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A Sense of Community

You could say it’s in her blood. Born during the height of the civil rights movement, Jeffrey Tapia learned early on about social injustice. After all, her mother was an anthropologist and her father was an investigative journalist who worked to uncover corruption and Ku Klux Klan activities. “I grew up believing that all people are equal and should have access to all civil and human rights,” says Tapia, a slender woman with short-cropped hair who speaks impeccable Spanish. “I knew early on that this wasn’t always the case.”

Fittingly, Tapia studied Latin American culture in college. In 1985, she had the opportunity to travel to Nicaragua and serve as an interpreter for her uncle, a National Geographic journalist, who was heading to cover the Sandinistas’ rule over the country. “It was history in the making,” says Tapia, who was present for interviews with the president, bishop, soldiers, and ambush survivors. It was in Nicaragua that she met her husband, and married him atop a live volcano. Two years later, a pregnant Tapia headed back home to Atlanta to give birth to the first of two daughters.

Now, she’s the executive director of the Latin American Association (LAA), an organization that provides social services to 50,000 Latinos every year. Founded in 1971 by Puerto Rican-born Angel Ortiz, the LAA has now grown from a small office in a strip mall to a free-standing building with a satellite center in Gwinnett County, home to the majority of Hispanics in the state. While the organization has expanded its programs and events, its goal “to help Latinos achieve self-sufficiency, put down roots, build a better life for themselves and their families, and contribute to strong, thriving communities” remains the same. “New immigrants, even ones that have been here for 15 years, are still seeking sources and true access,” says Tapia of the employment and family services they provide as well as resource referrals. “People feel comfortable in a place that speaks their language and understands their culture.”

In addition to its core services, the LAA offers much-needed general legal counsel on immigration issues such as removal proceedings and defense as well as domestic violence. With the passage of such legislation as HB 87, legislative changes have been harsh. “There are many mixed-status parents,” she says of individuals who may have legal status and their partners may be undocumented. “Often in Latino families, one or both parents have been deported.”

And while she has seen immigration policy divide many families, she also has seen the great joy families are currently experiencing with those who have become more involved in their children’s education and schooling---a direct result of the strides the LAA has undertaken to educate parents about the US educational system.

The growth of the LAA mirrors that of Atlanta’s Latino community, which grew 96% percent between 2000 and 2010. With growth will come prosperity, believes Tisha Tallman, President and CEO of the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (GHCC), one of the top five Hispanic Chambers of Commerce in the U.S. with 1300 members. “I believe it is entrepreneurship that will move us to a more positive outcome in the near future,” she says. “We are creating jobs and employing hundreds of thousands of workers, and therefore, significantly contributing to the economic base in the state of Georgia.”

Tallman, who took the reins as of the 28-year-old organization in 2008, has made it a one-stop shopping resource for Hispanic business owners rather than just a referral service. “We coordinate with institutional partners such as Kennesaw State University to offer free workshops and seminars,” explains Tallman, who holds a JD and is currently pursuing a master’s of law degree in transactional law. “We have also conducted independent trade missions, hosted dignitaries, and visits with Latin American consulates.”

In 2001, the GHCC formed a nonprofit arm, the GHCC Business Development Center, which is funded primarily by the GHCC and Atlanta-headquartered UPS, a strong supporter in the community and nationally for the small business sector. According to Tallman, 80% of GHCC members are small businesses whose greatest challenge is securing financing for their companies. To this end, the GHCC offers financing workshops as well as acts as an incubator for Hispanic start-ups and sublets space to businesses looking to expand into the Southeast market.

One such start-up launched In 2002, when Cuban-born Ralph Herrera arrived in Atlanta. His media experience and sales background helped him see opportunity where others did not, and he launched his own Hispanic marketing, PR and events firm. “The Hispanic community was one of the fastest growing and emerging markets in the country,” says Herrera, President of the Lanza Group. “The Olympics in 1996 had fueled the growth with many Mexicans who came to build facilities for the venue.”

