After 38 years and a remarkable career in Madison, Dora Zúñiga is very happy to be moving to sunny Florida today.

And at the same time also very sad about saying good-bye to so many of her dear, lifelong friends.

But also excited. And nervous. So many feelings going on at once.

“Excited, nervous, sad. I’m going through all of the emotions right now,” Zúñiga tells Madison365 in an interview at Manna Cafe on Madison’s north side. “There are so many good people in Madison that I’m leaving behind. But at the same time, I’m so excited to be able to watch Madison from a distance.”

Dora Zúñiga

Everything she owns, she has packed in a giant U-Haul and Zúñiga is heading down to the warm weather of Tampa, Florida, with her best friend Alma Gonzalez to start a new life after almost four decades in Madison.

“Warmer weather is nice. But, more importantly, I love the beach. I’m an individual that needs to be near water. I’m an Aquarius,” Zúñiga says. “Certainly, the lakes have been wonderful, but they’re never the same as an ocean and the waves.

“I came to Madison not intending to live in Madison for the rest of my life,” Zúñiga adds. “I got caught up here for awhile. Madison is a wonderful community and I still think that Dane County is the land of opportunity for people who are healthy in every aspect – mentally, physically, and so forth. I think there are many people in this community who are willing to give a helping hand and I have been blessed to have a lot of mentors – from the Hispanic, the African American, the Native American, and the white community.”

Zúñiga spent a good portion of her career as the CEO of two very important Madison-area non-profits that work with youth on the margins: Centro Hispano of Dane County and Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Big Brothers Big Sisters CEO Dora Zúñiga with daughter Ariana and Green Bay Packer all-time great Bart Starr at the Big Brothers Big Sisters Annual Gala in 2007. (Photo by A. David Dahmer)

Zúñiga has also been the director of leadership giving at the United Way of Dane County where she worked with United Way volunteers to grow both the United Way’s endowment and their leadership donors. More recently, she was the director of development at Wisconsin Public Radio, where she oversaw all aspects of the network’s fundraising program including membership, business sponsorships, major gifts, planned giving, grant proposals, and audience services and support as she connected with various communities across the state. On top of this all, in 2015, she founded Inspira Consulting to help for-profit businesses, non-profits and individuals reach their full potential. Inspira has a significant focus on assisting Latino businesses in reaching new markets.

Through her tireless decades of work in underrepresented communities in Madison, Zúñiga has long been preaching what the rest of Madison just started to realize a few years ago with the Race to Equity report: Madison can’t be that special place until it is a special place for everyone.

“The investment needs to be there. Non-minority people in Madison have talked it, they’ve examined it, they’ve learned about it, they’ve held forums … but now how am I as an individual really investing in our non-traditional non-profits?” Zúñiga asks.

“Some people, unfortunately, never get out of their comfort circles,” she adds. “So they have to be strategic about what the most important minority non-profits are and to invest in them … and it has to be a big enough check, too.”

Dora Zúñiga was honored with UMOS Hispanic Woman of the Year in 2014. On the left is Juan Jose Lopez. On the right is Lupe Martinez, president and Chief Executive Officer of UMOS.

For her advocacy, her bridge building, her fundraising, and her work with youth, Zúñiga has earned many accolades. In 2014, Zúñiga was honored with UMOS Hispanic Woman of the Year for the entire state of Wisconsin. Zúñiga has also earned the Madison Rotary Vocational Service Award in 2014 and the Roberto G. Sanchez Leadership Award from Centro Hispano in 2013. In 2003, she was noted as one of the “all-time top 125 most influential Madisonians” by Madison Magazine.

Zúñiga has been an important and influential Latina community leader in Madison for decades. She’s done her part to move Madison in the right direction.

“Now it’s time for me to go and do something different,” Zúñiga says. “My beautiful daughter [Ariana] got married over a year and a half ago and she left me here. She’s out in California. That helped me decide that it was time for a new chapter. If I don’t leave now, my roots – I may never be able to pull them out.

