Dr. Karen Menendez Coller was a relative unknown when Centro Hispano of Dane County’s board of directors chose her as its new executive director in the summer of 2013. The El Salvador native has made a name for herself at the county’s largest Latino agency, whose mission is to empower Latinos through quality social, cultural and educational programs. Menendez Coller’s ambitious approach to Centro’s fundraising has enabled the agency to expand and develop more programming, serve more people and become a force in the overall Madison community.
Rank your top five MCs. The old school is where it’s at for me and I hate to say it but I’m very much West Coast with this – Tupac, Snoop, and productions by Dre. They lived it and were not afraid to put in your face, the grit in life. I miss some of this rawness now – music seems glossier these days. Lauryn Hill, boy, she is missed in my mind – every girl should own The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, own those lyrics and reflect on them. And lastly, The Roots and what they did with albums especially Things Fall Apart (1999). That was a time when music seemed to have so much soul and so much more consciousness, really coincided with my coming of age.
Which motivates you more: doubters or supporters? Doubters fuel me. One of my favorite things in life is proving people wrong – I love playing off of stereotypes and assumptions, because as a Latina woman I’ve faced them all my life. That because you seem shy that you can’t be vocal, that because you are “too nice” no one will take you seriously. I really don’t believe that. To all the young girls out there, there is no one way to do things and when people try to tell you that there is and how to do it, I tend to mentally shut them down in my head. I believe that one thing that does work is sincerity and that people can recognize and respect commitment and passion when they see it.
What does it mean to be a Latina in Madison? I hope one day I can say, going down to the square and the Latin American Museum, the murals around town made by Latino artists reflecting our history in this town… we are not there yet – to me being Latina in Madison still means being a knowledge broker – helping people understand the Latino community in Madison.
What three leaders in Madison under 50 have impressed you the most? I’ve never been a fan of the word ‘leader’ because it’s too easy to assign this title to people because of their job and we all need to be mindful of that. Let’s just say there are many people I respect because they have leadership qualities and in my mind, I see them as change agents for their community. If you ask me who I respect the most, I tend to gravitate to those who are more grassroots in their actions.
I would include those at Freedom Inc, M [Adams] and Kabzuag [Vaj]. What they have created is genuine, effective, nationally recognized, and makes so much sense given their community. I feel they have the qualities of what a great leader should embody, they are brash and bold and they are smart. Besides that, I’ve told them they remind me of Los Angeles, and the voices there, I feel very much at home when I can be around them, and grateful for what they do.
Everett Mitchell, because at his core I believe Everett speaks truthfully from his soul every time, and his ‘truth’ since the first time I heard him speak, has always connected with mine. I respect him a tremendous deal for his compassion and the person that he has shown me to be, always wanting to blur lines on race/ethnicity/and groups in this community.
In the Latino community there are so many rich and diverse active voices that I respect. But I hold such high esteem for Gloria Reyes, and personally, this may be because her life story I find to be so similar to mine in many ways. But also she’s underrated – direct, honest, humble, and strategically very savvy. In my mind, she’s a powerful product of Centro but also of this city.
And I’m throwing in a fourth one here – I’ve come to respect Mario Garcia Sierra – he never shies away from speaking out for communities of color in Madison, telling it how it is, often asking the tough questions – in my eyes his presence in our Latino community brings an added value and is very, very important.
What’s the biggest stumbling block in Madison to turning the corner on our racial disparities? Truthfully, how little our city knows about its people living here. And if that is the case, how can we ever achieve change in reducing inequities. We are so uncomfortable with gaps we keep unveiling initiatives or plans, to say we can solve them – when at the core we don’t really understand the basics of the issues and are not truthful with ourselves about that. How many Latinos are currently in Madison? How many Asian Americans? By ethnicity? What’s the history of the Black community in Madison?
We desperately need a shared vision for our city, where everyone sees their place in working towards that shared agenda – residents, city representatives, foundations, donors, etc. But even before we have that we need to be more equitable in the way we speak about equity.
