“Juán Lopez and I – we have been connected since day one. We’ve been in each other’s lives for more than 42 years,” says Dora Zúñiga. “Our lives have been intertwined. He has been somebody very special to me.”
Zúñiga has numerous memories of her good friend, Juán José López, who passed away on Tuesday, June 6, at the age of 64. The greater Madison community has been in mourning over the Madison community leader who was well-known for being outspoken for those who didn’t have a voice and for his incredible kindness and generosity, especially toward young people in Madison whom he mentored and took under his wing.
Over the last four decades, Zúñiga and López have become two of Madison’s (and Wisconsin’s) most well-known and accomplished Latino leaders, heading up major non-profit agencies, spearheading countless initiatives, mentoring youths, and winning awards for leadership and advancing the Hispanic community.
They first met as college students in the early ’80s. Zúñiga arrived here in Madison on a bus from a small town in South Texas not knowing a single soul as she got ready to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And as fate would have it, Juán José López would be the first person she ever met, picking her up at the bus station when she arrived.
“When I first met Juán López he was the president of [Mexican-American student group] MEChA,” Zúñiga remembers, talking to Madison365 from her home in Tampa, Florida, where she has lived since 2018 after spending 38 years in Madison. “He took me to Ogg East [dormitory]. He got me registered and showed me around. We became friends because back then there were so few Mexicanos. Juan López was very charming. He became, in many ways, my older brother.”
López would go on to make history as the first Latino to serve on the Madison school board, serving 12 years from 1994-2006. He was a co-founder of the Latino Professionals Association of Greater Madison and served on the board of directors of the United Migrant Opportunity Services (UMOS) in Milwaukee, One City Schools, the Rotary Foundation and the Latino Chamber of Commerce, of which he is a founding member. López has also served as president of Nuestro Mundo Community School Inc. and was a member of the executive board of the Latino Support Network (LaSup) in Dane County, which he founded along with others in the community.
“When I think about Juán López, I think about the legacy that he’s left and what makes him unique is that he was opening up a frontier for all of the students that have come and gone that were recruited under the guise of diversity to come to UW Madison. He stayed on that frontier and helped the next one of us. He’s been consistent. He has longevity of opening opportunities for us — Latinos — in Madison and building those ties across different groups and building relationships way ahead of his time.”
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. Later in her career, she was director of leadership giving at the United Way of Dane County and the director of development at Wisconsin Public Radio.
Zúñiga would go on to become, like López, one of Madison’s key Latino leaders. When she was honored with the UMOS Hispanic Woman of the Year in 2014, Lopez who had won the UMOS Hispanic Man of the Year, was at her side.
Zúñiga says she remembers how Lopez got former UW-Madison Chancellor Donna Shalala to let first-year UW football coach Barry Alvarez be the speaker at Centro Hispano’s first annual banquet in 1990.
“I was part of that committee for that first Centro Hispano banquet. We needed to raise money for our organization,” Zúñiga says. “Asking for a new coach to speak on a Friday night during football season is a bit much but he asked Donna Shalala and she said yes. So that’s what made the first Centro Hispano Banquet a success. Because he had the guts to ask. And we got Barry Alvarez to speak at Centro Hispano’s very first banquet on a Friday night during football season.”
Zúñiga says she can remember her and Lopez taking turns playing good cop/bad cop on dozens of local issues, many of them affecting the Latino population. “In the end, we worked together to push things forward,” she says.
“Juan was a bridge builder and a connector. Juan Lopez was a unique star,” she adds. “He leaves a big hole.”
Lopez was born on May 31, 1959, in San Antonio, Texas, the son of Eutimio C. Lopez and Herminia (Macias) Lopez. He came to Madison where he would earn a bachelor’s of arts degree in social work from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Longtime Madison Latino leader Oscar Mireles, the longtime principal and executive director at Omega School, the founder of Latinos Organizing for Understanding and Development (LOUD) and Madison’s first Latino poet laureate, tells Madison365 that he knew Lopez for “close to 35 years.”
