Centro has been around for 35 years, and Cruz is now part of a team serving hundreds of families in the Madison area. Since its beginnings in 1983, Centro Hispano has provided a range of programs that support Dane County’s Latino population that focus on youth, families and the community.
Cruz moved to the mainland United States from Puerto Rico 30 years ago at the age of 18, just after graduating high school. Having very little connection outside Puerto Rico, she decided to move in and live with her older sister in Madison and has since made Dane County her home.
After a couple months in Madison, Cruz started taking English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to improve her English skills before applying to the University of Wisconsin-Madison a year after her arrival in Madison.
After a year of attending UW-Madison, Cruz decided to leave college to start a family. She went back to school ten years later, as a returning adult, and graduated with a degree in international relations in 2002.
Cruz put her degree to work right way in her first job with the State of Wisconsin, where she addressed issues related to equality and lowering the barriers immigrants face as a Bilingual Equal Opportunity Specialist. She worked with civil rights specialists and wrote policies for the Department of Health and Human Services for language access, and worked internally and externally to address language barrier amongst minorities.
One of the factors that influenced Cruz to follow this career path was personal experience.
“Coming in and having language be one of the first barriers for me, and having the lack of knowledge of how the system works and doesn’t work sometimes, influenced me to be in this field,” Cruz tells Madison365. “Working on equal opportunity issues was natural for me. Somehow every job that I took was (with) an equal-opportunity-based organization.”
Another influence that guided her to this career path was her father.
“Growing up in Puerto Rico, my dad had a very social-justice mind. He taught us to find ways to help everyone around us. So I grew up with the expectation that when others do better, we all do better,” Cruz says. “So when I decided to take community-based jobs, I was able to fulfill that at a state systems level and not only on an individual level.
“Working in public health really helped me understand how important grassroots is to a community, because it’s really a connection to the wisdom of the community,” Cruz continues. “Coming to Centro and having worked indirectly with community-based organizations, I knew the importance of making sure that people’s voices are strengthened and that they are given the respect for the wisdom they bring to the table in defining their needs and defining the solutions for those needs.”
Cruz has been with Centro for six months, during which time her main priority has been supporting the staff of the organization.
“It’s very important that our staff feels valued and supported, so that we can support the youth that we work with so then we can support the families,” she says.
Cruz says her commitment to immigrant communities is more important now than ever.
“Immigrant communities are experiencing a lot of toxic speech about people that are different or seen as different,” she says. “So once the opportunity (to join Centro Hispano) was given to me, I didn’t have to think about it much. I felt that I had the experience and the skills that I had by working at the state level and I could bring that to benefit my community. I felt that this was a really important time for me to work on equally that was still system-wide but a bit more closer to home.”
When asked about her other passions, Cruz explains her love for literacy.
“I have a soft spot for Literacy Network because they work with people that have a lot of needs when they come in as refugees or immigrants, and also for people that are English speakers but don’t have literacy skills,” Cruz says. “These resources enable them to have jobs and have enough income to live in good neighborhoods.”
Cruz joins Centro Hispano at a moment of change, reflected quite literally in the recent $600,000 renovation provided by Madison-area designers Design for a Difference Madison at Centro’s space on South Badger Road. Cruz says the organization is also working to ramp up services.
“We are currently building a baseline support for our staff in terms of strengthening their communications skills, especially for crucial conversations,” Cruz says. “We want to make Centro stronger and we want to ensure the work that we’re doing, we’re doing it with more depth. And as for the future with Centro, I just want to be supporting the staff. It’s a joy to come to work every day.”