Since our founding in 2015, we have published lists of the most influential Black and Latino leaders in Wisconsin, and last year, we expanded that to include our Indigenous and Asian American brothers and sisters. It’s been exciting and gratifying every time, and I’m excited to bring you today our 2021 Sí Se Puede list, recognizing the most influential Latino leaders in Wisconsin.
I have always intended these lists to highlight the beauty of the diversity in our community. I wanted young people here in Wisconsin to see role models in 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.
It’s also important to note the diversity within our Latino community. Some of the people you’ll get to know today are new Americans, some are children or grandchildren of immigrants, and some have ancestors going back centuries within the borders of what is now the United States. The 36 people we highlight this week come from every corner of this hemisphere – North, Central and South America and bring the full breadth of those diverse cultures to enrich Wisconsin.
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 a previous 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.
Henry Sanders, CEO and Publisher, 365 Media
Dr. Milton Javier Bravo is Vice President of Mission, Values and Inclusion at Edgewood College in Madison, a role he stepped into in September. He is a theologian who has served Catholic colleges and universities and faith-based non-profit organizations for more than a decade. Bravo’s experience in higher education includes service in enrollment management, campus ministry, mission integration, academic advising, student life, academic research, and undergraduate instruction in Theological and Philosophical studies. Milton has also served as an advocate for underrepresented populations and is active in religious, secular, and civic organizations. He is a member of the board of directors for the Academy of Hispanic Theologians in the United States, and Hope Border Institute, in El Paso, Texas. He is the former associate publisher at Commonweal Magazine, a lay-edited independent journal of opinion based in New York City. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Theology and Philosophy from St. Peter’s, a Catholic and Jesuit university in Jersey City, New Jersey. He earned a MA in Theology from the Immaculate Conception Seminary of Seton Hall University and doctoral degree from Fordham University, New York City.
Mario Garcia Sierra is the customer engagement and community development manager for Madison Gas and Electric. A native of Guatemala, Garcia Sierra is also the board president for Centro Hispano of Dane County. Previously, Garcia Sierra was also on staff at Centro from 2008 to 2012 where he was actively involved in the organization’s mission as director of programs.
Areli Estrada is executive director of Affordable Dental Care, the Madison-based nonprofit organization that provides low-cost dental care for those who lack insurance and those in need. She previously worked as a regional director for the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin for the Green Bay area and a student support coordinator at Madison College. A first-generation college graduate, she earned a bachelor’s degree in human development from the UW-Green Bay and a master’s degree in community development from UW-Madison.
Sylvia Ortiz Velez represents Milwaukee’s south side in the State Legislature, elected in November 2020. She has also served on the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors since 2018. She earned a B.A. in political science from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and worked as a real estate broker for several years in Milwaukee before being elected to the County Board. Born and raised on the south side, she also serves on the Advisory Board of the United Migrant Opportunity Services (UMOS)
Martina Gollin-Graves is President and CEO of Mental Health America of Wisconsin, an affiliate of the nation’s leading community-based non-profit dedicated to helping all Americans achieve wellness by living mentally healthier lives. After earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Alverno College in 2002, Martina began her career as a therapist, and went on to earn a master’s degree in social work from the UW-Milwaukee.
Ignacio Enriquez is the behavioral health officer with the Appleton Police Department. He’s been a police officer in Appleton for 13 years, including stints as a school resource officer and SWAT crisis negotiator. A licensed clinical therapist with a master’s degree in social work, Ignacio accompanies other officers on calls involving people with mental health needs. Since he took on this role in 2015, the number of emergency detentions has fallen 41 percent, despite an increase in the number of welfare checks and mental health calls.
Dina Zavala is Vice Chancellor for Diversity & Affirmative Action at UW-LaCrosse. Before coming to La Crosse in 2019, she was director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at Mayville State University, director of the Spanish program at Valley City State University and a teacher at both the elementary and high school levels. She received her bachelor’s degree in Modern Languages from UW River Falls, her Master of Arts in Instruction from St. Mary’s University-Minneapolis and her Ph. D. from North Dakota State University.
Paulo Moledo is a president at Madison-based Hy Cite Enterprises, responsible for the commercial operations in South America, global IT, corporate strategy and new product development. He has 30 years of experience in a variety of roles in Brazil and the United States at companies such as Ford, AOL, Avon and Revlon.
