Since our founding in 2015, we have published lists of the most influential African Americans and Latinos in Wisconsin. I intended these lists to highlight the beauty of the diversity in our community. I wanted kids here in Wisconsin to see role models of people who are succeeding, to know that it’s possible for people of color to achieve great things here, and to highlight people of color doing great work in a variety of fields and pursuits.
Sadly, over the past three years, far too many of the talented, influential people named on these lists have left the state, which is a significant problem — a problem that we can’t let slide anymore.
That’s why we are preparing for the first-ever Wisconsin Leadership Summit, which we are proud to host in partnership with the Ho-Chunk Nation on October 18 and 19. Everyone on this list and all previous lists — more than 200 influential African American and Latino leaders — will be invited to attend the Summit to share their experience and expertise as we dig into the issues and challenges facing leaders of color in Wisconsin, and identify real strategies to attract and retain the most talented people of color and keep them in our beautiful state. We also hope to provide professional development opportunities for the next generation of leaders. You can join that conversation — registration is open now.
This list couldn’t possibly include every Latino doing good work in the community. It does, however, introduce you to some people you’ve never heard of who are doing great things in other parts of the state or simply working behind the scenes, doing the work without the accolades.
It was important for us to expand the way we think about influence, and to highlight more of the people doing what it takes to improve their community. That’s one reason this list is entirely new — we considered anyone named on last year’s list to be ineligible for this one, even though most of them continue to wield considerable influence.
I pray you learn something you didn’t know about some of the real leaders in communities throughout Wisconsin. It’s critical to recognize and highlight our neighbors whose stories begin elsewhere, or who trace their roots to other parts of the world. Only then will we truly appreciate the contributions we all make to the prosperity of our communities, our state and our nation.
Joe and Mariam Maldonado are truly one of Madison’s power couples. Joe works as the Director of Community Impact – Academic Success at the United Way of Dane County, develops and maintains relationships with more than 20 local agencies and oversees a $2 million budget, all aimed at making sure children and adults alike can learn and excel academically. He also works as an instructor at Madison College, teaching a six-week course to help people transition from correctional institutions to college and careers. And last year, when Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico — where both sets of his grandparents grew up and where he still has family — he got together with some other local leaders to create the Puerto Rico Relief Fund of South Central Wisconsin, which raised nearly $100,000 and funded a number of projects to help get the island back on its feet. Mariam works at the Urban League of Greater Madison as Outreach and Intake Manager, making an impact every day with the many constituencies ULGM serves. She’s set to make an even larger — and long-lasting — impact as she has spearheaded the effort to open Luna’s Grocery, an oasis in the food desert of the Allied Drive – Dunn’s Marsh neighborhood. Residents of that neighborhood have been shopping for groceries at gas stations for years as a number of city agencies and nonprofit organizations have been trying to bring accessible fresh food to the neighborhood, and it looks like Luna’s will finally get it done.
Marisabel Cabrera pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the 2018 election cycle, unseating longtime incumbent Josh Zepnick in a Democratic primary to represent Milwaukee in the State Assembly. The South Side native says her family struggled to get by and on more than one occasion relied on the neighborhood church for food and other basic necessities. Despite that modest upbringing, today Marisabel is a local entrepreneur, respected immigration attorney, and mayoral appointee to the Fire and Police Commission — and, now, a soon-to-be State Representative.
Brenda Martínez, Radamés Galarza and Elissa Guarnero founded ALBA School in Milwaukee, beginning in 2003. ALBA — which stands for Academia de Lenguaje y Bellas Artes — was sparked by Milwaukee’s desire for a bilingual learning environment where parents and families could become truly active in their children’s education. ALBA School’s bilingual environment embraces both language and cultural diversity and builds on ethnic background and knowledge to deliver a positive and strong bilingual education. The public charter school now serves more than 200 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. It’s been such a success in affirming and celebrating students’ Latino heritage while also upholding rigorous academic standards that People magazine recognized Brenda, Radamés and Elissa as Teachers of the Year in 2013 and President Obama recognized the school as a Bright Spot in Hispanic Education in 2015. They are truly building the future of education!
Alfonso Morales was appointed Interim Police Chief of the City of Milwaukee in February of this year. He has risen through the ranks of the Milwaukee Police Department over the last 25 years, beginning as an officer in 1993. In 1999, he was promoted to Detective and worked in the Criminal Investigation Bureau where he worked various assignments from burglaries to robberies to homicide. From 2003 until 2009, he served as Lieutenant in the Criminal Investigation Bureau where he managed the night shift Gang Crimes Unit and Homicide Unit. He later worked assignments in Internal Affairs, the Police Academy, and HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas). In 2013, Chief Morales was promoted to the role of Commanding Officer of District Two, which encompasses part of Milwaukee’s South Side and is comprised of more than 87,000 residents. He also ran MPD’s Project Safe Neighborhood-High Value Target program, a department-wide initiative designed to reduce violent crime by focusing enforcement efforts on some of the worst gun offenders in the community. Chief Morales holds a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice from Carroll University in Waukesha, has taken masters level classes at the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia, and is a graduate of the Senior Management Institute for Police (SMIP).
