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Latino Leader Of 4 Decades Sustains Push For Mutual Aid

By DIANA FISHLOCK Of The Patriot-News

September 14, 2003
Copyright ©2003 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

When Margarita Morales Kearns came to the midstate in 1957, she met all the Latinos.

All four.

"The only Hispanics I found were four ladies from Puerto Rico who had been here at least 15 years. They were married to American guys here. These poor ladies had been forbidden to speak anything but English in their homes or cook anything Puerto Rican," said Kearns, 71, who spoke and cooked what she wanted, since "I was brought up by the first feminist of the world."

Today there are more than 19,000 Latinos in the Harrisburg- Lebanon-Carlisle area. Kearns has helped many of them. She's offered her home, her time, her connections and translation services, even her husband's legal expertise. She's introduced countless newcomers to Harrisburg's Latino community, its churches and its arts.

"She loves people -- all people -- not just Latino," said Lourdes Tanon, former executive director of the Mount Pleasant Hispanic American Center. "Everybody to her is important, whatever your faith, whether you're rich or poor." Kearns helped start the center and has served in many capacities over its 30 years.

Harry Mirach of Harrisburg found himself drawn into Kearns' life, he said. She made it clear to him and other Latino professionals that because they'd been successful, they must help others, said Mirach, former Mount Pleasant board president.

"She was doing good things, and you wanted to be part of that with her, whether it was helping individual people or helping families or setting up luncheons for Latino professionals," Mirach said. "She can spot situations and pull the necessary people with the necessary skills together to make people's lives better. She helped make my life better in the sense that I could move beyond my own life and my own little problems."

When Tanon started at the center, Kearns spent a week helping acclimate her and insisted Tanon stay at the Kearns' home. Tanon's first year, Kearns accompanied her to all her meetings with government agencies and private groups, Tanon said. "She always kept in touch with me so if I had questions I could depend on her. ... She was the person over all the years that I could call for help or ideas," Tanon said.

Kearns would mediate disputes, Mirach said. "She was the one who could always talk to all sides. She's the kind of person who when she walks into a room, everyone is drawn to her."

Rick Kearns, the oldest of Margarita and Richard Kearns' four children, said he knew his mother studied six languages, had worked at the United Nations and had almost a 4.0 average in college. But "It took me a long time to appreciate what an amazing person she is.

"It didn't really sink in until I started getting directly involved in Latino community affairs," Rick Kearns said. "People treated me like I was a prince and I realized she'd done a lot. It wasn't just that she had helped out a lot of people. People would come and stay with us for months. What she did was a lot more complicated than that. I think of her as a very good example of a very talented grass-roots community leader."

Rick Kearns can recall several times over the years when someone would tell him: "You know, your mom helped me get that job" or "Your mom intervened and helped us get the right medical care" or "Your mom helped us find a new place to live," he said.

Her service to others is a manifestation of her strong faith, and she expected her four children to follow her example, Rick Kearns said.

"The interest in other people, maybe is what we need," Margarita Kearns said, when asked about the state of the area's Latino community today. "I see them in transition. Some of them are getting good jobs and are doing well, but they look at the poor from any country very askance. ... That happens with the minorities. Some of them make it financially and they despise those who have not made it."

She hopes the midstate Latino community will grow more cohesive and its members will support one another, she said. She's grateful for young leaders who are trying to make that happen, she said.

In 1957, she was too attached to Puerto Rico and to the people there whom she loved, she said. But she doesn't regret coming here. "Even at this time I think it's the best decision I ever made -- even though I don't like the cold."

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