Gianella Romero

Basic Interview Metadata

Interview Text and Audio


Gianella Romero is the current Executive Director at El Centro Latino in Hickory, North Carolina. She begins the interview by talking about herself, her family roots, and her journey from being in the healthcare field to transitioning into her current role as Executive Director in the non-profit sector. Gianella also discusses her Mexican-American identity and her experience growing up in Catawba County. She shares what the K-12 education system was like for her as someone with Latin American roots and recounts the struggles she faced in a predominantly white elementary school. She explains what it was like navigating higher education and the workplace, and figuring out her career path, sharing the lack of direction she often times experienced. Gianella speaks in depth about starting off in the healthcare industry, the challenges she experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic, and her career shift into the non-profit industry. She closes the interview by speaking on the resources being provided by El Centro Latino, the programs and services she and her team are currently working on, and the challenges that many of the Spanish-speaking community members in Catawba County are facing.



Marisa Carlton: Ok. My name is Marisa Carlton. Today is April 20, 2022. I’m here with Gianella Romero. She is the Executive Director at El Centro Hispano [Latino] here in Hickory, North Carolina. Gianella, thank you for, you know, doing this interview with me and let’s get started. So, first I just want to ask, [00:28] tell me a little about yourself. I don’t know a lot about you. So, tell me a little bit about yourself and about your family roots and where you’re from, where you were born.
Gianella Romero: Yeah, absolutely. So, I’m Gianella. I go by Ginny. So, I introduce myself to different people differently but I need to work on that. So, my parents are both Mexican. They migrated to California. That’s where they had my oldest sister and me. I was only a month old when they moved over to North Carolina. My dad came first and then my mom followed after. I was raised in Hickory-slash-Newton, North Carolina. So, I mean this is home. This is my native town. I grew up here. I went to school in Winston Salem. I went to Winston Salem State University. Go Rams! [laughs] So, I’m a Ram. I went there. I got, then, you know, graduated. Stayed there a little bit, decided to start looking at grad school. My undergrad degree was actually in exercise physiology. So, I swore up and down I was going to be an athletic trainer. I thought I was going to be an exercise physiologist at a hospital. I, you know, didn’t really have a clear path to what I wanted to do. So, then I ended up getting into grad school. I was between UNC Greensboro and Lenoir Rhyne University for their athletic training program. I ended up--Lenoir Rhyne just made more sense. My mom was here. I could save some money living with her. So, I was just, it just made sense for me to come home. I was like, you know family is the most important thing. My sister had already moved back home. And this is, you know, it’s home. That’s part of our Latin American roots I think that we still hold dear to us, it’s just-- the culture. We tend to stay close to family, you know? I tried moving away and it wasn’t for me. So, I ended up coming back, did a semester at Lenoir Rhyne and decided I absolutely did not want to be an athletic trainer. I felt miserable. It was just not for me. I felt so crushed. I just didn’t know what was next. I ended up getting an entry level job at Frye Regional, the local hospital and it was an outpatient facility. Checking people in. Insurance verification. Still on the medical side because I was like, ok I still want to stay in, you know, healthcare. I ended up meeting a couple guys who were doing the MBA program at Lenoir Rhyne University and they pretty much-- I didn’t know that was an option. I didn’t know I could do the Masters in Business Administration with an undergrad degree that didn’t have to do with business. So, you know, learning through them and just kind of asking them questions. They hyped me up essentially. They’re like, no you can do it! You can get your MBA, get a healthcare concentration. You know, it’ll be worth it. I am so grateful for those guys. They’re amazing. They’re back home. They’re in Georgia but, you know, they influenced me to get my MBA, to pursue that. I got into my MBA program not really sure where I was going with it. I ended up in one of the classes my last semester there. It was with Michael Blackburn. He, essentially the class was, he took us to meet with other--it was a leadership class. He took us to meet other CEOs, meet nonprofit executive directors, and that’s when I learned, I want to be a CEO. I want to be an executive director, and then I didn’t know what kind of director I wanted to be. I didn’t know what kind of leadership I wanted to do. And that’s when I met the CCM, the Cooperative Christian Ministry executive director at the time. And I was just amazed at her, her leadership, what the mission, what their goals were, what her goals were as an individual for the organization. And I think that