Nine Hispanic leaders buildings bridges in the Triad
Making Their Mark
Yessica Vazquez arrived in the Triad from Nicaragua when she was 12.
She was often the lone Hispanic student in her middle school classes in Asheboro.
In high school, she helped launch the school’s first Latino student club, mainly as a way to help the few other students who had arrived feel more welcome. The group sold empanadas to raise money.
“Being one of the first there, I just wanted to get Latino students like myself to feel more a part of the community,” said Vazquez, now 37 and president of the local chapter of the North Carolina Society of Hispanic Professionals. “But it’s changed so much. Now you have a Mexican bakery there, a quinceanera store. None of that was there when I was growing up.”
Today the school district is 45 percent Latino. Asheboro itself is now about a quarter Hispanic, up from a little more than one percent in 1990, around the time Vazquez moved there with her family.
The rest of the Triad has experienced similar demographic changes. In both Guilford and Forsyth counties, the Hispanic population more than doubled between 2000 and 2010.
But even as carne al pastor has become almost as easy to find as pulled pork barbecue in the Triad, the local Hispanic community is still working to establish itself. Latinos in the area do not yet have someone akin to, say, the Rev. William Barber, who is at the forefront of African-American advocacy in the state, and has become something of a national figure.
However, a number of Latinos in the Triad are making their mark, whether it be in the business, cultural or educational sectors.
In a political season filled with talk of building walls, here are nine people focused on building bridges.
Dr. James Breen
Breen is looking to shake up the healthcare system.
In May he and his wife and follow doctor, Dayarmys Piloto de la Paz, founded Vitral Family Medicine on Ashwood Court in Greensboro.
The practice doesn’t accept insurance and instead operates on a membership basis, with patients paying a fee of $50 a month, which cover office visits, in-house procedures and online communications with the two doctors.
The practice charges no co-pays.
“We essentially believe that it’s very hard to provide comprehensive care as family doctors, if we’re trying to itemize and bill for every little thing we do,” Breen said. “But our patients can just come in when they need to, and we examine them and do what we need to do and that’s it. And practices that take insurance, they incur a large amount of overhead, employing people just to process insurance claims and resubmit them.”
Breen, whose mother is Cuban, grew up in the Washington D.C. area and worked in South Florida before moving to North Carolina seven years ago. He said the Hispanic community locally has shown a good deal of interest in his business model.
“Linguistic and cultural concerns are always an issue. People always feel very confident when they can talk directly to their doctor without going through an interpreter or family member,” said Breen (both he and his wife, who is from Cuba, speak fluent Spanish). “But, cost and being uninsured are big barriers for a lot of people. There are a lot of people who are uninsured because they work for small companies. And we provide a service that’s transparent in terms of cost.”
Garcia believes most non-Latinos are actually “very receptive to the Hispanic culture, Hispanic population.”
“But, unfortunately, there are often a lot of misunderstandings, whether they be through the media, or just people’s perceptions of what’s going on,” he said.
He sees it as his job to help clear away some of those misunderstandings.
Garcia, 59, is president of the Hispanic League in Winston-Salem.
The organization sees itself as a liaison between the Hispanic and non-Hispanic communities in the area, sponsoring cultural programs, scholarships, and various community events, such as the LatinaCon women’s conference and the Running of the Bulls 5k Run. The group hosted the 24th annual Fiesta celebration, Sept. 24th in downtown Winston-Salem.
Garcia was born in Texas and moved to North Carolina 22 years ago for his job in the conference resort industry. He now works at Hospice & Palliative CareCenter in Winston-Salem.
“Here it’s a little bit different than Texas,” he said. “It’s a varied community here. In Texas, it’s mainly Mexican-American. Here you have people from Cuba, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, everywhere. Although, they’re part of the Latin culture, it can be a little tough, as there’s a lot of little differences in viewpoint, concerns, even language to a certain extent. One word in one region can mean something different in another.”
Dubbed by some, the “Latina mayor of Greensboro,” Hinshaw runs the Latino Community Coalition of Guilford County.
The organization, part of the Center for New North Carolinians at UNCG, sponsors education and advocacy programs, and hosts the annual Notable Latinos of the Triad fundraising gala.
