera-Minaya had the support of Prabhu, who arrived at the museum almost four years ago and scheduled diversity training in the docent and education departments as she integrated the staff. The education department Prabhu oversees is now filled with workers of Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, and Indian descent. Of the 13 PEM interns subsequently hired full time at the museum, 5 are Hispanic, 3 are Asian, and one is African-American, although most work in guest services or security. Now Ubiera-Minaya is working on her own form of diversity training. She asked four students -- three Latino and one Haitian -- who interned in the spring term to create as their final project a video about how they've been received at the museum as young people of color.
''You know, when you mention things," says Ubiera-Minaya of her white co-workers, ''they say, 'It's changed. I haven't seen that happen here. I saw it at other places, but I haven't seen it happen at the museum.' "
The video, she believes, will help them understand how close to home the problem of racial misunderstanding lies.