when they kind of just, I wanted to be in nonprofit. At that time, I had transitioned from that entry level job to business office position in senior healthcare. So, still healthcare. It was a long-term care facility here in Hickory. They gave me my first opportunity, you know, it was a salary job. I was so excited. Super grateful. So that’s kind of where my career stemmed off while I was in the MBA course. I kind of just started growing within my career in senior healthcare. I ended up graduating with my MBA, you know, I was like, what’s next? My employer at the time allowed me to take the AIT program within the company which is just Administrator in Training. I got licensed to be a nursing home administrator for the state of North Carolina. So, I am licensed! I can run a nursing home, any long-term care facility in North Carolina. I did that for a little bit. You know, I became an Executive Director for a sister facility in Taylorsville and then I realized I want to do--I want to have a bigger impact. I want to support these seniors in any and every way that I can and it starts from the top. So, after I got that license I, you know, kind of reached out to my boss. I asked her you know, what else is there for me? And I started traveling, going to different facilities. Just kind of implementing the company, state regulations. Making sure that the facilities, the communities were in compliance and if they weren’t I had to, essentially turn it around. So that’s kind of where my career was and then, throughout this entire journey, the pandemic happened and I was working seven days a week and I was working eighteen-hour days. I feel like, I can blame a little bit, the pandemic. I got a little burnt out. So, around the end of last year I started searching and I knew that I wanted to get into something that still meant, you know, still had meaning behind it. I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. It didn’t have to-- I never believed that I can change the world but I believed that I could change at least one person’s world in a positive way. So, around November of last year, of 2021 is when I kind of just started looking at which direction I could go. I felt like I had so many options yet it was so limited [laughs]. I didn’t know. I wasn’t really sure. I’ve had some really great people in my personal life, my career, they’ve guided me, they’ve shown me that there is so many more options than just what I thought. I grew up thinking, I just wasn’t sure what I was going to do. My parents came to this country. They wanted my sisters and I to have a better future. They wanted us to do better than they did. So, to me, I was like, if I can be a bank teller, a banker--I was very limited to what I knew career-wise I could do. I didn’t know only based off what I can see here and that was just being a teacher, being a banker, being a teller. And I just never really knew. Other kids would be like, I want to be a doctor! I want to be a scientist! I wasn’t sure that that was realistic for me, you know? I remember classmates saying, I want to be the director, the CEO. I had no idea what that meant. [laughs] It wasn’t until my later days in life, when I was already in my career, that I learned that yeah, there’s a lot more for me that I can do. And then Centro Latino, I learned through somebody that I know that they were searching for an Executive Director. I looked at the job description, the qualifications and I said, I meet all of those. And then I kind of just had to sit back and question. I didn’t apply right away cause I was like, would I be good for this role? Am I fit for this? Am I qualified, even though I checked all the boxes? I had to kind of sit back and question, like, I would be leaving the healthcare industry all together. And it’s just different. It’s just different in many ways. It’s similar, but different. And so, I just wasn’t sure that I was a good fit for it. I started talking to my fiancé’s mom who’s very involved in the community. She’s very giving and very loving, and she’s very--she’s a great Christ-like person and I love her and I want to be like her. [laughs] So I started talking to her. I was hesitant because I wasn’t sure, you know? She has experience with this stuff and I didn’t have anybody to fall back on in this area of my career. So then, I just went ahead and submitted my resume, my cover letter, my references and like I said, I felt like I had everything. Till’ this day, I am very capable to do this job. I’m very confident in myself, but there’s those days that I have the imposter syndrome. That I’m like, what am I doing? Who do I think I am doing this? You know what I mean? So, it’s been a journey. It’s been a very long, great, beautiful, stressful, tearful, amazing journey. It’s been great. It’s been amazing.
MC: Yeah! That, I mean, that’s incredible. Just hearing the way that you got to where you are now, it’s really incredible. You touched on a lot of really great things that I want to kind of go back on and talk about. I guess we can start with, tell me a little bit more about your parents. You said that they’re from Mexico. [10:20] Tell me a little bit more about those roots and your family and maybe why they chose to move to the US.