Hinshaw, who hails from Peru, moved to the Triad about 20 years ago with her ex-husband.
Before coming to the United States, she had worked as a paralegal. While working for Koury Corporation, she found herself interpreting for and assisting many of her fellow immigrants.
In 2000, she went to work for the Women’s Resource Center.
“I used to be very timid,” she said. “But I was always interested in social justice…and when I separated from my husband, I realized I was so much dependent on him. I never saw myself as a leader, but they groomed that in me, and I was able to help immigrant women become self-sufficient.”
In 2012 she began working for the Latino Community Coalition.
Lately, her organization has been working with several other groups to register people to vote.
“In North Carolina, there are 190,000 Latinos who are eligible to vote, but are not registered,” she said. “So it’s part of a state level campaign. We hope to register at least 150 Latinos here in Guilford County.”
Jeffrey got her first up close look at the political process not long after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
In 2011, she felt a lump in her breast and went in for a mammogram. She also decided to get a biopsy, just to be on the safe side. That’s when she was given the news.
Previous mammograms had failed to detect anything awry, because of the density of her breast tissue.
At her kitchen table, she began discussing the matter with a friend, and decided to take the issue up with the legislature.
In 2013, the General Assembly passed the Breast Density Notification and Awareness bill, requiring physicians to inform patients getting a mammogram about breast density.
The daughter of Cuban immigrants, Jeffrey came to Greensboro in 2004 with her husband Paul, who is president at Wesley Long Hospital.
She said she has always had a taste for advocacy.
“It’s something that was probably in a way ingrained in me at a young age, having to interpret for my mom and dad,” Jeffrey, 53, said. “They were able to speak English some, but there were many times when I had to kind of be the go-between when they didn’t understand something, or had to sign some papers, and I kind of noticed how they were treated poorly at times.”
Her name is a familiar one to anyone involved in advocacy in the area. In 2006, she began volunteering for AmeriCorps, and helped with interpreting. She also began doing some work around the issue of in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. Twenty states allow in-state tuition for undocumented students, but North Carolina is not among them.
“There are kids, who were two or three years old when they came here, they’ve spent most of their lives here,” she said. “They don’t even understand the issue of being undocumented, but when they get to high school graduation, they’re not able to continue on. These are bright motivated students with few opportunities.”
Working on the breast density bill, she said, gave her a good deal of insight into how the legislative process worked.
“I was able to develop relationships with elected leaders,” she said. “This, the issue of tuition, is going to be a lot more difficult, because sadly there’s not a lot of understanding of the plight of these students. It’s going to take a lot of building of awareness in our community, but I think it will get done.”
Morales views the Hispanic community as one of fighters.
“We’re not people who usually give up,” she said. “Even in the most difficult situations, in the most heartbreaking situations, when people are about to get deported, you see a solidarity. We all have different stories, but you always see people helping each other out.”
Morales, 23, is director of the Latino Family Center of High Point, a program of the YWCA.
Born in North Carolina, Morales grew up in Nicaragua, where her family is from, and moved back to the Tarheel State as a teenager.
While a student at UNCG, she studied international human rights, and worked on immigrant rights issues with the American Friends Service Committee.
She joined the Latino Family Center last year.
The Latino Family Center got its start about 10 years ago, and came under the auspices of the YWCA in 2013. The organization offers educational and leadership workshops, as well as financial literacy classes and guidance on accessing community services.
“The immigrant population always has certain obstacles to overcome, and part of what we do is empowering people to face some of the things they have to deal with on a regular basis,” she said. “I come from a country where you see a lot of struggles, so a lot of the issues Latino families are dealing with are things that hit home. And I needed to be part of a change, part of bringing about some long term improvements.”
Oliva feels privileged. A Bonner Scholar at Guilford College, the 20-year-old has already racked up an impressive resume, with stints on the International Advisory Committee for the City of Greensboro and on the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Committee for Guilford County Schools. At Guilford College he served as president of the Student Community Senate, and helped launch the Soy un Lider (I’m a Leader) conference, to guide immigrant students through the college application process.
But he also feels a great deal of sadness at what he doesn’t see around him.
“The thing that broke my heart when I got into college, was that a lot of my friends didn’t make it,” he said. “A lot of my friends had to wait or go to community college first. I went to high school with some people who were very talented, but didn’t speak English as a first language, or that didn’t have the resources to go to college.”