“I knew him when he was a student [at UW-Madison] so I’ve known him a very long time. He was always somebody that I could talk to,” Mireles says.
Mireles adds that knew just two people in Madison when he took the position at Omega School in 1994.
“Juán José López was one of the two people — him and Dora [Zúñiga] – that I reached out to when I was applying for the job at Omega School,” Mireles remembers. “He was working with Project Opportunity and then Dora Zuniga was at Centro [Hispano]
“Juán was a mentor and a friend and a colleague and a leader and he did things his own way, but the community was always in his heart,” Mireles continues. “And even though he was outspoken, he always made a difference. People wouldn’t always do exactly what he said, but they would do something. So he made the larger community responsive to us – back then there weren’t as many Latinos. With the Latino Chamber of Commerce and Adelante, he was a founder or part of the initial leadership team of both and that requires having a vision and then having the resources and connections to make it happen. So it’s more than just an idea. He translated it into action.”
Mireles adds that Lopez was an incredible mentor to young people in the Madison community. “He was very direct and outspoken at times but there was also a kindness to him, especially with the young people in our community. I know with my own children that he was always asking about them and what they were doing and making sure that they were alright. There was always a kindness to him … and if you had children, especially, you would see it.”
Mireles and Lopez were part of a leadership team during this time of transition for Centro Hispano in the late ’90s. Lopez was a regular at Centro Hispano over its four decades of existence — at the Centro headquarters, at the organization’s many events and behind the scenes where he worked closely with leaders from founder Ilda Thomas all the way to the current executive director, Karen Menéndez Coller.
Centro Hispano of Dane County said López was “a pillar” in a statement immediately after his death.
”It is with deep sadness that we mourn the passing of the spirit of Juán José López. Juan was a pillar. He was vocal, honest, and fierce when he spoke up. He never backed down from advocating for real change, necessary for the betterment of Latinos. Throughout his career, in every single one of his roles, he never wavered – pushing for inclusion in educational achievement, calling out the need to invest in economic development, and greater access to resources for Latino families, and young professionals in the workforce. His impact was broad.
“At Centro, Juan worked hand in hand with our founder Ilda Thomas and his legacy is present in programs that continue to this day. His commitment to this organization never wavered. He was a proud human being – proud of friends, mentees, family, and proud to be Latino in Madison. We will miss you, Juan, so much, but your energy stands with us now more than ever.”
Menéndez Coller, the longtime executive director of Centro Hispano, tells Madison365, that Lopez “was so significant to Centro.”
“His voice always filled the space when he was there! His jokes always made me laugh and his spirit always reminded me of all the Latino men I’ve met in my life – proud, determined, warm, fighters, yet also there is a feeling that some hurt is buried within, from years of fighting towards equity,” Menéndez Coller says. “Juan was honest and despite the teasing and the bantering, when the moment was serious, he always had my back, he always had our back. There was a shared understanding of the work that we are committed to doing in Wisconsin. He was such a fighter for our people.
“Ever since I came to Centro, I have learned of Juan – I learned of his connection to [Centro founder] Ilda [Thomas] and to so many others, of the programs he started, of his knack for connecting and supporting young people in the same organic fashion we continue to abide by to this day – because that is the right thing to do,” adds Menéndez Coller, who is originally from the Los Angeles area. “He was wise and I respected him so much. I always told him this. He would always follow up with, ‘That’s great, but know you’re awesome.’ I always wanted him to know how special he was, how important it was for me to see him, for my drive, and for me to feel encouraged to continue fighting when so much seemed to be so heavy and so much. We cried when things got heavy, but we also laughed in community, and he gave the best hugs.
“I will miss him so much. And every time I am in a tough meeting, I’ll always remember him, and will stand taller and speak louder, because Juan would have wanted that.”