GR: Yeah. Absolutely. So, both of my parents are from el Estado de Mexico. People confuse it with Mexico City. It’s el Estado de Mexico. It’s-- they’re very close to Guerrero. We have the tierra caliente roots. Grew up listening to tierra caliente, banda, grupos, all that. Very Mexican [laughs]. Very proud. No, so they’re both from there. My dad, he was a teenager when he first crossed the border. He’s been in the US longer than he’s been in his home country. My mom also she was trying to get into nursing but she unfortunately, due to poverty and just the lack of resources, she wasn’t able to fulfill that dream of hers. So, ultimately, you know, she had her journey, her life but ultimately decided to move to the US in search of that American Dream. I think it was my aunt’s husband had crossed the border, and she realized that was an option. She wanted to follow it. Both of my parents had the idea that they’d eventually go back home. Just save a little money and then we’ll head back home but luckily my dad was in the country when they did the amnesty. So, he was able to get his green card, and through marriage back when it was easier to get a green card through marriage, my mom was able…‘cause they met in California, got married, had my older sister. Then, a couple of years later, I came in the picture. My mom and dad decided, you know, a lot of things were happening in California at the time, in Los Angeles to be specific. The gangs, the violence, the lack of opportunities. It just--my parents knew that they wanted--they always knew they wanted more. I don’t know if they knew exactly what that “more” was, but they knew they wanted more and at that time they had my older sister and they had me and they knew it was time to get out of California. So, my dad had a plan to stop in North Carolina, stop in a couple other states and eventually end up in Florida, ‘cause he knew people from back home from Mexico who moved to these states. So, ultimately, he ended up coming here, fell in love. He tells me how Hickory, it was so green, like Spring’s Row. There was only trees. There was no stores. There was like, practically no Latinos, no Mexicans, no Hispanic people. You could count them with the fingers on your hands. We always drive by on Startown Road because they eventually ended up moving to Newton which is essentially where I ended up growing up. I went to Startown Elementary School. I was the third brown kid in my class.
MC: Wow.
GR: One was a biracial girl. She was black and white. Another girl, she was Hispanic descent but didn’t really speak Spanish. So, I like to consider myself the only Hispanic kid in my grade at that time. It was very different. But yeah, my parents they decided well, it was just time to move to Hickory, North Carolina and plant their roots, and eventually my younger sister was born here and she was raised in Hickory. Yeah, I mean, it’s been a journey. I don’t know how much detail you want from my parents’ life. They had a pretty rough life. My dad, he, you know, I just can’t imagine the trauma. The, you know, there’s stuff that we’re just now, as a society, starting to talk about. But, you know, it’s easy for us first gens who are exposed to certain stuff that our parents just weren’t. Like health care, mental health, that stuff. Even physical health, you know? Just eating healthy in general just hasn’t been a topic for at least our parents for the longest time. I think now it is. My mom’s super, she tries the green juices, let’s eat less red meat, no pork. But, you know, again, those aren’t things that they were exposed to in Mexico. It’s something they were exposed to here in the USA. So, it’s been a journey. [laughs]
MC: Do you remember what year it was that you moved here? Or--
GR: To North Carolina? It was in 1994.
MC: Ok and you were five years old?
GR: No, I was only a month old. [laughs]
MC: Oh, ok! So, you were a baby?
GR: Yeah! California was just my birthplace. I was born in Los Angeles California but I can’t claim the culture, you know? California has its own LA culture. I can’t claim any of it.
MC: Yeah.
GR: I was raised in Hickory. [laughs]
MC: Well, let’s touch on that a little bit. What was that like for you? You mentioned being one of three people of color growing up here and this is maybe back when Catawba County didn’t have a large Latino population yet. I know now it’s--
GR: --it’s grown! --
MC: --growing.
GR: Yeah! Absolutely.
MC: So, tell me about, you know, that experience for you. [15:34] What was that like being one of the only few Latino people growing up maybe in the education system in schools? Did you feel accepted by your peers? What was that like for you?
GR: It was definitely--[knock on door]
MC: We can pause.
GR: Ok.
MC: Yeah.
GR: Sorry.
MC: That’s ok.
