In an unassuming yellow brick building on the north side of Columbia, Eduardo Crespi sits at a plastic table and imitates the sound of a beating heart.
“This the heart of the hood,” he explains as he taps a rhythm against the table. “Do you feel that? This corner: Lynn and Garth.”
He’s talking about 609 N. Garth Avenue, slotted next to the intersection of Lynn Street. On this patch of grass rests Centro Latino, a community center founded by Crespi in 2000 and directed by him ever since. Centro Latino was created to serve Latino and low-income families. It resides in the city’s First Ward, where 2013 census data estimated the median annual household income was less than $20,000, while the city-wide median was $43,262.
The center doesn’t seem like much: a little building with a sign in the window, stripped-down white walls and concrete floors, a sweet smell of sweat and the tang of metal. There’s a painting of Martin Luther King Jr. on a Dia de Los Muertos altar, propped next to a picture of Jesus with his hair spooling down his shoulders. A photocopy pasted to the wall depicts a “Black Jesus,” as Crespi affectionately calls him — a symbol to newcomers that Centro Latino is a place for all races and religions. And across from Black Jesus, a sign reads “No hay excusa para la violencia domestica” in black and blue ink. Translation: “There is no excuse for domestic violence.”
This is a safe place.
Like its decorations, the center is small in stature but huge in scope. It offers a pinch of everything: immigration services, legal counseling, health literacy assistance, family planning resources, after-school programs and more. They even have celebrations for Earth Day, fundraisers for charities such as Be The Change and the PET Project, and Spanish and English classes. Centro Latino’s work is so vast Crespi can’t possibly cover it all, even as he sits under the breeze of a ceiling fan and talks for hours, without interruption — almost without pausing to breathe. There’s too much, and if he’s being honest, he doesn’t have time to explain himself.
On this particular day, Sept. 25, 2016, Crespi’s chosen topic is the stainless steel stove in the corner. Although he looks relaxed, this is his domain, and he knows it well. It’s clear something’s on his mind. He runs a hand through black hair tinged with gray and pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose. The conversation focuses on the center’s kitchen — or rather, what Crespi hopes the kitchen will become. He wants to see that kitchen put to work, transforming Centro Latino from a community center to a commercial eatery and a neighborhood landmark. And he wants to pay for it with the humble tamale.
MORE COOKS FOR THE KITCHEN
Tamales are a dish as revered in Latin-American culture as the turkey is to U.S. culture on Thanksgiving. Its history stretches back thousands of years — as early as 7,000 B.C., according to History ’s website — with a name derived from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec empire. The specifics of a tamale recipe depend, of course, on the chef making it. Traditionally, the dough is made from scratch, stuffed with pork, beef or chicken and loaded with garlic, onions and chiles before finally being sheathed in a corn husk wrapper and steamed. Centro Latino serves a vegetarian spin on the classic dish. But making such a time-tested meal isn’t as simple as tossing dough on the stove, and what Crespi needs for his kitchen, he says, is a strong workforce.
“Most of (Centro Latino’s) services are to serve the poor, and they don’t have the money to support us,” Crespi says. “So if we offer services to help people get to the doctor, to help them make appointments or to interpret for them, you put a lot of effort in, but there is no money involved. So now we have a product, and that’s how we are (sustainable).”
Crespi already has the business-minded conviction and no-nonsense passion of a successful restaurateur. In addition to operating during fundraiser dinners, the center’s kitchen caters for local organizations and helps feed members of the community.
He lists numbers off the top of his head like a bank teller: the $500-per-month mortgage, the 10 meals designated for the Columbia Public Schools superintendent’s task force, an order of 50 tamales and 90 cookies needed for a particular presentation at Stephens College. As director of the center, he’s only paid when all other expenses are covered. Some months, there is no available director’s salary. And the only steady kitchen staff are Crespi and his daughter, Nicole, who together must recruit additional volunteers for fundraiser dinners and catered meetings. So Crespi runs the organization as a juggler, his hands always finding the necessary spot to keep the cycle going.
