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From Lima to Little Lima: A Peruvian immigrant helps an inner city

Bloomberg Harvard City Hall Fellow Ana Rocio Castillo Romero is identifying issues to help the city of Paterson, NJ, and its Hispanic constituents.
From Lima to Little Lima: A Peruvian immigrant helps an inner city
Posted at 4:59 PM, Sep 26, 2023

Mayor Andre Sayegh knew he had a problem when it came to customer service at City Hall. The mayor of Paterson, New Jersey, saw the long lines when residents came to apply for permits for home projects. 

The city is the third largest in the state with over 160,000 residents. It is 61% Hispanic, with the largest Peruvian population in the United States. Many residents are immigrants who are not fluent in English, and language barrier is an issue when it comes to constituent services.

Understanding that the city is on a tight budget, Sayegh applied to the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, hoping that Paterson would be selected for the program, which would mean that the city would get a fellow who is a graduate of Harvard’s master’s program for two years, funded by the initiative. As chance would have it, Ana Rocio Castillo Romero, a graduate from Harvard University with a master’s in public administration, was selected to join Paterson City Hall. Castillo is an immigrant from Peru and a Bloomberg Harvard City Hall Fellow who relishes her new role. 

Paterson is home to Little Lima, a Peruvian enclave in the downtown area, with more than 10,000 Peruvian immigrants. 

“Having a large Peruvian population here is really motivating and rewarding,” Castillo said. “It really makes me happy to see a lot of community building here. A lot of progress of people who left their country knowing they will face a lot of challenges here to try to look for a better future.”

The fellowship program places graduates in positions within local governments to tackle problems.  Walking around Paterson’s Peru Square, lined with shops and restaurants, Castillo talks about the complex challenges in improving communications in urban areas. She is two months into her role and is currently diagnosing the issues and hoping to improve the city’s processes for applications for development projects, particularly within a large Hispanic constituency.

The median household income in Paterson is $48,540, according to the U.S. Census. It’s a working-class city and a place where many immigrants settle. 

SEE MORE: Why does Hispanic Heritage Month begin on Sept. 15?

Sayegh is thrilled with Castillo’s fellowship, noting that she is perfect for Paterson. 

“We wouldn’t be able to afford this position,” Sayegh said, noting the city’s tight budget. 

The Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative that Castillo is representing is a collaboration between Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Business School and Bloomberg Philanthropies to help mayors and city officials to tackle complex challenges in their cities and improve the quality of life of their residents. Launched in 2017, the initiative has helped in 524 cities worldwide. 

Castillo, 33, a native of Lima, was in the private sector before making the change to the public sector.  She completed the Master of Public Administration in International Development program at the Harvard Kennedy School. 

She is inspired by her work with in a community and the ability to help foster change.

“The work we are doing in city hall will generate a better process and a better experience for constituents,” Castillo said.  

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