Oliva was born in Guatemala, and came to Greensboro in 2011, enrolling at Doris Henderson Newcomers School.
“That’s what kind of opened the doors for me, gave me a sense of how I could serve the community,” he said. “You have refugees there, immigrants from all over the world, undocumented folks.”
He thought about studying computer science when he went off to college, but working on the Student Advisory Committee, he said, piqued his interest in education and politics. At Guilford he decided to run for student government.
Recently, he has been taking aim at House Bill 318, which, among other things, prohibits law enforcement from accepting consular documents as official identification, and municipalities from passing ordinances that prevent officers from inquiring about immigration status.
Gov. Pat McCrory signed the bill into law in October.
“People just want to survive and make a living,” he said. “When people talk about the United States being a Christian nation that believes in love and compassion, I think of a nation that wants to help their neighbors and say, ‘Hey, let’s work together.’”
To succeed in business, Olvera says, you need to be out there, you need to make your presence known.
“That’s something I wish I would see more of in the Latino community,” he said. “Professionals in the Latino community need to step out, take a risk, have more of a presence in the community. And what I think they’ll find is people willing to embrace them, willing to help them.”
Olvera, 60, runs a Servpro franchise in High Point, specializing in cleanup and restoration, and will serve next year as chair of the High Point Chamber of Commerce’s advisory board.
The son of Mexican immigrants, Olvera grew up in Chicago, has an engineering background and moved to North Carolina in 2001 to work for Ralph Lauren.
He and his wife Lauren founded the Servpro franchise in 2009, and the business now has 10 employees. He’s also served on the board of the Latino Family Center of High Point.
The Triad these days has a good number of Hispanic business owners, but many, Olvera said, tend to keep their head down.
“That’s something I would like to be more proactive about when I take over as the chair at the Chamber advisory board,” he said. “Maybe focus some efforts on how to get some of the Latino professionals out and about in the community. I’d love to see people step out more. And once they do that, I think they’ll see there’s a lot of room to be accepted in the business community.”
Thompson looks at her wares as works of art “that could be in museums.”
The copper sinks and tubs in her warehouse glimmer like freshly minted pennies. Some of the more rustic looking pieces are the color of coffee. Whatever their finish, one almost feels ashamed to put dirty dishes in them.
She is founder of Thompson Traders, which imports the sinks, tubs and various other copper furnishings and fixtures from Mexico. She designs many of the items herself.
Thompson was born in the Mexican state of Michoacan, and moved to the United States 43 years ago with her husband Clifford. The two met when she was 11 and he was 13.
“His family had a business there, and they started sending Cliff there during the summer, and he came to my house to have brunch on a Sunday,” she said. “I liked him and he liked me and we started writing letters.”
The couple lived in Chicago after they married, but moved to Greensboro in 1984. She started her business about 15 years ago.
The company operates out of a 75,000 square foot building on East Market Street in Greensboro, and has 25 employees in town, and another 50 in Mexico.
Thompson, whose daughter has diabetes, is also a fundraiser for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Last year she led a team that raised about $1 million for the organization.
She has also volunteered for the Eastern Music Festival and the Casa Azul arts initiative.
“As a Mexican, now an American, I feel a big responsibility to give back,” she said. “This country has given us so much. Opportunities are in front of you. You can get involved in so many different ways.”
When Vazquez talks about the North Carolina Society of Hispanic Professionals, she talks about role models.
“I didn’t have a lot of Latino role models growing up in Asheboro,” she said. “So, a lot of what we do is volunteer our time to talk about careers, about education, basically to be role models. We have professionals in a lot of different areas, from law to education to technology to arts and design.”
Vazquez, who works as a solutions architect at technology firm SHI International, helped found the organization’s Triad chapter three years ago.
Each year the chapter hosts a Career Symposium for local students.
“We set up sessions, where students can seek answers from professionals,” she said. “A lot of people have concerns about paying for college, about how to apply for college. But we try to give them as much information as we can. When I was applying for college, my parents couldn’t really help me. I always found it very difficult to get the right information. Eventually we figured it out, and I graduated from High Point University, but I wish something like this was around when I was in high school.”