Dora Zúñiga with daughter Ariana as she is honored with the prestigious Roberto G. Sanchez Award at the Centro Hispano Annual Banquet in 2013.

“I’m looking forward to starting this new chapter just being a person in a new community,” she adds.

Zúñiga will be joining her dear friend Alma Gonzalez. “She’s one of the very first two people I met when I first arrived in Madison, Wisconsin,” Zúñiga says. “The other was Juan Jose Lopez.

“Alma got married and left Wisconsin for Florida for the entire time,” she adds, smiling. “And I’ve been in Madison. We’ve been trying to get one another and our families together for a long time – either she would move here or I would move there.

“She won!” Zúñiga adds, laughing.

The truck is all packed and Zúñiga is taking off for Tampa today. Gonzalez flew up to Madison to help drive the U-Haul down to Florida with her. It’s kind of fitting that Zúñiga is leaving right after Madison’s biggest snowstorm of the year for sunny Tampa (forecast high of 86 today!) because 38 years ago she left her hot Mexico/Texas border town to come to freezing Madison for school.

Old school photo of Dora Zúñiga with lifelong friend Juan Jose Lopez

“I arrived in this city and Juan Jose Lopez picked me up. At the time, he was the president of M.E.Ch.A [at UW],” Zúñiga remembers. “He was the first guy I met. They had a community welcome. I met my girlfriend Alma there.

“When I look how I was able to survive and how I was able to maintain my sanity over those years, part of it was because of people like [UW Director of Community Relations] LaMarr Billups who said, “Hey, I see a smart cookie whose Hispanic who may not know many people here. Let me sit down with her and help her.’ We had coffee and he told me what I needed to be doing,” she adds.

Billups left a lifelong impression on Zúñiga on the importance of giving a hand to the younger generation to make the community better. As one of the most influential Latinas in the city, Zúñiga hopes that she has made that difference in other people’s lives here in Madison.

“I’ve known Gloria Reyes and her parents for forever. Little Gloria Reyes used to come into a little grocery story on Atwood Ave. [now Daisy Cafe & Cupcakery] and I worked there – a million years ago,” Zúñiga remembers. “Gloria would come in and her siblings would come in and we would talk about school and the importance of education.

“To have lived here long enough to be able to say that once upon a time when I was at Centro, I gave her a little scholarship. And, in Gloria’s words, it wasn’t the money; it was the fact that she thought it was special and that she deserved that scholarship,” Zúñiga adds. “And now she’s a school board member! The first Latina ever. I’m so proud of her.”

Centro Hispano CEOs past and present: Centro Hispano Executive Director Karen Menendez Coller (middle) with Dora Zuniga (left) and Lucia Nunez at a Centro Hispano Annual Banquet celebration.

Zúñiga says it’s amazing the initiatives that Executive Director Karen Menendez Coller is now doing at Centro Hispano, which she was CEO of from 1991-1997. “I tell her that she has my admiration for all of the things she has done in such a short time period,” Zúñiga says. “She has tackled head-on issues that I could never address. Issues like immigration, she tackled on day one. In this environment … wow. Amazing.

Zúñiga says she will miss the Latino elders of Madison like Oscar Mireles, Juan Jose Lopez, Deborah Gil Casado, and many more. Too many to name, she says. She also sees a group of younger Latinos who are on the verge of great things at the Latino Chamber of Commerce and the Latino Professionals Association of Greater Madison.

Dora Zúñiga celebrates with Briana Avilés at a Big Brothers Big Sisters Annual Gala in 2007. Zúñiga has been a mentor, teacher, and inspiration for hundreds of Madison-area Latino kids.

“I’m very impressed by [President and CEO] Jessica Cavazos at the Latino Chamber of Commerce. Julia Arata-Fratta really helped to move that forward and Jessica is doing phenomenal things in a very short time period,” Zúñiga says. “I encourage our non-minority people to think about when they spend money that they are purposeful about spending money in the minority communities.