Juan Gomez is Vice President, Lending and Investments at Madison Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization that provides affordable, workforce housing and attainable business loans to the residents and businesses of Dane County. He assumed that role earlier this year after two years as capital finance officer for the State of Wisconsin and five years as technology investment manager for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. He earned a bachelor’s degree in economics in 2010 and MBA in 2015, both from UW-Whitewater.
Richie Morales is a self-taught visual artist originally from Guatemala. He has served as an artist in residence at Centro Hispano of Dane County, The Bubbler and Madison Public Library. He curated and coordinated the Latino Art Fair for the Latino Chamber of Commerce in 2018. Over the past decade he has exhibited at many spaces including Overture Center for the Arts, the Center for Social Justice, the Lincoln Belmont Public Library Branch in Chicago, and more, and was the Featured Artist at the YWCA Madison Annual Racial Justice Summit in 2015.
Elsa Díaz-Bautista is Executive Director at Alianza Latina Aplicando Soluciones (ALAS) in Milwaukee, and organization that seeks to promote the independence of individual with disabilities by providing information and support to them, their families and their service providers education, health and other areas. She joined the organization as a training coordinator in 2014 and took over as executive director just five months later. She previously worked as the Hispanic employment manager at the Federal Aviation Administration, a business consultant at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, and others. She earned degrees in engineering and physical sciences in 1994 and MBA in 1997, all from Kansas State University.
Laura Gutiérrez currently serves as the Executive Director at the United Community Center in Milwaukee. She returned in 2019 after many years there previously in a variety of roles including Assistant Principal and Director of Instruction at Bruce Guadalupe Community School, as well as classroom teacher and a Drug Prevention Outreach worker when she was just a teen at UCC’s New Beginnings Clinic. Just prior to returning to UCC, Laura was appointed Secretary of the Department of Safety and Professional Services for the state of Wisconsin in 2017. In this position she led a staff of more than 250, and managed a biennial budget of $100M. She grew up in Milwaukee and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from Carroll College and a Master of Arts in Leadership and Policy from Marquette University.
Robert Miranda is spokesperson for the Milwaukee-based non-profit organization Freshwater For Life Action Coalition (FLAC), which has been spearheading efforts to achieve policy changes in the Milwaukee Health Department, ensure the full replacement of lead service lines, and improve the local water utility’s approach to lead in drinking water. A longtime activist and advocate for Wisconsin’s Latinos, he also served as editor of the Spanish Journal.
Olga Diaz is Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Student Affairs at UW-Eau Claire, a role she just assumed this past summer. She came to Wisconsin from California, where she was director of student success and equity at Palomar College in San Marcos since 2015. She was familiar with the area before taking the job, though — her husband is native to Eau Claire and her father-in-law was a philosophy professor at UWEC. In addition to her duties as director of student success and equity at Palomar College, Diaz also took on the administrative role as interim dean of counseling for two years. Prior to her work at Palomar College, Diaz was director of employment services at Interfaith Community Services in North San Diego County and was a senior research analyst at Santa Clara University. Diaz also was involved in her community as she was the first elected person of color on the City Council in Escondido, California, where she served for 12 years. Diaz received her bachelor’s degree in accounting from Santa Clara University and her master’s degree in public administration from San Diego State University. She is enrolled in a doctoral program in organizational change and leadership at the University of Southern California.
Dr. German Gonzalez is director of the Great Lakes Inter Tribal Epidemiology Center in Lac du Flambeau. Dr. Gonzalez has been actively involved in the infection control field; he worked with the Georgia Infection Prevention Network as Public Health Liaison for the board of directors, and served as consultant for ICPs across GA. In addition, Dr. Gonzalez has promoted the advance of public health informatics at different levels, as public health practitioner and doctoral level professor of health and public health informatics at Walden University and through his participation in several different groups and workgroups at national level. In 2015 Dr. Gonzalez was advanced to the rank of Fellow at the American College of Epidemiology. Dr. Gonzalez has served as Official member of the Public Health Information Network (PHIN) – InfoLinks CoP, official CoP Council (CoPC) member. NACCHO’s Public Health Informatics and Biosurveilance workgroups and BioSense Governance Group. Dr. Gonzalez served as a member of the ePublic Health Informatics Workgroup (as SME) at NACCHO, and since August 2017, as the NACCHO representative at International Network for Epidemiology in Policy – INEP (formerly known as The International Joint Policy Committee of the Societies of Epidemiology [JPC-SE]) until he moved to the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Epidemiology Center.
