A New Immigrant
“As a philanthropist, I believe in creating opportunities for others – in fostering a sense of empowerment. In essence: teach someone to fish so they’ll never go hungry. This is what Hispanic Unity of Florida (HUF) is all about – and this is
I arrived in Broward County in 1960, one of a few Hispanic families in the area. In the years that followed, I worked hard to become a part of the community, and established myself in a successful sales career.
Over time, I witnessed the struggles of others like myself, and did my best to help them integrate. I provided translations, legal referrals, whatever people needed. One thing was clear: immigrants needed somewhere to turn.
It all began in 1983 at a “cocktail party.” This unconventional gathering was held at a real estate office in Davie, a modest spot in a mall populated with Hispanic-owned businesses. The informal meeting included seven or eight other people who were tirelessly devoted to helping refugees. I immediately recognized the magnitude of their cause, and I knew this was a group I had to be a part of.
These dedicated advocates shared that they had hundreds of people who needed their help – but no money or resources. I dove in, eager to help. After many attempts, we finally secured a $30K grant from the refugee program, run by Broward County Human Services Division and led by Ellen Rodriguez, an American woman married to a Cuban. The funds supported two part-time employees – and HUF was officially off the ground.
Helping Refugees in Need
Our first task was to find work for the Marielitos, the mass emigration of Cubans in 1980; their number had reached over 100,000 in Miami. Many came to us for help with job opportunities, but we quickly discovered that other basic needs were going unmet. HUF was still struggling with funding and leadership. I was impatient, as I remembered all too well what it was like to be alone in a new place, surviving on 10 cent Royal Castle hamburgers.
There was still so much fear, and very little acceptance of Hispanics. Cubans had no home to return to, and they needed us. Refugees did not know how to navigate the various systems of this country – the banking system, the health or school systems, the credit system, etc. Maybe we couldn’t place everyone in a job, but we could certainly provide support by helping them with basic tasks. My stubbornness wouldn’t let me give up; I was inspired to make HUF succeed!
Bound and Determined
At the time, the Hispanic population in Broward County was being overlooked, and most of the funding for refugees went to Miami-Dade. I set out to visit the county and area cities, determined to advocate for the plight of new immigrants. It took patience and a lot of compassion, but with time we gained some stability.
One major victory came when HUF started teaching ESL – English as a Second Language. Many critics pointed at Hispanics as not wanting to learn English, but we proved otherwise. All they needed was a tool! We quickly enrolled a large number of students, which brought us to the attention of the school board, which started supporting us.
“As HUF began to expand, it became clear that we needed a larger space. With much convincing, the City of Hollywood Commissioners agreed to help us purchase our very first building – an old social security office. We finally had a home of our own! This is where HUF resides to this day.”
Working from a larger space gave us stability, but the job was far from complete. We needed more money and leadership, so we launched HispanicFest in 1987. Despite being rained out on our first attempt, the event became a resounding success. We had streams of cars and long lines of people in the streets to enter the park for the first event; we were so proud. Later, we launched a gala as well. While HUF’s work was still a monumental task, it felt like things were beginning to fall into place.
New Obstacles Emerge
Unfortunately, we still couldn’t afford to pay a CEO with the talent and experience we needed, and new challenges began to emerge. In addition, the census only reported a small number of Hispanics, so we lacked representation.
At this time, the board actually considered closing HUF’s doors. We were being pushed to the edge, and after years of hard work, it was very painful. Thankfully, supporters and members of the board volunteered to run the organization for years, and that helped us pull through.
A Critical Time
The turning point finally came when I applied for a United Way grant, and they funded one of our programs! Finally, our mission was getting the recognition it deserved. We also received support at the county level through Dan Schevis, and soon thereafter from the Community Foundation of Broward.
Other private non-governmental entities eventually joined the cause, including Mr. and Mrs. Moran and JM Family Enterprises (they later created The Jim Moran Foundation), who are always very much in tune with the needs of the community. I am especially, deeply grateful to them and JM Family. Their funding and support represented “the seal of approval” and recognition from a private corporation.
Dreams Come True
HUF’s 35th anniversary feels like the realization of my dream. I’ve had many challenges as a business woman and as a professional in a male-dominated world – but HUF’s mission was as important to me as my own family. I dedicated countless hours to making this organization a success and it paid off. I have deep faith in God and I know the many blessings I’ve received.
When I invited Josie Bacallao to be part of the Board many years ago (she’s served as CEO since 2004), I believed in her tenacity, passion and know-how to carry out the mission of HUF for years to come.
HUF is proof that the only thing people need is guidance. Show them the way, and they will succeed. I know this because that’s what I – and the rest of the HUF team – have been doing for three-and-a-half decades, with incredible, life-changing results. No matter what, never give up!
– The End –
Maria Sanjuan – HUF’s Driver of Growth