Vanessa Chavez is a government attorney for the City of Green Bay. She has served as general counsel to municipalities, local government bodies, small businesses, and associations, helping them take proactive steps to accomplish their goals while also reducing the chances that they will end up in litigation. With a master’s degree in Information Studies from UT-Austin and a law degree from the University of New Mexico, she taught at UNM for a year before joining the City of Green Bay. She also served as Vice President of both the New Mexico Hispanic Bar Association and the New Mexico Women’s Bar Association.
Veronica Figueroa-Velez is the executive director of UNIDOS Against Domestic Violence in Madison, which was started in 1996 to help Latinx survivors of domestic violence access local services. A native of Puerto Rico, Figueroa-Velez was also one of the leaders of the Puerto Rico Relief Fund of South-Central Wisconsin, who helped to bring the greater Madison community together to fundraise for victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
Joanna Cervantes took the helm as director of Sunshine Place in Sun Prairie in February of last year. She started her career as a police officer to serve the community, but, as she told the Sun Prairie Star, “When you’re a police officer, you see most people at their lowest points; when you’re arresting them you’re taking most of their rights away, and I said, I have to do something different about that. I have to get them before that happens.” Today she oversees a food pantry that serves 2,000 families in and around Sun Prairie. Sunshine Place also offers programs to provide school supplies, clothing and legal services for families in need. And earlier this summer when a gas explosion killed a firefighter and leveled several buildings in downtown Sun Prairie, Joanna stepped up and led the efforts to collect donations and provide relief for the dozens of families that were suddenly homeless. Joanna really walks the walk when it comes to serving the community!
Sergio González recently started a new job at Marquette University in Milwaukee as Assistant Professor of Latinx Studies. He has been a strong voice in the Latino community for years fighting for the immigrant population especially. He recently completed his doctoral degree at University of Wisconsin-Madison. His book “Mexicans in Wisconsin,” is one of perseverance and struggle, family and faith, stretched across more than 130 years.
A longtime board member for Worker Justice Wisconsin, González is the 2017 winner of the Ilda Conteris Thomas Award, presented in the name of Ilda Conteris Thomas, Centro’s first-ever executive director. The award honors an individual whose efforts ensure a strong Latino voice in the community.
Pedro Albiter is the founder and president of Latinos United for College Education Scholarships (LUCES), a nonprofit organization in Madison that works to ensure bright futures for young Latinos in Wisconsin by providing mentoring and several merit and need-based scholarships. Albiter has worked as an employment and training specialist for the State of Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development since 2001. In 2012, Albiter was recognized as Man of the Year by the UMOS organization for helping the Latino community.
Ricardo Jara is chief of staff for the Madison Metropolitan School District Superintendent, a new position that he moved into just last month. The East LA native joined the school district last fall as Special Assistant to the Superintendent for Equity and Inclusion. He joined the school district in 2017 while working on his PhD at Harvard. He focuses especially on “opportunity youth” — those transitioning back to school from juvenile detention facilities or returning to school after dropping out. It’s an especially important and influential position, especially as the district continues to struggle with disparities in academic success as well as discipline.
Maria Watts has served Milwaukee’s Latino and broader community for the past 24 years. Her career includes 19 years with the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA) where she currently serves as a Senior Business and Community Engagement Officer. For 19 years Maria has assisted hundreds of public and private entities by leveraging WHEDA’s knowledge and resources. Before coming to WHEDA, she worked as a Housing Coordinator for La Casa De Esperanza and as an Assistant Vice President for Tri-City National Bank. Over the past two decades Maria has served on numerous boards of directors and is currently the Vice Chair of the Board of Directors for UMOS. Watts has worked hard on the Transform Milwaukee initiative which is a comprehensive, public-private initiative that leverages Milwaukee’s workforce, industrial strengths and transportation assets to expand community investments, increase business development, boost job creation and strengthen neighborhoods.
Nadya E. Perez-Reyes is a Milwaukee native of Puerto Rican descent and has worked as an assistant state public defender in Milwaukee as well as an elections law specialist for Wisconsin. She has been a board member for the City of Milwaukee Election Commission-Bilingual Advisory Task Force and was recently recognized in the Wisconsin Law Journal as a 2017 up-and-coming lawyer. Nadya is known for litigating complex cases, including proceedings involving termination of parental rights. She often represents the agency’s most vulnerable clients.