[00:16:00] [Pauses recording for about 3 minutes]
[00:16:01] [Resumes recording]
GR: Ok, so, being one of the three people of color, and I remember this was in kindergarten and obviously it got better. I think I was in third grade when I realized I wasn’t the only one--no. Might’ve been second grade. A girl from our church moved to Newton and she ended up being one of the students. By third grade there was a handful of Latino, Hispanic people. More people of color. So, I think this was back in the early 2000s when I was in elementary school. It was definitely a culture shock for me because I did start my kindergarten school year at Oakwood Elementary near Downtown Hickory and that class, I hardly ever spoke English. I was in there my cousins. I was in there with my, you know, neighborhood kids, everybody who grew up in that same apartment complex was going there. So, you know, it felt like home. I was just spending the day with, you know, with my neighbors, with my friends. And then halfway through the year we ended up moving to Newton. That’s when I started at a different school, predominantly white. I didn’t speak for about a week. I remember just not--I don’t remember clearly. I can’t claim to remember, but it’s just one of the memories that did stick with me was me not wanting to talk to anybody there. I didn’t want to. I didn’t feel comfortable. I didn’t want to talk to them. The teachers talked to me like I was slow. They didn’t know I spoke English. [laughs] So, I remember one day, I think it was like a week or two after I had already been attending school there, they kind of just let me be. I would mind my own business and kind of--yeah. I don’t remember clearly how I was interacting with anyone or not but I do remember that she started going through my bookbag and was pulling out my planner and then that’s when I spoke to her for the first time. And she was like oh! You do speak English! She was just so shocked. And I looked at her and was like, yeah! I do! And then after that I remember I could not stand her. [laughs] I was a sassy little kid. But then you know, my parents talked to me. They’re like no, you have to understand they don’t know. You know, you’re probably the only one there but, you know? They weren’t sure what it looked like. They knew it was predominantly white cause obviously they signed us up for the school but they just wanted better for us. So, they were just, it’s ok. She’ll learn. You’ll learn and I was like ok. Let that go, you know. It was fine. I got over it. [laughs] And then I think relatively I had a pretty quote unquote “normal” childhood. I always had friends. I never felt hated or discriminated against, and if I was being discriminated against, I just didn’t notice it. I think it wasn’t until I hit middle school when that kind of really became a thing. The Latinos wanted to hang out with the Latinos. The black and the black. The Hmong and the Hmong. And you know, the whites with the whites. But I think, you know, I don’t know. Maybe I was just lucky and blessed that my group of friends was always very diverse. I always had a diverse group of friends. I always had-- I don’t know. I felt like that was going to be the norm. Going into middle school and everyone’s divided, ‘cause that’s what it looked like from an elementary school kid going into middle school. I was like, oh my gosh I don’t think I’m ready for that. But it ended up not being like that at all. It was very…I’ve always personally felt included and I don’t know if that’s just my personality…It could be a bunch of factors that factor in and make that difference. But there’s always that-- where are you from? You know? In high school I went to Challenger Early College High School. That was something in itself, too. [Laughs] My journey has been--I don’t know, it sounds crazy. I don’t know if its special or anything, but going to Challenger Early College High School I feel like I remember thinking, I’m going to graduate. I’m going to have my Associates degree. I don’t need anything else. I’m fine. I will get a job and I’ll be happy. But I think it was in high school when I realized that I want more than just that. Throughout my journey there, I was like, I want more. I don’t think that that’s it for me. I knew that that wasn’t it. You know, I kept telling myself that, you know, no after high school I’m done. I’m going to have my Associates degree. I don’t need to do anything else. I’ll join the military or do something. And I was like, I’ll be fine. And then as time got closer for me to start looking for colleges, I had no direct, clear path at all. I didn’t know. Everybody else is applying for colleges. They’re talking about our resumes, our community service hours. You gotta do this. You gotta do that to graduate. And, you know, I appreciate Challenger now. It’s definitely shaped me into the person that I am, but I didn’t know that at the time. I was just--this is it for me. I don’t know. Because, you know, I think that’s where the conversation of where representation matters. I didn’t see people who looked like me doing anything else other than, every now and then you’d see a teacher. You’d see a banker, you’d go to the grocery store and there’s a manager, but I guess I wasn’t exposed to it to the degree that other people knew that they wanted to pursue law. They wanted to pursue, you know, bioengineering. All these things that I just didn’t know anything about and I just felt like I was cruising through life just kind of, whatever happens, happens, you know?
MC: Yeah.
