By Martha Sandoval
He is a white male of European descent, doesn’t speak Spanish, isn’t married to a Latina, but to an Afro-Caribbean woman. He wasn’t born in Latin America, but in the capital of the world, New York City, he is Rich Pellegrino, Atlanta Latino’s Person of the Year for 2007.
But despite his lack of direct connection with the Latino community, exactly one year ago, Pellegrino, his wife of 25 years and their eight children (ages 24, 22, 21, 19, 17, 15, 9, and 6) began what he calls a “family movement” to help immigrants.
“We are all immigrants,” Pellegrino frequently says, despite the fact that his parents were also born in the United States and three of his grandparents were Italian.
Pellegrino’s “family movement” started last Christmas when he read the news in local newspapers about the various regulations that Georgia’s counties were trying to push through to supposedly counteract the problems being caused by undocumented immigrants.
The final straw was the proposal to prohibit the lease of apartments to people who were not legal residents or citizens of Cherokee County.
“That woke me up. We wanted to fight illegal immigration with illegal unconstitutional laws, when hate and fear have to be healed with love and welcome,” says Pellegrino, who was out on a street corner in southern Cobb County with his family the very next day, carrying bilingual signs that said, “Welcome immigrants. Bienvenidos inmigrantes.”
A few days later, the Pellegrinos did the same in Cherokee County. The response was favorable in both cases.
“White and black people honked and waved,” says Pellegrino. “We did get a few fingers, but the response was mostly positive.”
That was only the beginning of what was to be an entire year dedicated to working with people and organizations that defend the interests of immigrants.
2007 was a year of intense work that awakened the interest of media outlets like Fox News, LA Times, the AJC, and more, who found Pellegrino’s story to be far from conventional: an American defending the rights of immigrants.
Specifically, Pellegrino provided the spark for the “Labor of Love” campaign, the peaceful event that brought together hundreds of people in Centennial Olympic Park, where community leaders distributed pamphlets on their work and invited participants to place red, white, and blue carnations in a gigantic heart of 7,000 flowers as a show of goodwill and encourage authorities and the local population toward dialogue, integration, and working together.
“Rich was the one who pulled the event together,” says Teodoro Maus, one of the activists who participated in the event and one of those who nominated Pellegrino for this award. “He started out by convincing skeptics, and later coordinated all of the logistical details such as permits, dates, etc.”
A LIFE OF SERVICE
It’s no coincidence that Pellegrino has taken such an active role in defending undocumented individuals, given his lengthy and consistent track record in serving others.
He has been the founder, director, member, and collaborator of several non-profit humanitarian organizations, including crisis and referral centers, community food pantries, homeless and women’s shelters and resource centers, addiction prevention and treatment clinics, faith-based initiatives, United Way committees, and more – and immigrant aid organizations as well, starting this year.
His vast experience in community service and his countless travels, as well as the six years he spent in the Caribbean (his wife is originally from St. Vincent) and a life dedicated to the study of spiritual practices have led him to write and publish professional and faith-based articles, newspaper columns, training materials, courses, and booklets.
He has also produced and hosted faith-based self-help radio and television programs and series.
A SPIRITUAL MISSION
Pellegrino emphasizes that his intervention in defense of the immigrant is a spiritual mission.
“There are many misconceptions about Latinos and prejudice, but especially all kinds of fears,” says Pellegrino. “Information helps, but it doesn’t heal the heart.”
According to Pellegrino, to combat their own pain, people attack those who are different when they are perceived as a threat to their dominant position. The same situation has repeated itself over and over again through history – first with European immigrants, then with blacks, then with Muslims, and now with Latinos.
However, Pellegrino has not lost hope that the final outcome will be positive, even though the journey is a difficult one.
“I believe this will be the quickest time that as a group we hate somebody and then we forget about it,” says Pellegrino. “The sad thing is that (in Georgia) it will get worse before it gets better.”
While the situation is still changing, Pellegrino is preparing to finalize in 2008 two projects he began this past year, and is continuing his work as a mediator and coordinator of activities aimed at reducing tensions between Americans and Latinos.
The first project is the establishment of the Atlanta chapter of Healing Our Nation, a nationwide organization dedicated to promoting the resolution of disputes through peaceful dialogue.
The second project is the publication of The Survival Manual for Latino Immigrants (Manual de Supervivencia para Inmigrantes Latinos), a booklet that will include an historical timeline of immigration in the United States and practical information for Hispanic immigrants.
As a man of faith, Pellegrino feels that his work and the work of all those who support the cause of immigrants will help people resolve issues in ways that bring benefits to all.
“I believe the arrival of Latinos is part of a greater plan of the Higher Power for this country,” says Pellegrino.
He also says that he is available to provide an ear or assistance to anyone who needs a hand.
“Please include my phone number – it’s 404-573-1199 – and my email, which is email@example.com because my last name means ‘pilgrim,’” says Pellegrino. “I think it’s a cute coincidence.”, he concludes.
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