Luz Sosa of Milwaukee has been in a strong advocate in the fight against family separation. She has organized gatherings to demand an end to the cruel and inhumane practices of taking children away from their parents. As the daughter of immigrants, Luz came to Wisconsin from Paraguay when she was 16. She attended graduate school at Marquette and has helped lead Citizen Action of Wisconsin, where she is the Latino Outreach Organizer. She is also vice-president of Raise Wisconsin, an organization that champions the fight to raise the minimum wage for the working class.
Ivan Gamboa of Milwaukee has been appointed by Governor Walker as the Chair of the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA). Gamboa will help improve the quality of life for Wisconsin residents by providing affordable housing and business financing products. “Ivan Gamboa possesses the experience and expertise necessary to serve Wisconsin as Chair of WHEDA, “Governor Walker said in the announcement of his appointment. “With his extensive leadership experience at the Tri City National Bank as well as serving on numerous commissions, we know Mr. Gamboa will lead WHEDA with the knowledge and dedication to benefit the taxpayers of our great state.” Gamboa was the Senior Vice President of Tri City National Bank for over ten years and also served as the President of the Board of Directors at Harbor District, Inc, which revitalized Milwaukee’s harbor.
Jaime Alvarado is the Deputy State Director for Young Adults and the Civic Engagement Director of Milwaukee-based LULAC-Wisconsin. He was a founding Board Member of the UWM Latino Alumni Chapter and a graduate of the Latino Nonprofit Leadership Program (LNLP). Alvarado is passionate for a quality education for all students and is on the Leadership and Operations team of Milwaukee Succeeds. This effort examines data driven best practices and strategies with all the major stakeholders to transform education from cradle to career. He is especially concerned on the proficiency gap and opportunities of Latino Students. In 2013, he was a candidate for the MPS School Board Director (6th District).
Nicole Sandoval, a Bilingual Recruiter for Madison College in the Recruitment and Community Outreach Department. She moved to Madison from La Paz, Bolivia at age 7. She earned a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations, Political Science and Ethnic Studies from Edgewood College in 2014. She is currently the president of the Latino Professionals Association of Greater Madison. Nicole has extensive knowledge on immigration policy more specifically DACA, I-601 Waivers of Inadmissibility through her work at Kempster, Corcoran Quiceno and Lenz- Calvo in Chicago as an immigration legal assistant. Additionally, Nicole has experience in community outreach, database management, case management, fund development, and event planning from a number of professional roles including her past role as the Program and Event Coordinator for the Latino Chamber of Commerce.
Claudia Guzmán became UW-Green Bay’s new director of student life earlier this year, where she leads the efforts to create a positive college experience for nearly 7,000 students. One of only a handful of Latinos in director-level leadership roles at UW schools, Guzman came to UW-Green Bay from UW-Milwaukee where she served as the sociocultural program manager. In that role she oversaw a dramatic growth in programs and collaborations within the University and community. She has also worked in the private, nonprofit sector in Milwaukee. She is a graduate of Wellesley College and received her masters degree from Marquette University.
Marcela “Xela” Garcia was born in Guadalajara, Mexico and came to Milwaukee with her family when she was 5. She has been the executive director of the Walker’s Point Center for the Arts, where she works to use art as a mechanism to help bring down barriers and bring people together in conversation. Cultural identity is very important to Xela, who majored in creative writing at UW-Madison before returning to Milwaukee to pursue a career in non-profits. Xela leads the City of Milwaukee Arts Board for which she has won awards for her contributions. She also has co-chaired Latinas En Accion at the Women’s Fund of Greater Milwaukee where she has worked to help Latinas thrive in supportive environments.
Maria “MaDee” Lopez is an on-air personality for Madison’s 93.1 FM Jamz as well as a promotions coordinator, Website Designer, and Social Media Marketing specialist for La Movida 1480AM/94.5FM. Lopez has a Bachelor’s Degree in Audio Arts and Acoustics from Columbia College in Chicago. Lopez has been an advocate for hip hop around Dane County and was nominated for Radio Personality of the Year by the Madison Hip-Hop Awards. You can catch MaDee every saturday from 10am-2pm on 93.1FM.Juan Baez is a former Milwaukee Public Schools principal who led turnaround efforts at both Hopkins-Lloyd Community School and Alexander Mitchell Integrated Arts School. At these schools he worked to establish mentorship and leadership groups for boys. He has been a huge role model for black and brown students in Wisconsin and has attacked the black-white disparities in education. Baez was recently hired as the Director of the Black and Latino Male Achievement, a new initiative at MPS that is working to dig deep into the issues and Academic barriers Milwaukee’s Black and Latino males face. He serves as President for the Wisconsin Association for Bilingual Education as well. “We envision a time where our black and latino young men graduate from high school not only on time, but with an ability to embrace who they are, their identity, and also have the academic skills to navigate life,” Dr. Baez says.