“Twenty years ago, it was very hard to do that. Today, I have my pick of which realtor – whether it be Latino or African-American – to hire to sell my house,” Zúñiga says. “Which Latino or African-American would do the carpet work in my house. We have so many great businesses now and we’ve learned how to do business with one another intentionally on a daily basis to help build our community.”

That’s part of what the Latino Professionals Association of Madison is doing, too, she adds. “They are very, very young,” Zúñiga laughs. “They make me feel old! But they are doing great things and they’ve been able to say, ‘Here’s how we can build people’s skills.’

“The future is in their hands now,” Zúñiga says. “I will be watching them from afar thanks to the Internet. Madison365, Facebook, social media. Madison is home and I will always be keeping track of my old friends.”

But what is Dora going to do now?

“I’m going to be honest with you, Dave. I’m a little on the tired side. I’ve had a couple of friends pass away prematurely – my friend Panchio, Franciso Rodriguez, most recently Marcus [Miles], and that has affected me,” she says. “I feel like I’ve done my part to move this community forward and to help us integrate. Now, it’s time for me to think about me in my new chapter of life.

Dora Zúñiga with the late Marcus Miles at The Cardinal in downtown Madison.

“I’m probably going to still do fundraising. I’m probably going to still be a Rotarian – I’ve been in Rotary for 24 years in Madison,” she adds.

One thing that Zúñiga is really excited about in her new chapter in life is that she is going to be writing children’s books that are bilingual and bi-cultural.

“I want to help us to continue to build bridges in our communities,” she says. “I’m very excited that I’m going to be writing these children’s books.”

Building bridges is the common theme that keeps coming up in this interview. Most of the time it is between the white Madison community and underrepresented communities – like the Latino community. But sometimes, Zúñiga says, those bridges need to be built within the Latino community.

“I remember when I was at Centro Hispano and people would come in through the Centro doors, and they’d immediately try to figure out what kind of Hispana I was. And I wanted them to not be distracted by what flavor I was,” she says. “So you came into my office and there was art from Peru, art from the Dominican Republican. I had all of this different stuff so you couldn’t tell that I was Mexican. I want to build those bridges.

“I’ve become aware over the years how we all speak Spanish, but it all can mean something different. I want to build those bridges for our kids,” she adds. “So, I’m really looking forward to writing those children’s books that will help us to understand each other better and get to know one another.”

Zúñiga is looking at a few different employment opportunities in Florida, one of which, she says, is really exciting. “It will all crystallize when I’m down there,” she says.

In the meantime, she’s feeling very happy, very sad, very excited, and a little nervous about the big move she’s making.

Dora Zúñiga with longtime friend Oscar Mireles

Reflecting back on her time in Madison, she puts in one last plug for old friend Oscar Mireles, principal of Omega School, who has helped thousands of adults prepare for, and obtain, a GED/HSED credential and education. “I love the work that Oscar does at Omega because he is taking on the kids that our community has given up on. Some of them are brilliant, some have just great talent and they’ve just lived really hard lives,” she says. “It’s important work that he is doing. We need to invest in these young people.

“Become a Big Brother or Big Sister. Become a Big … get involved,” adds Zuniga, advocating for her former agency of which she was not only the CEO, but a member of Big Brothers Big Sisters of American National Leadership Council and vice chair of the Wisconsin Big Brothers Big Sisters State Association. “I just had a lovely dinner with my first Little Sister Christina. She is doing great. It makes a huge difference, these connections in the community.

“What I want people to learn from me – which I’ve learned from others – is to be strategic for the long term. So, think about where you want to be in 10 years and figure out what will it take,” Zúñiga says. “I want people to continue to do hard work and continue to build bridges. I want them to be at the table for those hard discussions more today than ever. We need to be able to have those hard conversations – whatever it may be.

“And, most importantly, once you’ve made it, pull up the next person behind you,” she adds. “Because none of us got to where we were today all on our own. I certainly didn’t.”