Centro Hispano of Dane County celebrated 30 years of commitment to supporting the Latino community at their annual gala on Saturday night at the Park Hotel in downtown Madison.
“When I began this journey at Centro, I never would have known what I weighed it as. I also never knew I would come to deeply love this agency so much, but I have and it’s very easy because Centro reflects the core values I most treasure in my own life,” Centro Executive Director Karen Menendez Coller said.
Those values include a commitment to compassion, empathy, respect for others, and a deep belief in human dignity. Menendez Coller pledged that Centro Hispano will continue to create a true healing space for youth and families at Centro that facilitates more community engagement and deepens collaborations with partners, families and schools.
“We will aggressively leverage a cultural competency as we work with employers across diverse work sectors to develop the next generation of talent and along with our partners we will continue to advocate for the capacity of a truly supportive system for all immigrants,” she said.
The remarks followed the celebration’s theme of “Esperanza,” the Spanish word for hope. Kicking off the night with a wine and tequila pull and silent auction, board members, staff and supporters of Centro gathered for an evening to remind each other why they got involved with the organization. Later, the program continued with awards reflecting people who aligned the organization’s values.
“Centro has empowered youth by developing them as young leaders to embody the change that is needed in our city and beyond. Centro has connected adults to jobs, training, and a variety of advocacy and support resources. Centro has engaged the community, organized people and grown allies but more than celebrating Centro Hispano as an organization tonight, we celebrate the people that make Centro Hispano the incredible place it is, the people that give it esperanza,” Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said.
Centro Hispano presented five awards on Saturday night: the Ilda C. Thomas Leadership Award to Immigration Attorney Aissa Olivarez, the Roberto G. Sanchez Award to Higher Education Professional Valentina Ahedo, the Marcus S. Miles Volunteer Award to United Way of Dane County Community Impact Coordinator Elena Jimenez-Quiroz, the Mario Garcia Sierra Young Dreamer Award to Social Worker Yesenia Villalpando-Torres, and the Centro Visionary Award to former Madison Gas and Electric President and CEO Gary Wolter.
“This is both an honor and a tremendous responsibility,” Ahedo said.
Ahedo recently became the Dean of the newly built Madison College Goodman South Campus. Ahedo won an award given to individuals who demonstrate leadership in advancing educational opportunities for Latinos in Dane County. She said it’s an honor to her to be recognized as someone who exemplifies Sanchez’ legacy but also a strong reminder that her work is not finished.
For others, the celebration was also about recognizing and thanking their community. Villalpando-Torres spoke about her humble beginnings, undocumented status, and being unapologetic as she accepted her award.
“I just really want to highlight how important my community has been throughout my entire journey. It has taken an entire village to get me where I am today,” she said.
Garcia presented the award to Villalpando-Torres personally. He noted her call to action during the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids last summer. Villalpando-Torres, both a Certified Social Worker and an activist, supports youth in the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) and immigrant families across Dane County.
Menendez Coller announced a new community fundraising campaign to advance efforts to better support Latinos of Dane County and the entire immigrant community that will begin next year. She said more information will come later. This announcement followed after Menendez Coller remarked about the organization being more proactive.
“Over the last six years, we’ve continued to plant the seeds for dreams when so many of those dreams seem to be taken away from us. We engage in action when we felt that as a community we needed to fight back. We had no other choice,” Menendez Coller said.