Aissa Olivarez is managing attorney at Community Immigration Law Center in Madison, and also an adviser and facilitator at Step Up: Equity Matters. She earned her JD from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 2016 and worked at the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project before returning to Madison in 2018.
Dr. Silvia Romero-Johnson is Director of Bilingual Programs and Instructional Equity in the Verona Area School District. She has served in the education field in a variety of capacities including: Interim Chief Academic Officer and Assistant Superintendent for the Office of English Learners in the Boston Public Schools in Boston MA. As the Executive Director of the Office of Multilingual and Global Education in the Madison Metropolitan School District in Madison, WI, she led the district’s transition from transitional bilingual education to dual language immersion education. She was the principal of Nuestro Mundo Community School, MMSD’s first two-way bilingual immersion charter school. Currently, her work focuses on ensuring quality and rigorous instruction for multilingual learners, supporting leaders to become equity focused instructional leaders for multilingual learning, and the strategic planning for the improvement of services and programs for English/Multilingual Learners. She is an active participant of various organizations such as the American Educational Research Association, the Dual Language Immersion Research Alliance at American Councils, and the Massachusetts Association for Bilingual Education.
Robert Ramerez is director of community services operations at Ascension Health, where he provides operational oversight and strategic alignment for Ascension’s Community Services Clinic Division and leads clinic operations with a focus on strategic partnerships, joint ventures, direct service contracts, and return on investment. A Milwaukee native, he earned an associate’s degree in fire science from Milwaukee Area Technical College, a bachelor’s degree in public health from Kaplan University and MBA from Capella University. He began his career as Regional Trauma Advisory Council Coordinator at Froedtert Health, where he went on to serve as Diversity & Inclusion Coordinator from 2011-12. He joined Columbia St. Mary’s as Community Health Education Coordinator in 2012 and has been with the organization in various roles through its acquisition by Ascension.
Vanessa Llanas is deputy director of Governor Tony Evers’ Milwaukee Office, a role she just stepped into last month after more than five years as the southeast Wisconsin regional representative for US Senator Tammy Baldwin. She previously served as the community outreach manager for the City of Milwaukee and community program coordinator for Children’s Hospital of Wisconisn.
Francesca Mayca-Wegner is executive director of Hispanic Professionals of Greater Milwaukee, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing educational, career and leadership opportunities for Hispanics in Wisconsin. Before taking that role in April 2020, most recently served as senior director of development and communications for Sojourner Family Peace Center in Milwaukee. She previously served in various roles in Marquette University’s advancement department. A native of Des Plaines, Ill., Mayca Wegner earned her bachelor of science degree and master’s degree in business administration at Marquette University. She also studied abroad at La Universidad de Deusto San Sebastián in Spain. She also serves on the board of directors for the Washington County Humane Society, on the Marquette Hispanic-Serving Institution Advisory Committee and as a mentor in the Nativity Jesuit Academy Mentoring program.
Mayra Pasayes is a Scholars for Success coordinator at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton. The Scholars for Success program focuses on the retention and persistence of at-risk, low-income, multicultural students as well as other students who are part of marginalized populations. She was honored in 2018 with the college’s Martin Luther King Award. Before taking on Scholars for Success, she spent 15 years as Hispanic/Latino Cultural Support and Recruitment Specialist for both the Appleton Area School District and FVTC.
Shadayra Kilfoy-Floresis a longtime community activist in the Madison area and currently vice-chair of the new Police Civilian Oversight Board. An outspoken critic of the Madison Police Department, she can often be heard speaking up at Common Council meetings and other venues. She is also a mosaic artist who recently contributed to a massive mural in the Williamson Street neighborhood honoring eight lives lost to violence. She also serves on the board of the Marquette Neighborhood Association.
Eduardo Garza Jr. is President and CEO of the Center for Veterans Issues, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit that provides housing and supportive services to help improve the quality of life for military veterans, their families, and the communities in which they live and serve. Since joining CVI in May 2019, Garza has raised the center’s community profile and increased funding 25%. The organization has an $8.8 million annual budget, and its supporters include the Helen Bader Foundation, Home Depot, Harley-Davidson, Milwaukee Tool and BMO Harris Bank. During the 2020 Covid shutdown Garza and others kick-started CVI Help, a mobile app that matches vets to service providers. A San Diego native, he enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1999 and in early 2005 was selected for a direct commission as an intelligence officer. He mobilized to Baghdad during Operation Iraqi Freedom and was a lead Sunni intelligence officer in Iraq from May 2008 to April 2009. He recently completed his active duty obligation as the division officer within Navy Recruiting District Chicago.