Earlier in his career, Lopez served as executive director of Briarpatch Youth Services and the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County. He also worked as an aide to Wisconsin Governor Anthony S. Earl and worked as a policy and planning analyst for the Office of the Attorney General Peggy A. Lautenschlager. Later in life, Lopez would serve as a section chief at the state Department of Workforce Development’s Division of Employment & Training. He retired in 2019.
Madison mayoral candidate Gloria Reyes, a former Centro Hispano scholarship winner who would go on to be Centro board president and also president of the MMSD school board, has known Lopez for over four decades having first met him when she was 10 years old. Lopez was friends with her parents, she says, and used to come to their fiestas. “He was part of my family,” Reyes tells Madison365. “He spoke at my dad’s funeral.”
Lopez, the first Latino elected to Madison’s school board, was an inspiration to Reyes, the first Latina elected to Madison’s school board. He also played a huge role in Adelante Madison, a political group focused on recruiting and training diverse candidates to run for local elections that Reyes founded.
“When our youth grow up they look up to people they admire. People who reflect their values. This was Juan for me,” Reyes says. “The past several days I have heard stories of how Juan helped people when they were young. He gave to our entire community in so many different ways. We lost a leader, advocate, teacher, mentor, and, most importantly, a friend. I will miss my friend Juan. I will miss the phone calls, events, and our breakfast meetings. I will miss him pushing me to reach my full potential.
“His legacy lives within me and continues through all the lives he has touched,” she adds.
Shadayra “Shady” Kilfoy-Flores, tells Madison365 that of all the people Juan knew in Madison, and that was a lot, she knew him best.
“You know how parents say they don’t have a favorite but they really do. I’m Juan’s favorite kid, always have been,” she smiles.
Kilfoy-Flores, who knew Lopez since she was a kid, says she enjoyed spending a lot of quality time this past spring working with him on Adelante Madison.
“Juan had a vision of elevating Chicanos in our community in every way possible. He instilled a deep sense of cultural pride in me when I was a middle schooler forming my own identity,” she says. “I met Juan when I was 12 and in the 7th grade. It’s because of Juan that I added ‘Flores’ back to my name after my parents divorced. My father was deported to Mexico and Juan stepped into my life filling that void.
“Even though the pre-employment program was for 8th graders, he let me participate in 7th and 8th grade and waited for an internship. I was one of the very first students to intern at Centro Hispano when Ilda Thomas, the founder, was the director. I helped to develop the annual banquet.”
Kilfoy-Flores was also the very first student to ever receive a scholarship from Centro.
“Juan believed in me as he did thousands of other scholars in our community. He nominated me for the statewide UMOS Youth of the Year award and I won! I was the first youth to be chosen from Madison,” Kilfoy-Flores remembers. “Then he nominated me for a Dane County proclamation. When I was only 16, I had a day named after me because Juan believed in me.
“People like Juan are few and far between. I wouldn’t be who I am or do what I do if it wasn’t for his love and support. He truly loved me like his daughter and was a blessing in my life.”
Dane County Executive Joe Parisi also knew Lopez for decades and issued a statement saying that his passing “is a shock and a great loss.”
“Juan was a leader in both the Latino community as well as the greater Dane County community. He cared deeply about our children and their future and was a tireless advocate on their behalf. Of all the times Juan and I interacted, he never asked for anything for himself; it was always to urge that we do more to help others. We are fortunate that Juan chose Madison as his home so many years ago. He enriched our community and provided opportunity and advancement for countless individuals.”
Hedi Rudd, the director of Badger Rock Neighborhood Center, has been a community photographer for decades, capturing photos from many key Latino events through the years. She would regularly spend time with Lopez.
“Juan has been there for me since I began working in the community. He has always kept it real and gave the best advice,” Rudd tells Madison365. “He also has fought passionately for the Latino community, but also built bridges between the Black and Brown communities, which is important to note. He knew that our strength is by working together, not being at odds with one another.
“I have tried to do the same in my own work,” she adds.
Lopez was a longtime member of UMOS, the largest Hispanic-managed nonprofit in the state of Wisconsin, and was the organization’s board chair twice. The non-profit advocacy organization based out of Milwaukee provides programs and services which improve the employment, educational, health and housing opportunities of under-served populations.
