Teena Soto Smith Doesn’t Have All the Answers. And That’s OK. 

This is the second installment of our contributor project We Count: Latinx Portland in 2020. Subscribe to the Bridgeliner newsletter to follow this series.

By Jordan Hernandez

“[The Census] is going to have a huge impact on them. People are going to be fearful and apprehensive. Especially now, it’s like, what makes you think a Census worker isn’t going to tap on their doors and people will think it’s an ICE officer trying to come into their homes? I have a feeling [that], for Latinx families, it’s going to be way underreported.” Teena Soto Smith

Teena is talking about the 2020 U.S. Census and how much is at stake, especially for organizations and nonprofits that work directly with folks who have so much to fear this year. 

And I’ve seen this firsthand: In 2016, I started volunteering at Raphael House of Portland, which provides emergency shelter and ongoing, supportive services for survivors of domestic violence. 

Four years later, I’m still volunteering at their annual gala and holiday program, and monthly for their “Latinas Unidas” support group nights. In other words, I just can’t seem to stay away (and I hope I never have to.)

Teena Soto Smith is the Advocacy Center Coordinator at Raphael House, and also a dear friend. In between all her busy work days, she would always find time to help me whenever I had questions about logistical things and laughed as I fumbled my way through heavy binders of information about program participants and basic protocol for volunteering in shelter. She also frequently supplied me with essential oil blends and a whole array of proper self-care items she meticulously created for everyone sharing our office. She became like family to me, and the admiration I hold for her has only grown larger over the years since.

Teena is originally from the Southwest, and she’s both bilingual and bicultural, with her mother being from Mexico and her father being Tejano-Mexicano. She was the second person in her family to go to college (she graduated with a degree in psychology and a minor in child advocacy studies), and over the years she’s held jobs doing everything from customer service to working with migrant families. In 2014, she began working at Raphael House. 

 Raphael House of Portland operates an emergency domestic violence shelter for individuals and families. Their location is confidential to protect the safety of survivors they serve, all of whom are fleeing dangerous abusive partners. After participants move out of the shelter, they are able to continually come back to the agency’s onsite Advocacy Center and access services to help them heal, move forward, and maintain stability. 

Teena’s role as the Advocacy Center Coordinator includes coordinating all the support groups and wellness events available to survivors, overseeing a team that together provide services to more than 350 survivors (including 130 adults, along with their children and families), and helping them access resources in the community. 

 When I ask Teena about the most challenging part of her job, she gets emotional. “We have limited funding to support 100+ families. If there is an economic crisis, how do we help with that on a budget? For some Latinx families, regardless of immigration status, they may be scared to make the call to services outside of Raphael House because of the public charge that’s in place. We don’t have all the answers, and it’s really painful to see people go through that.” 

The last part of Teena’s answer is like a punch to the gut for me. I’ve found that not having answers is one of the most challenging parts of any job, but when not having answers affects someone else’s survival…that’s even heavier. 

Because people may be afraid about the implications of responding to the census based on their or their family’s immigration status, Latinx communities are likely to be undercounted this year. This means that resources and funding that critical social services like Raphael House — rely on to continue serving this population may not reflect all of their current needs, which puts this community at an even greater risk.

I am reminded by my conversation with Teena that none of us have concrete answers – but also that just talking to someone who you admire and respect, hearing how their own anxieties and fears mirror your own, can help you not feel so alone. 

Sometimes you just need to sit across from each other eating cookies and dabbing your eyes when you need to. Teena knows that, and so do all the other staff members who work at Raphael House. There’s a humanness that tethers their work to who they are as people, too, and that is something to cherish.

Read my full story about Teena Soto Smith and Raphael House of Portland on Medium.

P.S. Here are some other notes I wanted to pass along from my conversation and reporting, and my own work at Raphael House:

  • Across Oregon, 1 in 3 women experience intimate partner violence  —  more than 700,000 individuals in Oregon alone. For women and girls of color, and members of LGBTQIA+ communities, the prevalence of being targeted for abuse and violence is even higher. That’s why Raphael House proudly serves all survivors no matter their gender identity, ethnicity, disability, immigration status, primary language, or sexuality.
  • Annually, Raphael House’s programs impact more than 5,250 survivors and community members. 
  • Watch the video “Elizabeth’s Story” to see the personal story of a previous participant from Raphael House.