Reaching Out to Refugees
Longtime journalist Richard Chacón now leads government efforts to help refugees and immigrants acclimate to life in Massachusetts.
Each year, roughly 75,000 refugees enter the United States, and more than 2,000 of them begin their new lives in Massachusetts. As director of the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants, Richard Chacón (CGS’86, COM’88) is charged with helping those refugees settle as quickly and comfortably as possible into their new communities.
It’s a job for which Chacón—who has been crossing borders and mixing cultures all his life—is well suited.
Chacón grew up in El Paso, Texas, just across the border from Ciudad Juárez, the largest city in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. “My family, being from Mexico, always had a connection to things going on over the border,” he says. It was perfectly natural to cross over to Juárez to shop, visit family, get a haircut. “We spoke Spanish and English in the same sentence,” he says, “and our food was this mixture of western cowboy-type food and Mexican food—very much a border diet.”
This cultural mixing wasn’t limited to American and Mexican customs. As a teenager, Chacón attended a Catholic high school with special ties to Notre Dame University in Indiana. The high school adopted Notre Dame’s school colors, fight song, and mascot. “So here, just minutes from the border, in a school predominantly filled with Mexican-American boys like me, we all proudly called ourselves the Fighting Irish,” he says. “I tell this story to folks in Boston and they just erupt because they think it’s so funny, but it seemed perfectly normal to me.”
After high school, Chacón chose BU instead of Notre Dame and found that crossing the Mississippi caused more culture shock than crossing the Rio Grande ever did. The faculty and staff at the College of General Studies (known then as the College of Basic Studies) took him in and helped him acclimate to college life in Boston, he says. “It was really nice having that team environment, where we were all there together rather than being off on your own trying to make the best of your particular journey.”
Before making the transition from CGS to the College of Communication for his studies in broadcasting and film, Chacón took a year off—“I’d gotten really homesick”—and returned to Texas. During that year, he worked as a news reporter for an El Paso television station covering happenings across the border in Juárez. “What was really great about that experience,” he says, “is it essentially allowed me to be a foreign correspondent for my own hometown.”
Years later—after earning a master’s degree in public policy from Columbia University, working as a speech writer for then New York Mayor David Dinkins, earning a second master’s from Columbia in journalism, and writing for the editorial desk at Newsday—Chacón got another chance to be a foreign correspondent, this time covering Latin America for The Boston Globe.
Hurricanes and Drug Wars
As the Globe’s only Latin America correspondent, Chacón lived in Mexico City and covered everything from Brazilian banking to the United States’ handover of the Panama Canal. He covered natural disasters of every kind, including 1998’s Hurricane Mitch, which killed more than 11,000 people across Central America. (Many Hondurans and Nicaraguans are still living in the United States under temporary protected status as their countries continue the struggle to rebound from the storm’s devastation.)
“The scariest story I ever did,” says Chacón, “was a series on the War on Drugs. For that I spent about a week and a half in the jungles of eastern Colombia.” He recalls being pulled over by teenagers with machine guns and interviewing nuns who spent their mornings pulling corpses out of the nearby river, casualties of the previous night’s clashes between leftist guerillas and right-wing paramilitaries.
In 2001, Chacón returned to Boston to become the Globe’s deputy foreign affairs editor. His foreign news desk won awards for an in-depth series on global health and orchestrated the Globe’s coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
From Reporting to Politics
After a stint as the Globe’s ombudsman, Chacón crossed a major professional border, leaving the newspaper to become the director of communications for Deval Patrick’s Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign. Chacón had no campaign experience, but he says Patrick told him he wanted him aboard because it was clear Chacón was committed to public service—a commitment made evident by his willingness to take the difficult and unpopular ombudsman post.
“It’s people like you I’d like to bring in to government,” he recalls Patrick saying to him.
Patrick won the democratic nomination and then the governor’s race in 2006. Chacón served briefly as Patrick’s policy director, and in 2007 he jumped at the opportunity to lead the Office for Refugees and Immigrants—a job that permitted him, once again, to make good use of his talent for understanding foreign people and their cultures.
In his current role, he oversees the distribution of federal funds to voluntary agencies—such as Catholic Charities and the International Institute—to support their housing, language, and job-training programs for refugees. Jewish Vocational Service of Boston, for example, receives grants through Chacón’s office to fund a food-service training program it operates in conjunction with Boston’s Long Wharf Marriott, teaching refugees the skills they need to work in hotel and restaurant kitchens.
His office also advises other state agencies on ways to improve the services they provide to immigrants. “We’ve been working with the Department of Transitional Assistance, which is the welfare department, in helping them have a better language access plan for people who don’t speak English as a primary language,” Chacón says of one recent project. His office helped DTA identify which regions of the state needed more written materials in Russian, and which—such as Somerville and Cambridge, with their large Brazilian populations—needed more materials in Portuguese. A similar initiative ensured that the Department of Early Education and Care made its instructions for receiving a day care license available in multiple languages—an attempt to increase immigrants’ access to quality child care.
Distributing grant money and making welfare information available in multiple languages might sound like unexciting work compared to covering paramilitary clashes in the Colombian jungle, but Chacón says his current role is just as fulfilling as his journalism career was. “I’ve moved from being the observer and storyteller,” he says, “to being someone who is in the story.” Instead of just reporting on others’ lives, he says, he now takes an active role in improving people’s lives and in helping them to begin their stories anew.