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Longtime Madison-area community activist Diego Campoverde-Cisneros was pretty excited when he learned that he would be honored with the 2016 Ilda Conteris Thomas Award at the annual Centro Hispano Banquet this Saturday, Nov. 12.

“The award means so much to me personally and professionally. When I get these kinds of awards, I get a little sad because I don’t have my family with me. I wish my dad, who is 87 years old and living in Ecuador, would be with me to celebrate this,” Campoverde-Cisneros says. “But, I have my adopted family here and that’s also very important. The family that I have created here in Madison. That helps. I’m looking forward to sharing this award with them.”

Ilda Conteris Thomas was the first-ever executive director of Centro Hispano of Dane County, an agency on Madison’s south side that provides a multitude of services for the rapidly growing Latino population of the Madison area. The award presented in her name every year at the annual Centro Hispano Banquet honors an individual whose efforts ensure a strong Latino voice in the community.

“The legacy of Ilda Thomas is amazing and all of the great things she did for this community. And even for the LGBT community, too. She was such a community leader and incredible person,” Campoverde-Cisneros tells Madison365. “She paved the way for the Latino community in Madison and Latino leaders, as well.”

Centro Hispano was founded in 1983 by a group of community volunteers including Ilda Thomas Contreras, who also served as the agency's first executive  director. Here she is with Juan Jose Lopez.
Centro Hispano was founded in 1983 by a group of community volunteers including Ilda Thomas Contreras, who also served as the agency’s first executive director. Here she is with Juan Jose Lopez.

Centro Hispano Executive Director Karen Menendez Coller let Campoverde-Cisneros know about the wonderful news with a phone call this past week. “When Karen told me, I was in shock. I wasn’t expecting this at all whatsoever because this is such a prestigious recognition,” Campoverde-Cisneros says. “I was overwhelmed and humbled and shocked. It’s nice that people recognize the work that I do but it’s not just me, it’s the organizations that I’m part of.”

Campoverde-Cisneros was also recently notified that he will be receiving the 2016 Joyce Erdman award sponsored by The Capital Times Kids Fund this week. This award is given out each year to recognize an individual who exemplifies working with youth. Campoverde-Cisneros will be presented with the award at the Kids Fund annual reception this Thursday night.

“These are two awards in one week that I never dreamed of. I was like, what is happening? The Armageddon is coming,” Campoverde-Cisneros laughs. “But this is not just about me. Both of these awards are awards for the community and for people I have been working with for many, many, many years.

Diego Campoverde-Cisneros
Diego Campoverde-Cisneros

Campoverde-Cisneros is well-known in the Latino community for his many years of work as production manager of La Movida radio, Wisconsin’s first 24/7 Spanish-language radio station. Currently, he is the senior bilingual communications, PR, and marketing coordinator for Unity Health Insurance. It’s definitely a change of pace for him, but he likes it a lot.

“It’s been an interesting and challenging transition for me coming from the communications world to the health insurance world,” he says. “It’s very complex and very regulated and it can be hard to understand. I’ve been learning a lot.”

At Unity, Campoverde-Cisneros is in charge of marketing communications and he works on multicultural advertising. He is also in charge of translations for the company. “Two years ago, we translated the company website into Spanish, which has been a milestone for the company and for me and co-worker Hugo Moreno,” he says. “With my boss, I have also designed this multicultural advertising campaign for communities of color mostly focusing on the Latino community, of course, because we are growing so much.”

Campoverde-Cisneros states that one of his goals is for the Latino community to better understand what health insurance is all about.

“Unfortunately, there is a lack of information and a lack of communication, but there also is not too much access to health insurance for the undocumented community but we have found some ways to let people know about health insurance,” he says.

Campoverde-Cisneros is also part of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee for Unity. “About a year ago we started that and we’ve done some nice initiatives,” Campoverde-Cisneros says. “The company never had this before. It’s been a learning process with the members. We’ve done incredible things for our employees both internally and externally and for recruitment of diversity.”

(L-r) Veronica Lazo, Christian Merino, Diego Campoverde-Cisneros, and Baltazar de Anda-Santana lead an Orgullo Latinx rally in Madison for the 49 victims of the Orlando shooting.
(L-r) Veronica Lazo, Christian Merino, Diego Campoverde-Cisneros, and Baltazar de Anda-Santana lead an Orgullo Latinx rally in Madison for the 49 victims of the Orlando shooting.

Originally from Ecuador, it’s been 14 years since Campoverde-Cisneros came to Madison and he has been involved in a number of organizations and non-profits and great community causes over the years. He has worked intensively with Madison’s gay and Latino communities, started many important groups, and has spoken to young people at conferences and workshops. For his work, Campoverde-Cisneros was honored in 2013 at the YWCA Racial Justice Summit with the “Alix Olson Award for the Promotion of a Tolerant and Just Community.”

“In 2002, we started a group at AIDS Network called Hermanos Latinos. It was a group to talk about LGBT issues and other things,’ he remembers. That would be a precursor to other support groups he would start. Years later, Campoverde-Cisneros became one of the founders of Alianza Latina, a support group for LGBT Latina/o community members. Alianza Latina serves LGBTQ Latino youth, their families and allies through supportive, responsive programming that addresses issues of safety, discrimination, and mental health.

