Photo: La señoras of Detroit’s LA SED Senior Center (WDET)
Editor’s note: Hunger is a growing issue for lower-income seniors, and serving them culturally appropriate meals can help assure the health of America’s increasingly diverse senior population. Martina Guzmán produced the following public radio story for WDET in Detroit as part of the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellows Program, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America. Hear the broadcast version at WDET.
DETROIT--Demographic data shows that the Latino aging population will increase five-fold over the next several decades. This boom is creating unprecedented demands for providers of social, medical and nutritional programs. As a way of supporting the increased population of Latino seniors, a nonprofit organization decided to throw a dinner.
At the LaSed Senior Citizen Center in Southwest Detroit, dozens of Latino elders gathered for a sit down meal. The dinner was caldo de pollo, Mexico’s version of chicken soup. Serving the seniors the spicy consommé were the leaders of the Mexican community. They organized the event and called it La Cena de Los Pobres (the Dinner for the Poor). Their aim is to honor the elders of the community--and shed light on the issue of hunger.
A Mexican Tradition
Maria Lopez Acillo, age 80,was thrilled to be at the dinner and socialized with other Latino seniors.
“After being home alone for so long,” Acillo said, “I felt happy to come to the senior center to--it’s a beautiful change. I forgot all my worries; everyone here feels like family.”
The idea for La Cena de Los Pobres is a tradition in Mexico, but was brought to Detroit by the late community leader, Ruben Acosta.
As the story goes, Acosta was invited to what he thought was a fancy dinner in Mexico. He got all dressed up and ended up in church hall where soup was being served to the poor. Acosta was so moved by the tradition, he decided to recreate the event in Detroit.
Jane Garcia, president of the Board of Directors for Latin Americans for Social of Economic Development, said she is continuing the event in honor of Acosta who died in 2012.
Garcia explained, “We used to be open four days a week (not Fridays), and Ruben said, ‘No, we would raise the money and keep it open because they needed to eat every day.’”
The first dinner served about 20 Latino elders in 2011, and funds raised have helped keep the center opened five days a week. Although initial funding was modest, La Cena de Los Pobres has started building community awareness about the work of the senior center, Garcia explained, And LA SEd hopes that as an annual event it will eventually become a major fundraiser.
The associate state director for multicultural outreach with AARP of Michigan, Lisa Whitmore Davis, also attended the event, which is now an annual fundraiser.
“When you are senior, you are to be revered, you are the king and queen of the community,” Davis declared. “They are supposed to be in the golden space of their life. They’re trying to determine, ‘How am I gonna eat?’ Or, ‘Am I gonna get my medicine.’ This is a benefit to support seniors so that they don’t have to worry about their food.”
The statistics of America’s Latino elders living in poverty are staggering: 24 percent of Hispanic elders live below the poverty level—more than double the rate of older white, non-Hispanic adults.
Rely on Social Security
“So many people have retired from a job that possibly the money was not there for retirement, and live on a very low income even though they are collecting Social Security,” Davis said.
That’s 85-year-old Juanita Hernandez. She said older Latinos and retirees often find themselves in unexpected financial situations. She came to the Cena to enjoy the traditional meal.
“There is a need, especially among seniors,” she said. “People don’t realize that sometimes the seniors--this is the only thing they really eat.”
Organizers of La Cena De Los Pobres expect attendance at the annual dinner will increase in the coming years as the number Latinos heading into retirement age rises.