photography by Brandon Dill
He couldn’t have lost his real estate job at a worse time. The father of three children, with a wife due to deliver the fourth baby any day, Mauricio Calvo knew he had to earn some income. Facing a slow housing market and a stagnant economy, he was grateful to find work frying chicken for a few months at Chik-fil-A in Germantown. “You do what you have to do,” he says. As good fortune would have it, he was also volunteering at the time for Latino Memphis, and when the director resigned to take a teaching job, Calvo was offered the position. “I accepted,” he says, “and it’s the best job I’ve ever had.”
That was in 2008, and since then the 38-year-old former small business owner with a quick smile and contagious zest has been spreading the word about the nonprofit organization’s goals and partnerships. And he can’t praise his adopted city highly enough.
“I found Memphis such a wonderful place,” says Calvo, a native of Mexico City. He recalls his first day here in 1993, as a student at Christian Brothers University where he’d enrolled on a scholarship to study business. “It was hot, and I remember the smell of mulch,” he adds with a laugh. “Whenever I smell mulch, my mind goes to day one, when I fell in love with CBU and with Memphis.” He also fell in love with his wife, Yancy — but that came after they built a solid friendship. “I married my best friend,” he says. The couple married in October 2001, right after the attacks of 9/11. “We realized that you never know what might happen,” says Calvo.
As head of Latino Memphis, which was founded in 1995 and has three staff members, Calvo guides the organization toward its mission to “connect, collaborate, and advocate for the betterment of the Hispanic community” in the areas of health, education, and justice. “We respond to about 10,000 calls a year from people needing help,” he says. “They want to know how do they get their kids in school, how do they sign up for TennCare, how do they find places such as the Church Health Center or Christ Community Health Services.”
While the U.S. census shows 5 percent of the Memphis population is Hispanic, Calvo says, “if you look at the whole metro area, including parts of Desoto County, the rate is about 10 percent. And Memphis City Schools show that one in six students are Latinos.” (Calvo explains that while the terms are often used interchangeably, “Hispanic” refers to the language, while “Latino” refers to the whole culture.)
As Latino Memphis helps individuals connect, it also collaborates with local leaders in government, business, and education. “We partner with both mayors, the police chief, the health department, school principals,” says Calvo. “To anyone who is a decision maker, we advocate for Latinos. And we really appreciate how people listen and want to reach our community. I’d be living on a cloud if I said everybody loves us, but Memphis is great. If someone tells you this city isn’t welcoming, they’re lying.”
"We really appreciate how people listen and want to reach our community. I'd be living on a cloud if I said everybody loves us, but Memphis is great. If someone tells you this city isn't welcoming, they'd be lying." — Mauricio Calvo
He further believes that whatever is good for the Hispanic community is good for Memphis and the entire nation. That includes education. “The common denominator with all immigrants is they want to pursue the American dream and they are willing to adapt to improve their lives. But they need the tools for it,” he emphasizes, “and that’s why education is so important. We’ve been chosen as one of 13 sites for a national project, sponsored by the Lumina Foundation, called Latino Student Success. Over four years, we will be finding the dropouts and trying to learn why we are losing them. We’ll be identifying the children who aren’t getting into pre-kindergarten. We’ll be talking about what programs are working and what’s not, what’s helping and what’s challenging.”
Among those collaborating with Latino Memphis on the project are the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, both mayors’ offices, the principal of Kingsbury High School, FedEx, and the Community Foundation. “It’s not me saying on the six o’clock news that we need to improve the rate of Latinos going to college,” says Calvo. “It’s all of us. If we want this city and country to move forward, we have no choice but to prepare Latinos for college. And that will benefit Memphis.”
Lack of education isn’t the only factor holding Hispanics back. Perhaps the most significant, says Calvo, is lack of trust. “I can tell people all day long that if they’re a victim of domestic violence or of any crime, the police can help. The police are not here to turn them in to immigration. But they still don’t want to call.”
To change these misconceptions, Latino Memphis collaborates with the police and sheriff’s department. Each week, two police officers, one of whom speaks Spanish, come to Latino Memphis’ offices on Mt. Moriah to answer questions. “I’m very pleased with outreach by law enforcement,” says Calvo. “Whether it’s about a traffic ticket or human trafficking, they work with us to help connect people to the legal system.”
Like those for whom he advocates, Calvo came to the U.S. from Mexico City “because I wanted something different. We weren’t poor; my family was middle-class, but I wanted something better.” His first stay was as a high-school exchange student in Lima, Ohio, where he learned English.
In Memphis, after graduating from CBU, he tried his hand running his own businesses in food distribution and wholesaling. “Those didn’t work out,” he says, “but I learned some lessons. I’d do it my way instead of accepting help or advice. At Latino Memphis, I’m all about partnering.”
The organization is funded by United Way, the Women’s Foundation, and several corporate sponsors, including FedEx, Nike, and International Paper. It also has an anonymous donor through the Community Foundation. “We’re very grateful for these,” says Calvo, “and we’d really like to increase our base of individual donors within the Latin community. We need to do a better job of asking them to help the agency that supports them.”
Regarding the national immigration policy, Calvo says, “It’s broken. A comprehensive overhaul is desperately needed. I think that’s about the only part that everybody agrees on. The reform in our opinion should address three areas: border security, Latinos already in the country, and future immigrants. As with anything else, we will all have to compromise. To be truly American, the policy must keep human dignity and economic facts as guiding compasses.”
Regarding the national immigration policy, Calvo says, "It's broken. A comprehensive overhaul is desperately needed."
In the next breath, Calvo turns from policy making to partying, reminding readers of the upcoming 5K run — officially known as The Second Annual “Cinco K Mayo” 5K — on May 5th at Shelby Farms. “We’ll have music and a salsa-making competition,” says Calvo. “Teams will make it right on site and we’ll have awards for best hot, best mild, and ‘people’s choice.’” Runners and salsa teams can sign up at latinomemphis.org or racesonline.com. As for Cinco de Mayo itself, he explains, “It’s not like Independence Day,” which is celebrated September 15th. “It signifies a battle the Mexicans won against the French in 1862. It’s really a bigger deal in the U.S. than in Latin countries.” Then Calvo adds with a hearty laugh: “We wondered what Americans love about Cinco de Mayo; we used to think it was because it was easy to pronounce. Then we decided it was a good day to sell beer!”
Looking back on the years he’s lived in Memphis, Calvo declares, “My wife and I could go anywhere else but we love this place. I’m here by choice. Like every city, it has its challenges. But it truly has so much potential. And if the Latino community doesn’t move forward faster, in great part it’s because we are not taking advantage of the support that’s offered here.”