“It can be a struggle coming out to a Latino family and the lack of information about LGBT issues,” he says. “It was always hard for me to expose myself as a gay Latino man because I lived in a small Catholic town in Ecuador. Through Alianza, I found a way to be more free. And I was able to help others because I didn’t want them to go through the same issues that I did.

“When I see young people now in these groups, I can totally see myself,” he adds. “Looking for information or just shy or afraid and what am I going to do if they found out? I do see myself when I came here 14 years ago.”

Diego Campoverde-Cisneros and Orgullo Latinx LGBT+ at the Outreach Pride Parade this past summer
Diego Campoverde-Cisneros and Orgullo Latinx LGBT+ at the Outreach Pride Parade this past summer

Recently, Campoverde-Cisneros was part of a starting a new initiative in Madison called Orgullo Latinx which works to support and enhance the lives of the Latinx LGBT+ community here in the Madison area. After the shooting in Orlando, Orgullo Latinx pulled together and held a vigil where Campoverde-Cisneros solemnly read off the names of all 49 Orlando victims one by one. “At that point, we decided that we really needed this organization in Madison,” Campoverde-Cisneros says. “With Orgullo Latinx we provide community members with programs that tackle biases in a way that acknowledges cultural norms that may be different from the dominant American culture.”

Campoverde-Cisneros is the program coordinator for Orgullo Latinx where he does just about everything – outreach, grant writing, and fundraising. The group focusing on educating the community on LGBT issues. There is still a need for cultural understanding on a larger scale and there are still misconceptions, he says, in the Latino community about homosexuality.

“We just want to communicate to the Latino community that it is normal to be this way,” Campoverde-Cisneros says. “We have been doing this for many years and we want to continue to do this because it’s crucial for the community that the LGBT+ Latino community is part of our society. We are here. We are professionals. We are contributing to this society.”

While Alianza Latina focused on youths, Orgullo Latinx focuses on the parents and the community in general. “We think that everybody needs to get involved in this initiative,” Campoverde-Cisneros says. “After the Orlando shooting, we really want to avoid a terrible tragedy like that happening here in Madison. The educational piece is crucial for us.”

On top of this all, Campoverde-Cisneros is the founder of Association of Ecuadorians in Wisconsin which provides a support network here for Ecuadorians here and support for Ecuadorians back home. Campoverde-Cisneros has a large family back in Ecuador – mom and dad, seven siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, numerous nieces and nephews.

On April 16, a 7.8 earthquake hit the coastal zone of Ecuador, causing hundreds of deaths and unmeasured economic loss. Thousands of families were left homeless, without access to water, electricity and basic hygienic services. In partnership with the Badgers for Ecuador, the Association of Ecuadorians in Wisconsin organized several successful fundraising events in the Madison area and have been able to raise almost $14,000 for earthquake relief efforts on the coast of Ecuador.

“That’s amazing for a small Ecuadorian community in Madison,” Campoverde-Cisneros says. “There was so much sadness going on during that period of time for all of us Ecuadorians here in the United States and Madison. To be able to come together around this has been very therapeutic for us.”

They ended up sending nearly $12,000 to Andean Health and Development, a non-profit organization with two hospitals near the epicenter of the earthquake, who have treated large numbers of earthquake victims.

Campoverde-Cisneros appreciates that for whatever cause he is working for at the time – Association of Ecuadorians in Wisconsin, Alianza Latina, Orgullo Latinx, La Movida Radio, or Unity Health Insurance – that Centro Hispano is always willing to listen, to partner, or to offer assistance to his cause.

Association of Ecuadorians in Wisconsin rally to help earthquake victims in Ecuador. Diego Campoverde-Cisneros is at the bottom right.
Association of Ecuadorians in Wisconsin rally to help earthquake victims in Ecuador. Diego Campoverde-Cisneros is at the bottom right.

“For me, Centro has always been this great home for me and for the Latinx community, in general. When I go there, there’s always these smiles and there are always people willing to help. They always have so much energy and are happy to see you,” he says. “They are always happy to work with you and to help the community. Centro Hispano embraces the community. It’s something that I see at Centro every single day.

“[Executive Director] Karen’s leadership has been amazing. Centro is moving forward because of this new vision and new initiatives they are doing,” Campoverde-Cisneros adds. “Centro, for me, is this casa, this house for the community in general that provides help and support but also gives back.”

It will be a very emotional night for Campoverde-Cisneros on Saturday, Nov. 12, at Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, as Centro Hispano honors him — and his lifetime of community work — with the Ilda Conteris Thomas Award.

“But, like I said, I don’t see these awards as my own. I share them with all of the community,” he says. “It’s not me only. I think everybody is putting in an effort every single day to make these changes in the culture of society to make a better place for communities of color. This award is for everybody.”

Written by David Dahmer

David Dahmer

A. David Dahmer is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Madison365.

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