Celebrating Latino Leaders: Luz Catarineau Colville

“We need to start reconnecting with our heritage and bring it into how we’re raising our kids. We need to be building each other up not tearing each other down.”

“We need to start reconnecting with our heritage and bring it into how we’re raising our kids. We need to be building each other up not tearing each other down.”

Luz Catarineau Colville

Social Activist

Hometown: Bronx, NY

Since 1994, Luz Catarineau Colville and her husband Mark Colville have run the Amistad Catholic Worker House in New Haven. One of about 175 Catholic Worker Houses around the country, Amistad is dedicated to helping people in crisis, serving hot breakfast and lunch to whoever walks through the door. And the work goes far beyond feeding the hungry.

An Early Calling

As a young girl growing up in the Bronx, Luz Catarineau Colville would hear her father say that her immediate family members were the only people who really mattered. He believed that no one else was going to help her, so she should only think about taking care of herself and her parents. But that never felt genuine to Luz. And at the age of 17, she had a life-changing experience when she converted to Catholicism.

“When I became Catholic I realized that every day is to be lived on this earth like it is your last day. This is what I needed to do. When I read the Bible I took it literally. And I thought it was about helping others and not about you. I believe your salvation is with the other.”

As a young woman, Catarineau Colville became involved in a community organizing effort to protect neighborhood schoolchildren from the drug dealers who would lurk in the school playground. The neighbors tried to pressure officials to install a fence to keep the dealers out, but there was a lot of back and forth without any action.

Then she attended a community organizing training session offered by her parish. The trainer, a member of South Bronx for Change, was Mark Colville.

“We were a Latino community and I thought, what is this white guy doing trying to organize us Puerto Ricans? But he taught us who our targets are, that it’s not about your neighbor being a bad person. It’s about the government that is failing the people and the system that doesn’t take care of us. It’s not about us fighting for more programs for food stamps or Medicaid. It’s about us taking care of each other.”

Colville earned the trust of the neighbors and helped them build the relationships they needed to get the fence installed.

A Watchful Community

After falling in love and marrying, Luz and Mark were given an opportunity by Father Tom Goekler, a long-time mentor to Mark. Goekler owned a house on Rosette Street in New Haven that he was renting to low-income families and students, and he gave it to the Colvilles so they could turn it into a Catholic Worker House. Embarking on this new phase of her life, Luz drew inspiration from the Bible.

“I knew nothing about the Catholic Worker movement until a year before we started. For me it’s about the Sermon on the Mount and reading the gospel-- to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and visit the prisoners.”

Rosette Street is in the Hill neighborhood, where crime rates have been high for decades. When the Colvilles first moved there, the leader of the notorious Latin Kings gang lived next door. Drug dealers were a fixture on the nearby corner and people were scared to go outside. Instead of calling the police, however, Luz and Mark started building relationships with neighbors and meeting the drug dealers head on. Some dealers would move on while others accepted the Colvilles' invitations to meals. One of the worst dealers stopped dealing entirely, turned his life around, and now keeps a watchful eye on the street.

“People have an understanding that we have kids living with us, so there is a rule of no guns and no foul language. People call me Mother Colville. I’m the den mother of the house. I have many, many kids. If you treat people the way you want to be treated, you’re golden. We’ve never had anybody rob us, break into our house, or our cars. Our neighbors are in full support of what we do. They get together and say this is our neighborhood, and we shine lights on what is going on here and drug dealers are not going to last here very long. Eventually, they move on.”

On Serving Others

Five days a week, the Amistad Catholic Worker House serves 60-70 people for breakfast and 20-30 people for lunch, which requires managing a team of volunteers and accepting donations of food and supplies. They remain open during snowstorms and other times when the soup kitchens may be closed. Luz also organizes Chapel on the Green, a service and hot meal on Sunday afternoons on the New Haven Green.

“When a person comes to us through the door of our house to enjoy a meal, it’s the breaking of bread with family. It’s not about being in a soup kitchen or being in a place for ten minutes and that’s it. It’s about getting to know each other around the table and being able to support each other.”

"We get to know their story and where they came from and how they came to be in the present moment. We try to respond to them in their period of crisis.”

In this environment of serving others, the Colvilles raised four children and a niece, and a nephew.

“Our youngest son is twelve now, and he is our ambassador. Whenever somebody new comes to the door, he says, ‘Hey, my name is Isaiah, let me talk to you about what we do here. You can come and eat here, you can come to take showers, and do your laundry’. He’ll go through the whole spiel.”

Meeting People Where They Are

Beyond serving meals, Luz says the most important aspect of their work is getting to know the people who come through the door and suspending judgment.

“People just need to be heard, not judged, and not put into a program immediately. Work with them where they are and build up from that. For us, the first step in relationship building is just getting to know someone’s story, talking to them, and figuring out what is going on. There are stories of people who’ve just lost their job, who’ve been sleeping in their car, who parked their car on the wrong side of the street and it got towed and now they’re living in tents. All you have to do is talk to them for a few minutes and you’ll see that they’re the kindest and gentle person. All they want to be able to do is live self sufficiently. A lot of people are scared.”

Catarineau Colville admits that the work is not always easy.

“Living at the Amistad Workers House can be frustrating at times. I’m so compulsive about cleaning. I go in and do what I need to do. Being married to Mark is just as difficult. Mark says, ‘It’s lived in.’ I say, ‘It’s a mess!’ We balance each other because we are so opposite. Mark and I have been married 25 years.”

Embracing Her Latino Heritage

Despite being from Puerto Rico, Luz’s parents made sure their children spoke only English in the house. Catarineau Colville learned Spanish in college and has continued to value Latino culture.

“I think it’s important to not turn away from history and culture. We need to start reconnecting with our heritage and bring it into how we’re raising our kids. We need to be building each other up not tearing each other down.