Victor Vellecrez currently works as the commercial and development manager for Hovde Properties and was recently named chair of the board of the Wisconsin Latino Chamber of Commerce. He started the Madison Cusco Sister City Project and formed Mundo Esperanza, a nonprofit organization with a humanitarian and sustainable mission acting on a local and global level. He also previously served as board chair of Centro Hispano.
Maritza Contreras is strategic partnerships advisor at American Family Insurance, with prior experience at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin. Maritza is an alumna of the Chicago Public School system and Cristo Rey Jesuit High School. She graduated Cum Laude from Marquette University with a B.S. in Nursing and a minor in Information Technology. She serves on the Executive Committee of the Milwaukee Latino Health Coalition and is actively enrolled in the Future Milwaukee Community Leadership Program.
Edgar Mendez is a senior staff reporter for the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. He won a 2018 Regional Edward R. Murrow Award and 2014, 2017, and 2018 Milwaukee Press Club Awards for his reporting on taverns, marijuana law enforcement, and lead in water service lines. In 2008, he won a Society of Professional Journalists’ regional award for columns dealing with issues such as poverty, homelessness and racism. His writing has been published by the Associated Press, Reuters, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and other media.
Sister Melanie Maczka is a member of the Society of Sisters for the Church and founder of Casa ALBA Melanie, a Hispanic resource center for the greater Green Bay area. She began serving the Hispanic population of Green Bay in 1982 as an associate at St. Willebrord Catholic Parish. In February 2012, after 30 years of serving the Hispanic community of Green Bay, she founded Casa ALBA Melanie to act as a hub for information and referral, bringing together persons seeking assistance with service providers in the community. Casa ALBA resource center serves more than 300 people each month. Sister Maczka has served on several boards of directors, including for the YWCA, Aging and Disability Resource Center, Connecting our Community of Brown County, Migration Advocacy Committee. She has also been in charge of the Leadership and Ministry Program in Spanish of the Diocese of Green Bay. In 2015, at a ceremony held at the National Hispanic Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, Sister Melanie received the Ohtli Award, the highest recognition awarded by the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Justin Rivas leads community health initiatives for the Milwaukee Health Care Partnership, aiming to improve health outcomes and advance health equity through community-wide collaboration. In addition to overseeing Community Health Needs Assessment planning and Health Compass Milwaukee, Justin supports the Partnership’s Racial and Health Equity Council and serves as the program director for the Milwaukee Enrollment Network. Justin previously served as Network Strategist and Community Coach for County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, a collaboration of the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. His role included providing strategic guidance and training in support of data-driven and evidence-based community action planning for health improvement, as well as developing national partnerships aimed at addressing health issues for Latinos. In a prior role at the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Center for AIDS Intervention Research, he coordinated mixed methods health research and led community interventions for underserved populations in Milwaukee. Justin holds a Master of Public Health degree from the Zilber School of Public Health at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, as well as a Master of International Public Affairs degree from the LaFollette School at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has been an active board member of the Wisconsin Public Health Association and has presented at local, state and national public health conferences.
Rosario Ibarra is general manager of Grotegut Dairy Farm in Manitowoc County. Her dairy career started in 2005 when she was going to school for agronomy at Tecnológico de Monterrey – Campus Querétaro in Mexico because they had a partnership with UW-Madison. The school would bring students from Mexico up to Wisconsin so they could learn about the dairy industry. After stints in Argentina and northwest Wisconsin, she and her husband settled in Manitowoc County where she oversees an operation that cares for 5,000 animals.
Tammy Rivera is executive director of the Southside Organizing Center in Milwaukee. For more than 25 years she has provided strategic and operational leadership across several communities and organizations including: United Community Center, SER Jobs for Progress, Hunger Task Force of Milwaukee, United Cerebral Palsy of SEW, Girls Scouts of Milwaukee Area, Voces de la Frontera, and more. In 2008, she opened a consulting firm named Xecutiva to provide executive level consulting and services to organizations and professionals. She has also taught preschool, alternative education, adult basic education, and undergraduate and graduate courses. She holds a certificate in organizing; a certificate in Bible studies; graduated Summa Cum Laude with a bachelor’s degree in Community Education; has a Master’s degree in Administrative Leadership where she was on fellows; and has entered the final stages of her Ph. D. in Adult and Continuing Education, with a minor in higher education, and a certificate in Teaching and Learning (focused on online learning) where she also has been a continuous fellow. Her dissertation research is focused on Latina leadership.
