30 April 2009

Former Miss Universe changing the world one Portuguese-speaking immigrant at a time

Martha Vasconcellos, Somerville resident, Brazilian native, and 1968s Miss Universe, recently received recognition from both the Women’s Bar Foundation (WBF) and the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA) for her work within the Portuguese-speaking community in Boston.

Somerville —The next time you hear a beauty pageant queen claim that she wants to help the world, you may want to take her seriously.

Martha Vasconcellos, Somerville resident, Brazilian native, and 1968s Miss Universe, recently received recognition from both the Women’s Bar Foundation (WBF) and the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA) for her work within the Portuguese-speaking community in Boston. Vasconcellos is the Supervisor of the Domestic Violence Program for the Boston area, at the Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers ( MAPs) in Cambridge.

Vasconcellos came to Boston from Salvador, Brazil in 2000 to continue her study of mental health and counseling issues. Prior to the move, she’d lived in New York and Miami in 1968 and 1969 when she was the reigning Miss Universe. “I first thought about moving to France, but my daughter suggested Boston because it has so many different schools.”

While in school, she took a job as an intern at Latin American Health Institute, serving HIV positive clients as a therapist. When she saw an ad for a part-time position at MAPS in a newspaper, she immediately sent in her resume. The part time spot quickly turned into a full time job to which she now devotes all of her time and energy.

The services Vasconcellos provides vary as widely as her clients that come in.

“We provide social services to Portuguese and Cape Verdean Creole speakers who often cannot speak English,” she said. “Many of them are immigrants who came to Boston from Brazil to find work. Some work three or four jobs and have no time to go school to learn English…they don’t know how to navigate the legal system. They come in with their own unique cases. They need someone to guide them [through the system].”

Vasconcellos says that her work with domestic abuse victims has been as fulfilling as it has been erratic. “The schedule is entirely unpredictable. If someone comes in with a problem, I don’t know how long it may take it solve it. This past month we had 52 clients, 15 of which were new.”

Her duties are entirely dependent upon the extent she is willing to help a client out. They vary widely and include finding law offices for clients, accompanying them to court houses and police stations, and even providing personal transportation if need be. She believes that it is because of her natural capacity to go beyond what is asked of her that she received recognition for her work. “I am an advocate. I’m a very persistent person—I’m not going to turn anyone away.”

Living in the United States provided her with the opportunity to turn civic engagement into a career, something she says would have been impossible in her hometown because of extensive violence and crime. It was an opportunity years in the making, dating back to her days as Miss Universe.

“When you see a Miss Universe saying she wants to help the world, believe them, because some actually do!”