Twenty-five children participate in the after-school program every week, and at least 25 volunteers manage the ensuing chaos. Every month, 50 to 100 patrons are served a meal at fundraiser dinners, Crespi says. He coordinates these events with a host of volunteers and a dogged board of directors.
For instance, Crespi roped Vicky Boyd-Kennedy, who has been president of the board of directors for the past three years, into becoming a volunteer when she hesitantly inquired about teaching English classes for the center in 2005. She had just moved to Columbia from Kentucky and was looking for a way to dive into service. Although there was no such English program at Centro Latino at the time, and Boyd-Kennedy didn’t want to start her own, a few years later Crespi pressed her again. With volunteers signed on to help, he brought the group together, and Boyd-Kennedy became one of the center’s first English instructors. She’s now been teaching for eight years, and after serving for a while on the board, she “just sort of fell into being president because there needed to be a president,” she says with a laugh.
Now, Boyd-Kennedy, Crespi and the rest of the board are Centro Latino’s helicopter parents, keeping a close eye on the cash flow and running monthly meetings so the center continues to crawl toward its goals. But it’s clear when talking to Boyd-Kennedy that, despite her genuine adoration of “the Centro,” as she calls it, there’s an undercurrent of frustration beneath her words. She smiles when she talks about 609 N. Garth Ave., but she also sighs. Progress is happening, yes, and yet it’s slow, sometimes agonizingly slow. As an advisor for MU students from disadvantaged backgrounds, Boyd-Kennedy meets regularly with international students. She has worked one-on-one with undocumented students as well, helping them find placement in local colleges. So she understands the predicament that both schools and children find themselves in when facing immigration situations. That’s one of the reasons she’s so eager to see a place like Centro Latino succeed.
She longs to see Crespi’s vision come to life — his vision of helping immigrants adapt to the U.S., and his vision of actually doing obesity prevention, not just teaching it.
GET YOUR GREENS
Crespi calls Centro Latino’s kitchen “Comedor Popular,” or “the people’s diner,” a name inspired by his trips to Latin American comedores who serve the same meal to every customer at a low cost. His goal isn’t “to serve junk to poor people,” he says. Like the comedores that often cooked up vegetarian meals, Crespi wants Comedor Popular to give its patrons healthy, veggie-centric dinners.
After moving to the U.S. from Argentina in 1991, Crespi, now 59, became a registered nurse, eventually moving to his current position as a charge nurse covering night shifts at The Bluffs, a retirement home in north Columbia. Working in health care has fundamentally shifted the way he thinks about food. As Centro Latino grew, he watched youth filter in and out of the after-school program, and he took note of the things they ate. Most of these children were from relatively low socioeconomic backgrounds; the snacks available to them, such as candy and junk food, weren’t exactly kale chips and organic bell peppers.
So, using information from Department of Health studies to aid his choice, Crespi decided Centro Latino would go vegetarian — not as a political statement, not as a “cult,” Crespi says, but as a way to get kids eating fruits and vegetables. If meat wasn’t even on the menu, a fruit or a veggie would be the only option.
“Little by little, I understood that food and food policies are really political,” he says. “People get really, really crazy about it, talking about stigma and elitism and classicism. But getting back to basics, eating more fruits and vegetables means eating more fruits and vegetables. Period.”
So first came the test of any potential cook: Would people like the food? Crespi sent his first experiment out to children in 2005, in the form of spaghetti with soy crumbles and tomato sauce. And they devoured it. “They ate it all, like beasts,” he says.
The result? Healthy vegetarian eating became synonymous with Centro Latino. It’s a sharp contrast to the building’s origins as a barbecue joint with a dance floor and spaces for gambling. When the original building began to crumble due to lack of care around 2005, it became what Crespi calls a “rat’s nest” before Centro Latino moved in and started renovating the place in 2009.