Cristhabel Martinez is executive director of Dreamers of Wisconsin, an organization founded to support undocumented students at the University of Wisconsin that has recently expanded its reach statewide. Cristhabel expects to earn a master’s degree in social work next year after earning a bachelor’s degree in social work this year with certificates in criminal justice, education policy and global health. She has been an AVID tutor with the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County and volunteered as a children’s advocate with DAIS, intake volunteer at Dodge County Jail and Circle of Support volunteer with JustDane.
Dulce Maria Danel is the Associate Manager of Community Engagement at Madison College. Previously, she served as the Lead Student Recruitment and Community Outreach Coordinator. Before Madison College, Dulce served as the Admissions Communications and Marketing Coordinator and New Student Seminar Instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. A Texas native, Dulce is a first generation college student who received her master’s in Communication from the University of Texas-Pan American. Before starting her career in education, she worked in the basketball industry with NCAA D1 and NBA G-League teams. She also serves on the Board of Governors for the Goodman Community Center on Madison’s east side.
Barbara Cerda is Southeastern Wisconsin Cooperative Organizer at Citizen Action Wisconsin. She was born and raised on the south side and attended Milwaukee Public Schools. Barbara is a proud Alverno College Alumna and obtained her B.A. in Community Leadership and Development in December 2017. Most recently, she obtained a Non-Profit Board Leadership Certificate through the United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County’s Project LEAD (Leadership, Effectiveness, and Diversity) Program. Barbara serves on the Board of Directors for Civitas Law Group, Inc. and is an Exhibit Curator/Lead Coordinator for the Wisconsin Hispanic Scholarship Foundation, Inc./Mexican Fiesta. She is the founder of La Revo Books and Barby The Book Fairy, a program that focuses on providing empowering and culturally relevant literature to families in the Milwaukee community, particularly in ZIP codes 53215 and 53204.
Darryl Morin is President & CEO of Advanced Wireless, Inc. serving customers in 14 countries. In addition to his professional efforts, Mr. Morin serves as president and board chair of Forward Latino, sits on the Board of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and the Milwaukee Jewish Museum, as Board Secretary of Employ Milwaukee and as Vice Chair of the Board at the Hmong American Peace Academy, our nation’s largest Hmong-focused educational institution. For his many philanthropic efforts Mr. Morin was named Hispanic Man of the Year by UMOS, named a “Friend of Education” by the State of Wisconsin, named to the United Way of Greater Milwaukee’s “Philanthropic Five,” and more. Darryl is a charter member of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee Justice for Immigrants Committee and founding member of the Latino-Jewish Alliance. He also served as LULAC National VP-Midwest and was responsible for all advocacy and service programs for the 12-state region. Mr. Morin is a graduate of the University of North Texas and is a proud husband and father to two sons.
Hedi Lamarr Rudd is director of the Badger Rock Community Center and director of South Madison programs at Rooted, as well as a well-known community photographer, capturing the stories of communities of color through her lens. In 2001, she joined former Mayor Sue Bauman’s staff as the Study Circle on Race Relation’s Coordinator, a program recommended by the task force. Hedi served two terms on the City of Madison Equal Opportunities Commission and was a staff member of the City of Madison Affirmative Action Department, prior to the creation of the Office of Civil Rights. After living in Las Vegas for 6 years, where she worked at Nevada Cancer Institute in various Executive Administrative positions, she returned to Madison and community organizing. Hedi is the 2019 recipient of Forward Community Investments Nan Cheney March for Justice Award.
Pastor Pedro Ruiz Jr. is pastor of Iglesia Restauración Y Vida in Madison, and a Community Development Block Grant Program Specialist for Dane County. He helped launch the County’s Immigration Assistance Office in 2017 and later that year was one of the Madison area’s church leaders to lead relief efforts for hurricane survivors in Texas and Florida.
Who’d we miss? Email your suggestions for next year’s list to [email protected]!