“Juán José López left a legacy in the Latino community, and at UMOS,” says Lupe Martinez, president and Chief Executive Officer of UMOS, in an email statement to Madison365. “From running errands for UMOS board members as a teenager, to later joining the UMOS board and excelling to become chair, Juan was board chair from 1992 to 1993, and again from 2011 to 2018.
“We will always cherish his courage, his leadership, and his laughter. He will forever be missed, but forever be remembered. He will forever live in the hearts of the UMOS family.”
One City Schools founder and CEO Kaleem Caire has been friends with Lopez for almost three decades, telling Madison365 that he first met him in 1994.
“I met him when he was with Briarpatch and he was at the Madison Community Foundation. I went to meet with Jane Coleman, their former leader [of the Madison Community Foundation], and he saw me come in and started talking with me and told me he worked at Briarpatch,” Caire remembers. “I was shocked that they had a Latino working there in Madison. He invited me to lunch and we really connected. We just started hanging out.
“He was on my campaign for school board in 1990 and he came to every meeting and he helped me raise money, helped me figure out how to get yard signs, helped me build the whole team,” Caire adds. “We worked on Nuestro Mundo together. There wasn’t a lot that I didn’t work on with that man.”
Lopez was on the board of directors of the One City Schools Foundation.
“Juan was an advocate. When you are going through some serious stuff, Juan was going to be there standing with you,” Caire says. “A lot of people will sit there and watch you struggle and then step up there with you when everything is good. Juan will stand with you when things are tough.
“He is a huge part of the Madison community. He was courageous. He was truly convicted. He was beyond committed, man.”
Troy Dean, a special education paraprofessional educator in the Marshall School District, recently became the first African American male to win NBC 15’s Crystal Apple Award. He says that he considers Lopez to be a mentor and a lifelong inspiration.
“In 1990, myself and 15 other kids from Marquette Middle School (now O’Keeffe) were sitting in a classroom when a guy named Juán José López walks in and takes over a program called Project Opportunity,” Dean remembers. “It was a program that if…. no when, we graduated high school, the Madison Community Foundation would pay for our college for four years. From 1990 to 1996, Juan would help provide tutoring for us every Wednesday. He was a father figure to some, an uncle to some, and mentor to all of us.
Years later, Lopez would attend Dean’s wedding. “How did you land Jenny?’ he’d ask me, laughing,” Dean remembers.
“He always called me ‘The Dean of The Deans.’ He’s a Madison icon……. He was there when I graduated high school. He believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. Every kid from Project Opportunity has a story about Juan. He always let me know that I’m a good person who can make a difference and that has always stayed with me….. Without him, there is no 2023 Crystal Apple Award winner.
“I will always love that man for what he has done for me and my family,” Dean adds.
Jessica Cavazos, the longtime president and CEO of the Wisconsin Latino Chamber of Commerce who was recently sworn in as deputy undersecretary for minority business development at the U.S. Department of Commerce, tells Madison365 that she is deeply saddened by the loss of her dear friend and mentor, Juán José López.
“He had a tremendous impact on my life, and I will always cherish the times we spent together. JJ was a person who truly cared about helping others, and he was a tireless champion for equity and justice. He had a genuine affection for people which was always evident in his interactions,” Cavazos says. “JJ’s support and guidance helped me navigate through different career opportunities and his words of encouragement resonated throughout my challenges. In my heart, I will always remember JJ as a true friend who took the time to invest in others and inspire them to greatness.
“His legacy will live on through the many lives he touched, and the memories he left behind. I will forever be grateful for the foundation he gave me, which has shaped my decision-making, setting a standard for excellence in everything I do. I will miss his humor, guidance, and unwavering support. My deepest condolences to JJ’s family. May they find comfort and peace during this difficult time. Rest in peace, my dear friend. Your impact on the world will never be forgotten.”