When I speak about our Latino community, it’s not because I feel they are more important than other groups, not at all, but because no one seems to know much about us, and frankly Latinos are a growing part of this city. We need to move beyond the state of shock about the realities of living here and create a vision for our city where we are all working towards a greater goal, with a clear understanding of the community we are looking to move forward, all of it.
What are your top three priorities at this point in your life? My daughters, how we can raise them in a city and state that is so different from where I grew up and still have them feel connected to their heritage and their background.
Centro as an agency because where things are for Latinos in Madison and Dane County having a strong, innovative, vocal, effective flagship agency is so important. I want us to always push the envelope always think outside the box
Myself – in a community where non-profit leadership can be lonely and can be equated with burnout how to make sure I keep myself healthy.
You came from Los Angeles. What are the top three things we could learn from your experience living in LA when it comes to the Latino community? That neighborhood movements can happen — some neighborhoods in LA were classified as problematic by some, but that wasn’t the case at all. These were not neighborhoods that needed to be fixed. Families in these neighborhoods, including Latino families, already knew the solutions, they figured out innovative ways to make it work in their neighborhoods. When encouraged to take the lead, voice their opinion and create their own programs and initiatives that would allow them to thrive, neighborhood residents made this happen. And these interventions were a lot more successful because they gave community ownership.
Also, disparities need not be “urgent” before you start addressing them. Los Angeles is a place where turning back time is more difficult now — gangs, metal detectors in schools, and college rates for Latinos below 30 percent in some schools. Latino youth should feel engaged in Madison, see it as their city for the taking, see their future as wide open still, full of possibilities. At Centro, we firmly believe we can work with our youth to ensure they see their future in this way because we understand their struggles and their history in a very special way.
Which leads me to my last point. The UW could learn much from what is done in other campuses when it comes to campus climate. A priority for me is how to advocate for easier college access for undocumented youth. Well, with all its faults – because no campus is perfect, UCLA has taken great strides to support undocumented youth achieve their dreams, in an open, supportive environment. It can be done if the leadership is committed.
A lot of people when they hear the word “Latino” they think of only Mexicans. Can you briefly explain the diversity within the Latino community? Sure, the Latino community is significantly diverse. The majority of Latinos in Dane County in recent years have been of Mexican descent yes, over 70%. But we are also from other areas including Central America, where I was born. My family came to the US because of the push from the civil war in El Salvador. We are also South American, from Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil or from the islands of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic to name only a few. Each of us is tied to being Latino because of where our countries of origin are geographically. Although many of us do speak Spanish, our histories are diverse and our reasons for being here in the US are also diverse, and this matters.
What are your two favorite things about living in Madison? The weather. Just kidding. I do have come to appreciate winter and I love summers – I grew up very much on the ocean both in El Salvador and California, so I love the water. I do also appreciate the forests, the chance to explore the north, how easy that is from Madison and the life experiences this will provide to my daughters and family.
Also, the Latino community here in the city, they have really grounded me and I’m not sure how I would feel about Madison if I wasn’t in my role at Centro.
In the black community, the church has always played a big role in building community and providing services. What role does the church play in the Latino community? Big role as well – the church is our spiritual lifeline, a cultural / spiritual space that allows many Latinos to feel connected to our home countries. When you don’t feel like you have the support of the greater community, you feel you have a lifeline in your church, the families you connect with there and the traditions you share. In El Salvador, December would not be December without ‘posadas’ and the very specific holiday traditions tied to the church. I still miss this time every year and I have been here for 26 years. In my eyes, the church can also be quite an organizing force, advocating for justice when it comes to immigrant rights.
What do you enjoy most about being married? That’s easy – my partner, he’s remarkable – intelligent, kind, creative, always open minded, and very patient. He’s also a mad salsa dancer.
What’s your favorite meal to cook? Clearly this question is not written for me! In my house growing up, my dad was the one who enjoyed cooking more than my mom and in our home it’s similar. I’ll tell you my favorite traditional meal – queso con pupusas de chicharron, yucca, and fried plantains, with extra homemade tortillas and frijoles colados with a little crema…. Now, in “my future Madison” I will write that and everyone will understand exactly what I mean.