Local Senior Club Blends Latino and American Holiday Traditions

Many years ago, in his native Buenos Aires, Armando Mónaco was an actor and newscaster. On a recent Friday, the 67-year-old retiree portrayed the lead character in a Spanish-language play he wrote parodying a live radio talk show. His fellow actors, including one dressed as Cleopatra, and audience members were all older adults who meet weekly for fun and fellowship.

The group has been congregating every Friday for years, hosted by the nonprofit Latin American Association in Brookhaven. For Mónaco, the Club de la Tercera Edad (Spanish for “Seniors Club”) is much more than a gathering space for exercising to Latin rhythms, doing crafts, and celebrating birthdays.

“I get to forget about my problems,” says Mónaco, who has been attending for the past five years. “It’s like family. I look forward to Fridays to see them again.”

Sandra Cano (center, standing) brings her mom, Clarita (center, sitting), to the gatherings. Maria Earl (left), who leads the exercise class, brought her mom for years.

In mid-November, right before the performance of the satirical play, the group of 30 gathered to celebrate Thanksgiving with a potluck lunch around tables dressed in bright-red tablecloths. Though Thanksgiving isn’t celebrated across Latin America, the group participants complemented the traditional turkey with dishes such as arroz con gandules (a traditional Puerto Rican Christmas dish of savory rice mixed with pigeon peas), fried sweet plantains, tamales, and flan (a custard-like dessert drenched in caramelized sugar).

“In Argentina, in South America, we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving,” says Mónaco, who migrated from Argentina 17 years ago. “But we are in this country, and we respect the traditions.”

Club de la Tercera Edad participants are immigrants from all over Latin America: Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Guatemala, Venezuela, Mexico, among other countries, and from the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Folks find camaraderie nourished by a familiar language and analogous cultures and traditions. Participants receive talks from experts on topics such as nutrition, home care, personal finance, and Medicare benefits. They dance Zumba, knit, and play bingo and word games. They commemorate major holidays with pomp, and every month, they celebrate birthdays. They sing Latino tunes, listen to Mónaco recite his poems, and wear costumes when they do plays.

Latinos account for about 10% of Georgia’s population and 12% of the 10-county Atlanta region’s population, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Older Latinos are more likely to be foreign-born – and more connected to the Spanish language – than younger Latinos.

Many group members are not fluent in English, but others just find comfort in speaking Spanish with fellow Latinos. Marta Meléndez grew up in Puerto Rico and moved to Atlanta at age 59. After working in a lab for Kaiser Permanente here for a decade, she yearned to communicate in her native tongue. “I grew up speaking Spanish and have been surrounded by Spanish speakers most of my life,” says Meléndez, who retired in 2018. “I love sharing our similar cultures.”

Former actor Armando Mónaco enjoys writing, directing, and starring in plays. From Argentina, he has created a theatre group within the Club de la Tercera Edad.

Club de la Tercera Edad, which has existed for decades, fills a void for metro Atlanta’s aging Latino population. “There’s a dearth of services and resources for Spanish-speaking senior citizens in Georgia,” says Cynthia Román, a social worker who leads the Latin American Association’s family well-being initiatives. “There are no senior centers focused on the needs of elderly Spanish-speaking Latinos. This group is a very unique place where people can share their stories and their cultural heritage.”

Regular positive interactions with family and friends and involvement in different social networks can help older adults be healthier, according to research published by the American Psychological Association (Martire and Franks, 2014). Isolation can cause depression in older people, but socialization can mitigate these negative effects, Román explains.

Pierluigi Mancini, an Atlanta psychologist who has experience working with the Latino community, says that staying active gives older people a sense of purpose and belonging, as well as improves their mental health. They should remain active for as long as they possibly can, he recommends.

“Seniors who stay socially active and engaged experience better cognitive functioning,” says Mancini. “Being socially active helps them stay connected with others, improves mood, increases physical activity, helps them sleep and even live longer, happier lives. When you can do that in an environment that also meets your cultural and linguistic needs, then you are able to fully experience the benefits of staying socially active, connected, and engaged.”

Not all the group participants are Hispanic. Scott Petersen, a retired nurse who studied Spanish in college, attends meetings when he gets a chance. At 65, he is an active retiree who rehabs houses. He’s taken by the hospitality. “It’s a very cariñosa [roughly translated into English as “affectionate”] group of people,” Petersen says in Spanish.

Colombian Sandra Cano has been bringing her mom for the past four years. Her mother, Clara, is 87 and uses a wheelchair. “My mom loves to socialize; she’s always been very gregarious,” says Cano. “This group gives her something to look forward to. On Fridays, she wants to be here.”

Arin Yost

Arin is a Program Analyst at the Atlanta Regional Commission, where his work focuses on health disparities and equity across the Atlanta region.