Herrera launched Fiesta Atlanta, a one-day festival featuring music, arts and crafts, soccer clinics, and authentic Mexican food. The event was held as Cinco de Mayo celebration in Centennial Park in downtown Atlanta. “It was a great way to highlight Latino culture on a date that has become synonymous with Mexico,” says Herrera. Now in its sixth year, Fiesta Atlanta also attracts 30% non-Hispanics. “It’s a great way to bring people together,” Herrera says of the 40,000 people who attend. “Hispanic, white, and black, together enjoying Latino culture.”

As a complement to Hispanic Heritage Month, Herrera created another event, Fiesta Georgia, held each September in a suburban setting that appeals more to families and youth. Additionally, an Atlanta Day of the Dead event in November was added to the line-up three years ago. With an emphasis on culture and an interactive environment, it allows individuals to attend workshops and understand the symbolism used in the creation of altars allowing them to even create their own. “Part of what we do is highlight Hispanics in the community in a positive light by showing the positive aspects of our culture such as music, dance, and food,” says Herrera.

The High Museum of Art in Atlanta is also interested in Hispanic culture. From February until May 2013, the museum will host Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics, and Painting, making Atlanta the only U.S. city to showcase the collection of 75 paintings by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. According to an August press release, “Frida & Diego” is particularly significant because it marks the first time important works by these two influential Mexican artists will be shown in the Southeast,” said Michael E. Shapiro, Nancy and Holcombe T. Green Director of the High Museum of Art.

But one impediment for Latinos lies with navigating the political landscape, which has been a hot button since the passage of such restrictive anti-immigration laws as SB 529 and HB 87. “Political empowerment is lacking for our community in the state of Georgia,” says Tallman, who also shared that in May the Chamber formed a political action committee, the only one of its kind in the country. “The impetus behind [it] is the desire for more of our members to have a say throughout the entire election process.”

When it comes to Hispanic leadership, Atlanta is no different from other cities across the nation that have a growing Hispanic population yet lack a robust pool of educated leaders. According to Pegui Maridueña, the president of StarMar Consulting, who has worked for The Coca-Cola Company and Manheim-Cox Enterprises, there are just a handful of voices leading the charge. “What is sorely needed is leadership and leadership skills training,” says Maridueña. “We have a segment of Hispanic professional leaders who have achieved success, but they are few and far between. Then there is an even smaller number of those that fight for the community and try to attain advancement. We need many more and different voices.”

Although Atlanta, Martin Luther King Jr.’s hometown, is the birth place of the civil rights movement, the city’s present anti-immigrant sentiment exposes that we have not come as far as many thought. “What struck me about Atlanta when I first moved here was the extreme division in the races,” explains Maridueña, a native Chicagoan. “It was very black and white here, while where I grew up it was very much a melting pot.”

Today, it seems some of the same civil and human rights injustices the African-American community endured during the 1960s and beyond have shifted to the Hispanic community, which is why the African-American community has become one of our staunch supporters. “We have our own prejudices among our community,” says Maridueña. “We think we don’t need to get involved, it doesn’t affect my family. However, the anti-immigration bills have served to wake up individuals.”

And while on a national level there have been more positive signs with regards to immigration reform, the movement to unite the Hispanic community locally has been slow. “People are looking for leaders, “ says Maridueña, who is a certified trainer of the University of Georgia Fanning Institute’s Community Leadership Program and a lead facilitator at the GALEO Institute for Leadership. “It doesn’t matter that we are 15% of the population if we don’t have an educated group to speak from. We need leadership that grows all the segments of the community in order to be the voice of change.”

As the next decade unfolds, a focus on educating youth about civic engagement and the importance of exercising their right to vote will be critical to the advancement of the Hispanic community in Atlanta. In addition to individual leaders, Atlanta needs more organizations that are equally as strong as the LAA and the GHCC, so that the responsibility can be shared among many. “We need to influence the conversation,” emphasizes Maridueña, “in order to mobilize.”