Jose Sanchez started Sanchez Painting in Wauwatosa as a two-man operation nearly 20 years ago after completing an apprenticeship program in paints and coatings at Milwaukee Area Technical College in 1994. Since then, he’s grown the business into a multi-million dollar enterprise with more than 15 employees servicing major contractors on commercial and industrial construction projects. He’s fully embraced his role as a leader, and over the years has studied everything from human needs to meditation techniques, all in service of creating a productive and healthy workforce and thriving business.
Erika Villafuerte, Milwaukee, leads UnitedHealthCare’s statewide efforts to help people live healthier lives — especially underserved populations. She also runs Salud First, a social media platform providing bilingual motivational messages and reminders to help people prioritize and achieve their best possible health. Erika is also on the board of directors of the Milwaukee Food Council, which develops intentional, positive strategies for a healthy, affordable, equitable food system that nourishes our community and respects the environment.
Francisca Reyna of Beloit speaks at workplaces, faith organizations, local nonprofit organizations and community groups about financial wellness. As Vice President of Business Development and Education at Blackhawk Bank, Francisca makes financial education easy to understand and apply to everyday situations. Francisca has been Senior Sales Executive for Latin America and Pacific Rim, as well as serving on the Women’s Fund Advisory Board for the Stateline Community Foundation. She also stays very busy doing community service, serving on the board of directors for Junior Achievement of Wisconsin, the Women’s Fund Advisory Board, Blackhawk Technical College Advisory Board, the Stateline Community Foundation board of directors, and chair of the loan committee for the Blackhawk Region of NeighborWorks America.
Dr. Sylvestra Ramirez founded one of the only bilingual physical therapy practices in Wisconsin, Physical Therapy of Milwaukee. Sylvestra was raised on the South side of Milwaukee and graduated from Saint Anthony’s school. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, she went on to complete a Doctorate of Physical Therapy degree and a master’s degree in Women’s Health from Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science. She and her business have earned many awards and honors, including the Business of the Year award from the Wisconsin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in 2014 (just its second year in business), Milwaukee’s Business Journal 40 Under 40 Award, Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science: College of Health Professions Distinguished Alumnus of the Year 2016, .Department of Physical Therapy Alumnus of the Year Award for 2016, and in 2017, Wisconsin Outstanding Minority Business Enterprise Award.
Eugenia Podesta is a connection-maker! With husband Spencer Hudson, she owns and operates the appropriately-named Synergy Coworking on Madison’s West Side. She also serves as a Director on the Economic Empowerment & Entrepreneurship team at Vital Voices Global Partnership, an international women’s leadership NGO based in Washington, DC. Prior to joining Vital Voices, she led tourism development projects in Latin America and served as an advisor on strategy, project design, management, sustainability, and partnerships and business development. She has worked with the UW-Madison LAIP program to provide legal assistance to incarcerated persons and managed public policy and literacy programs for the Hispanic/Latino community with the United Way. In addition, she served as a Spanish instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Edgewood College.
Erika Colón is president of the Greater Milwaukee chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses, whose mission is to impact community health and wellness, mentor youth to encourage pursuit of careers in nursing, and to inspire, guide, and promote Hispanic nurses to seek higher education and leadership roles within health care systems and the nursing profession.
Mariana Rodriguez started the UMOS Latina Resource Center, Milwaukee’s first bilingual center for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, with one other advocate in 2001. In that first year, 75 women came through the doors looking for help. Now, a staff of more than a dozen intervenes to help more than 570 victims in crisis situations each year, providing immediate crisis support, safety planning and emotional support. Additionally, the organization serves more the 250 children and families in the court system providing victim advocacy to ensure victims receive justice and perpetrators are held accountable. In 2012, then-FBI Director Robert Mueller (yes, that Robert Mueller) recognized Mariana with a Community Leadership Award for her fearless advocacy for women and girls.
José Madera has served in different capacities as an Assistant Dean with the Student Academic Affairs division of the College of Letters and Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for the past ten years. He is currently serving as the Director of SySTEM (Synergy in STEM), an initiative that aims to expand historically underrepresented student participation and graduation in the STEM majors within the College of Letters & Science. Prior to that, he served as the Assistant Director of the Academic Advancement Program, a campus-wide academic support program deeply committed to the retention of all students and enrichment of their academic experience at UW-Madison. Born and raised in Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico, Madera developed his musical abilities while performing with groups specializing in Afro-Caribbean rhythms in a variety of cultural and classical events throughout the island. Madera is a founding member of BENTETÚ, Trova Viva and MadiSalsa, one of Madison’s favorite Latin bands.