“This is the 30th annual gala event for us. So this is a big one,” says Karen Menéndez Coller, executive director of Centro Hispano of Dane County. “It’s a really important time for Centro right now. I believe we are really going to ramp things up next year and we’ll be making several announcements about our direction and our future.”

The theme for this year’s 30th Annual Centro Gala Celebration is Esperanza (Hope). The event will take place on Saturday, Sept. 21, at the Best Western Premier Park Hotel in downtown Madison.

“To me, the event signifies community, reflection, commitment. It grounds all of us. It’s a time to really come together and be with one another,” Menéndez Coller tells Madison365. “There’s always a lot of great energy at the event because all of us have made it through another year and we know how tough it is for our community right now.

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

“We just want to always make it known that we have a presence here in Madison and Dane County and in the state,” she adds. “We’ve always been around, but now, more than ever, we are having all of these attacks on our community, so it’s a time to reflect and a time to enjoy each other’s company.”

The evening program begins at 5:30 p.m. with happy hour in The Capitol Room featuring wine and tequila pull and a silent auction. The party moves to the Hall of Wisconsin room at 7 p.m. where dinner and the program begins.

The Centro Hispano Annual Gala is a chance to honor outstanding community members. Centro’s Roberto G. Sanchez Award, honoring an individual that has demonstrated leadership in advancing educational and career opportunities for Latinos in Dane County, will be presented to Valentina Ahedo, dean at the brand-new Madison College Goodman South Campus.

“I am so excited about the awardees. It’s so great. Every day I walk in [to Centro Hispano on Madison’s south side’ and see the students across the street at [Madison College] South [Campus] and I think its an opportunity to create a new direction for the south side and having Madison College there will really ground us all in that vision,” Menéndez Coller says. “Having Tina [Ahedo] at the helm is amazing because I know that she understands community partnerships and is so connected to Centro.

“Tina is so humble, down-to-earth, and smart. I’m really glad that she is getting recognized for all of the work that she’s done; oftentimes behind the scene,” she adds.

Aissa Olivarez

The Ilda C. Thomas Award, named after Centro Hispano of Dane County’s founder, represents someone ensures a strong Latino community voice. This year, this award will be given to Aissa Olivarez, staff attorney at Community Immigration Law Center (CILC). Olivarez has worked to keep families together in Dane County through her work focused on deportation defense, and is a strong advocate for universal representation.

‘That award, to me, is so very special. It’s a reflection of Ilda, our founder, and it reflects our values and the work that we do,” Menéndez Coller says. “And the work that Aissa does right now could not be more challenging and she does it in such a graceful way with such a good attitude and such humility and respect for the families she works with.

Elena Jimenez-Quiro

“I think Ilda would be so proud to see somebody like Aissa in our community,” she adds. “I’m hoping this award gives her a little bit of support to keep going; because she’s a fighter. Our whole community is behind her and we want to see her grow and thrive.”

Elena Jimenez-Quiroz, who recently retired from her position as Community Impact Coordinator at United Way of Dane County, wil be honored with the Marcus S. Miles Volunteer Award.  Social worker and community activist Yesenia Villalpando-Torres Yesenia, a first-generation college graduate, DREAMer, and tireless advocate for the immigrant community, will be honored with the Mario Garcia Sierra Young Dreamer Award.  Gary Wolter, former president, chairman and CEO of Madison Gas & Electric, will be honored with the Centro Visionary Award.

After the program, one of Madison’s favorites, Grupo Candela, will provide live music and keep people dancing until midnight. They have been a regular at Centro Hispano’s Annual Celebration for years. There will also be extravagant dessert bar courtesy of the Park Hotel.

Grupo Candela

“Especially with it being our 30th celebration, we wanted to keep it going with Grupo Candela. They have been a really important partner in all of this,” Menéndez Coller says. “I value those guys so much.”

What is Menéndez Coller’s favorite part of the Annual Celebration? (Besides, of course, when it’s all over and she and the staff can rest and relax and reflect on all of the hard work it took to put the event together.)

“I just love being with everybody in the community. Seeing people that I love and who support us. Seeing people that I don’t get to connect with on a regular basis. I love being with my community. I love everybody that works in the community,” she says. “We’ve navigated a lot of stressful situations. It’s a time to be with each other on a very personal level and I really miss that sometimes. It just doesn’t happen enough, so I’m very excited about the Gala.”