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For women of LatinaCon, growth in numbers and influence

Deborah Aguiar-Vélez speaks at the LatinaCon Latino-American Women’s Conference in Charlotte. (Photo courtesy of La Noticia.)
Deborah Aguiar-Vélez speaks at the LatinaCon Latino-American Women’s Conference in Charlotte, N.C.(Photo courtesy of La Noticia.)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – With many Republicans running away from even a whisper of immigration reform after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s shocking primary loss in Virginia, it’s been pointed out that such a short-term strategy for winning in 2014 might translate into problems with attracting the Hispanic vote in 2016. But that’s not the GOP’s only obstacle as it struggles to win the support of a growing U.S. demographic.

All you had to do was listen to the gasps that greeted an anecdote shared by keynote speaker Deborah Aguiar-Vélez at LatinaCon, a gathering in Charlotte last weekend of more than 300 committed, engaged Hispanic women — professors, entrepreneurs and community activists. Aguiar-Vélez described how she sent out an exuberant Tweet during a recent meeting in Washington of Latino alumni of Project Interchange, the American Jewish Committee-sponsored program that brings leaders and policy makers to Israel.

Sharing experiences with a group that included fellow Interchange alumna Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor led to Aguiar-Vélez’s optimistic tweet, quoting speaker David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Council. It read: “Latinos & Jews become stronger with each other presence.”

Political provocateur Ann Coulter saw the tweet and retweeted with a message of her own: “Yes, but one’s always the maid.”

In Charlotte on Saturday, Aguiar-Vélez recalled “trembling” when she read Coulter’s tweet. Though she said there was nothing wrong with being a maid, she sensed that wasn’t exactly the spirit of Coulter’s remark.

Aguiar-Vélez, however, understood things about the Latino community in this country that others might not be as aware of — the $1.3 trillion purchasing power and the determination and family values that fueled her own journey from a home in Puerto Rico that used drapes for doors to a degree in chemical engineering and eventual business ownership. She said she remembered a saying she heard growing up:  “When somebody says something stupid, you become deaf.”

“Success is the best revenge,” said Aguiar-Vélez, now a North Carolina-based Republican whose résumé includes appointment by former  New Jersey governor Thomas Kean to run that state’s small-business division. Kean, though conservative, is a type of northeastern Republican who is rapidly disappearing — with even current New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) being criticized by some in his party as too moderate. To be sure, Coulter is not the GOP’s spokesperson, but her influence looms large in the conservative media that drives its base.

In that Charlotte Hilton ballroom alone, the party most associated with Coulter – who has been trumpeting the end of any move toward immigration reform since Cantor’s defeat – was missing a big opportunity. A couple of local Democratic politicians, one of whom has announced her candidacy for mayor, did not let the opportunity pass.

Raleigh had already hosted a similar event, organized by Hilda Gurdian, the publisher of the weekly La Noticia Spanish-language newspaper, which is distributed throughout the region and online. La Noticia also organizes the annual Latin American Excelente Awards, which celebrates the achievements of Latino business people and their supporters, with proceeds going to the Latino Students Scholarship Fund distributed by the company’s foundation. Gurdian organized the Charlotte event, too. No doubt there will be more, considering the turnout and the spirit in the room.

Gurdian called the daylong business expo, conference and networking session “an opportunity to share and to learn, and we all want to learn and grow.” The 310 registered participants were anxious “to develop a circle of influence,” Gurdian told She the People.

“Charlotte welcomes newcomers who work hard and give back to the community,” she said. Gurdian and her family moved here from Caracas, Venezuela, nearly 22 years ago because she found it was one of the 10 best cities in America to start a small business. According to state and census figures, North Carolina is the home of more than 21,000 Hispanic-owned businesses. The state’s Hispanic growth is outpacing its overall population growth.

At the conference, the Latin American Chamber of Commerce of Charlotte, the Latin American Women’s Association and other groups were represented. Panels covered topics from finance to leadership to “healthy living in today’s world.” A panel moderated by Gurdian on “What to do to be successful in the U.S.” included women who spoke of the personal and professional struggles they had to manage on their way to successful careers in media, business, politics and academia.

Magdalena Maíz-Pen͂a, a professor at Davidson College, talked about women being at the center, “in the homes, in the streets, in classrooms,” and the need for cultures to learn from one another. She emphasized the importance of mentors and thanked the “mentors at home who did not have the opportunity to go to school but are so wise.”

Architect Lucia Zapata Griffith spoke about being a minority as a woman in her profession. One thing she learned: An accent is actually an asset, because when you say something, “people have to pay attention.” She also noted that some of the same stereotypes used against Hispanics were believed about every immigrant group that has come to America.

Sarah Batista, who grew up in Charlotte, encouraged those with ideas and dreams to take a risk, which she did when she left a prominent job as a television reporter to start her own business, Stories to Inspire, because she said she wanted to “stop telling the bad news and start telling the good news.”

While the messages of the day were serious, there were many lighter moments, as when a speaker asked if there was anyone from South Carolina and several women raised their hands. She responded that it was great that “we have people from across the border.” And several women repeated the ice breaker they give when speaking before large groups and announced that they would be speaking with a Southern accent — South America, that is.

Countries of origin ranged from Peru to Mexico to the United States — women of all shades and races, as Aguiar-Vélez put it, who contribute to the culture and aspire to the American dream. Conference participants could also browse through a business expo, exchange cards and network.

In her speech, Aguiar-Vélez shared one reaction to her Twitter exchange. She said a friend told her: “Ann Coulter is afraid of us.”

An observer from either political party who saw the table at the event stacked high with voter registration forms would at the very least take notice.


Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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