But he loved that it was sandwiched in the heart of a low-income part of Columbia; it was where he wanted to plant roots. So after thousands of dollars in renovations, in 2011 Centro Latino officially purchased the building. Now at fundraiser dinners, vegetarian tamales instead of barbecued ribs rest among pozole soup and quinoa. When kids arrive at the center after getting out of school, their first request is a snack; volunteers respond with grapes, strawberries, blackberries and peanut butter, much of which is donated by The Food Bank.
Sara Greene, an MU student and a Latina herself, sees the center as more than just a place where young students can get their daily nutrients. Here, they can feel a sense of ownership, accomplishment and connection. Fellow MU student and volunteer Stazi Prost agrees. It’s a place where the children can recognize that they share the same issues.
“I knew I could connect with them and they’d be comfortable with me,” Greene says. “I love being someone who can inspire them.”
But sometimes that inspiration isn’t easy to keep alive. Rasheeq Nizam, an MU student and the student coordinator for the kids in the after-school program, says that part of the challenge in mentoring the children is tip-toeing the line between cheerleader and pragmatist.
The volunteers seek to “change the kids’ perspective, getting them to see that they really can be whatever they want,” Nizam says. “But also (the kids) need to be realistic about it too and understand that it might be harder for them than it would be for a kid with more money or with different colored skin.”
Centro Latino’s walls aren’t impervious to the political conflict that goes on outside them. Both Prost and Nizam recall a day in spring 2016 when a young girl broke down in tears during an after-school session. After figuring out it wasn’t a tantrum, the volunteers closest to her consoled her, and she revealed to them her fear: that her family might disappear one day.
“She was really worried that if (Donald Trump) were to win, her family would be ripped apart,” Nizam says. “And it was a very valid fear because her family has had people who have been arrested. So the idea (in her mind) was that people who have been arrested will be deported, so she was really worried … her parents might get deported back to Mexico. And it’s hard because there’s not a whole lot you can really say.”
But despite these fears, Centro Latino has found a welcoming support system in Columbia, giving the center the resources it needs to help families with legal consultation, health literacy and even job hunting. Today, the center serves people from all over the world: Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Peru, Ethiopia, Kenya, Cuba, China and more.
“For us, it is very specific: We are helping Latino immigrants to accommodate in the community,” Crespi says. But the same goes for anyone who needs a hand, such as African immigrants and refugees newly arrived in the city, who “have no idea what they are doing here yet. They are just fresh from the boat,” he says.
Pausing in his explanation, Crespi leans to the side of his chair, squinting out the building’s front window. “You see where the blue car is?” he asks, pointing. His listeners swivel to follow his gaze.
“The house there, you have like 10 or more African refugees.”
He pulls out his phone, scrolling through photos of these neighbors on riding mowers and hacking at the weeds growing along the walls of Centro Latino. He taught several of them how to mow a lawn and work a Weed Eater. He took them to the farm he owns* and he taught them these landscaping skills in order to aid them in a job search. He grilled them about racism in America, how “here, you are black.” He gave them a history lesson about Hitler and the Nazis. He instructed them, if they ever see people with strange symbols tattooed on their forearms? That’s a swastika. He says, “You see that? Do not talk to them. Do not look at them. Don’t engage.”
Crespi paid people in the neighborhood $10 an hour to build, paint and fix Centro Latino’s building while it was undergoing renovations. He used his own money, paying them more than the state minimum wage, more than what some of the neighborhood’s tenants were making in their day jobs.
Nizam says he agrees that a growing sense of family is what has kept Centro Latino chugging along all these years. Most, if not all, of the kids in the after-school program have a sibling or cousin in the program with them, Nizam says. And people come to the program who aren’t Latino, he says. “It’s totally open to them.” Police officers have stopped by to introduce themselves. Jimmy John’s has dropped off free sandwiches. Residents of the Oak Towers apartment building have participated in Spanish and English classes, Nizam and Boyd-Kennedy say. Centro Latino is slowly becoming more than just the yellow brick building on the corner. For some, it’s like a second home.
When Crespi talks about “the Centro,” his voice takes on the tone of a devoted but firm father. He wants the best for the people of this town. He wants the community to continue to change. But for that to happen, he needs food to pay for it.
The center is supported by personal donations and donations from campaigns such as CoMo Gives, Spanish classes, interpretation and translation service fees, presentations to the public, and perhaps most importantly fundraiser dinners and on-going food sales throughout the year. Orders for vegetarian tamales, veggie wraps and palmeritas — heart-shaped cookies made from flaky puff pastry, baked by high school volunteer Sarah Frost — satisfy the mortgage. And, in the past, hundreds of thousands of dollars from grants were poured into the center’s health programs, says Nicole, Centro Latino’s programs coordinator. But that isn’t enough to keep the kitchen alive and cooking all day, every day, like her father wants.
He envisions tamales coming out of the woodwork. He believes it can happen, that Centro Latino can be a source of vegetarian food like downtown staple Main Squeeze. The idea is a sustainable, healthy food service that funnels its proceeds into community growth.
BRINGING PEOPLE TO THE BLOCK
As he sits back in his chair and talks about the neighborhood, this “hood,” it’s hard not to be transfixed by Crespi’s breadth of knowledge. He’s the kind of guy who makes journalists forget all their prepared questions. He jumps from topic to topic like he’s slashing through an itemized checklist. Business plans. Check. Data sets on eating and health. Check. Racial profiling. Check. The Great Recession. Check. He peers over his glasses to read new business listings from a Columbia Business Times, citing the millions of dollars invested in new companies. “Look, with $5 million, you come to this neighborhood, and you change everything,” he says.
He’s not afraid to be bold. He calls Columbia out on its invisible “border” where majority-white southern Columbia meets the more racially diverse northern Columbia. He doesn’t care about criticism of his vegetarian program or the way he handles the center’s services, the kids or the kitchen. He’s got a job to do.
“We are very controversial, not in the way that people talk badly about us, but we serve the poor,” Crespi says. “We serve immigrants. We are not part of the status quo.” He knows the center does great work through its fundraiser dinners and by feeding members of the community. Through collaboration of its resources, Centro Latino thrives.
As Crespi recalls one particular fundraiser lunch, he smiles, which means he’s about to tell a good story. He begins with a picture of the neighborhood, as he often does when he starts an anecdote.
The neighborhood — this area around Garth and Lynn, this swath of northern Columbia — is wary of press attention, he says. “Usually when they would have KOMU trucks out here, when they had their vans with the antenna, it was because there was a murder, or a SWAT team came to the wrong house, entered an empty house and arrested nobody, or something happened,” he says. “Something really bad. But, that day we (were serving) lunch and dinner.”
It was June 2012. The commercial kitchen was sparkling and new, Comedor Popular had just been established, and KOMU vans had arrived to cover the event for the news station. “The neighbors closed their doors,” Crespi says, as he mimics them peeking nervously out through a set of window blinds. He laughs. They were scared because the news media were coming.
But what was interesting, he says, was the parking lot of Centro Latino. Here, there were BMWs and Mercedes cars lined up, some of them with the official license plates of judges and attorneys — all people who had come to support the mission of Centro Latino and this neighborhood. They gathered in the same building and parking lot as the men and women who depended on Centro Latino’s services, to eat piping hot tamales.
One judge in attendance was Kevin Crane, at the time the circuit judge for the 13th Circuit Court. He says he remembers thinking it was a fantastic idea to go down to Garth and Lynn “in a non-formal, ‘regular guy’ setting, instead of being the ‘dude in a black robe,’” he says. He remembers thinking, as he tried the tamales, that it was a good idea to identify and welcome the Latino segment of the community.
This thrilled Crespi.
“That, to me, was very nice,” Crespi says. “That was an environmental change. The law was here, eating. And they were not arresting anybody.”
If tamales are the way to create that sort of change, Crespi says, then so be it. Let the people eat. Columbia will be the better for it.
*A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Crespi's ownership of his farm.