GR: And I just remember my parents always telling me--I could just hear them still in my ears. It’s very clear. My dad like, tu puedes. Tu puedes. He’d call me flaca. Like, tu puedes flaca. Or my mom, Gianelita. She’d be like, whatever you want to do. But then I had a counselor in high school. She was, like, you have to apply to at least-- I don’t remember how many schools she told me I had to apply to before I wasn’t going to be allowed to graduate. And I was like, ok, fine. Cause I didn’t have any plans on applying to any school. I was like that’s not for me. What am I going to do there? I’m just just another-- I hate to say it this way, but this was my mentality. I’m just another brown kid. What am I going to go do there? I just didn’t feel like that was something for me. But I always grew up hearing my dad and my mom telling me, you’re going to go to college. You’re going to do better than us. You’re going to have a better future. You’re going to do better because we couldn’t do better. And so, I just kind of knew I had to go to college, but I didn’t know how to do that. And when I was in high school that counselor was like, you won’t graduate until you apply to x amount of schools. I applied. I got accepted. And I was like, oh! Cool! I didn’t think I’d get accepted. So, I’m like, the fact that I got accepted in the first place was just amazing. I was like, woah! Maybe this is something I could do. And then I ended up, you know, weighing my options. Touring different schools. I didn’t really know what I was touring for because I didn’t know. I just knew that’s what my classmates were doing. So, I was like, well, let me go tour them! Why am I going to go somewhere I’ve never been? And I ended up getting accepted to Winston Salem State University and I just-- that was it. I went to visit that school. You know, it’s a historical black college university and I was, this is it. This is where I belong. I don’t need to go anywhere else. Yeah, and just, you know, a lot of factors went into it. It was, you know, financially it just made more sense. Culturally, I felt like I just-- I don’t know. I don’t want it to sound bad but I felt like being a minority within a minority was better than being a minority within the PWI. Personally. Just me. And I ended up loving my experience there. The confidence I gained. The knowledge. The just--everything was just amazing. Like, to me, I kind of wish I wouldn’t have done the early college so I would have been able to do it for four years because I graduated in two and a half years. So, I wish I would’ve been there longer for sure, but I don’t regret anything. It’s been incredible. It’s been an incredible journey. Going to Winston Salem State has literally shaped me into the leader I am today, ‘cause their biggest model was depart to serve.
MC: Right.
GR: And I think that kind of just-- you hear it enough it becomes part of, you know, subconsciously or consciously. I chose to embrace it. They told us depart to serve. I wanted to do that. I wanted to serve. I ended up choosing my major literally because I didn’t know what to choose. I went in as a junior, so I’m like 19 years old and I have to choose my major. And I was like, I don’t know! Because I had already done all my gen ed classes with Challenger, so I went in as a junior and I was like, I don’t know what I want to do. I didn’t think I’d get this far. So, then at the time I was really into fitness. Like, all that stuff. And I ended up choosing exercise physiology because I like science. I like exercise. And what better combination than that? I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. And then eventually, you know, taking the classes, learning career options, I was like yeah. I’m going to do that. I’m going to be an exercise physiologist. Nope. I changed my mind. I’m going to be an athletic trainer. Nope. I changed my mind. I’m going to do physical therapy. I kept changing my mind so much but then eventually when time came that I had to decide what I wanted to do and that’s kind of how, you know, I said earlier I ended up doing an internship at Wake Forest Baptist. I got accepted to Lenoir Rhyne. It was between Lenoir Rhyne and UNC Greensboro. I chose LRU. Came back home, did a semester, hated it. I think God puts us in the places where we belong. I think everything happens for a reason. Because I always knew I wanted more. I just didn’t know what that “more” was. And I like to feel fulfilled. I don’t want my job to be a job. I want it to be a passion. So, when I got into the health care field, you know, I eventually ended up in the senior care. I absolutely loved it. And then, again, the pandemic kind of caused some burnout., some stress, and all that stuff. So I felt like I wasn’t loving it anymore. I think it’s just time to transition into something, and then I feel like maybe one day I could go back into the health care field. I want to keep my license active. I just don’t want to close that door, But for the time being I am absolutely loving being the Executive Director. I think, like I said, I think God put me in this position for a reason. All those obstacle courses I had to go through, and not knowing, and knowing that I wanted more but not sure how to do it. I think that’s one of my main goals here is to help guide the Latino students. Because we have the AP Program. The Abriendo Puertas Program that translates to opening doors. Right now, it’s only focused on K through 5. We’re just starting to--we’re making plans to expand into the middle school and the high school. And I think that’s where…I think it all matters, you know? All of it matters. I think kids need to be exposed to women in leadership roles. They need to be exposed to people of color in leadership roles. They need to be exposed to women who are people of color in leadership roles, you know? And not just in leadership roles. As business owners, as small businesses, big businesses, real estate. Whatever it is that they just I think students of all ages need to be exposed to this. And I think I can help do that. I don’t like to toot my own horn but I think that I can make a difference in at least one or two people in the community, and hopefully its more than that, but I think, that’s my mindset. I’m like, if I can at least help one or two people I think that’s great. Obviously, the goal is to help as many as we can, but just, you know, I think just personally I take pride in that. I take pride in being able to give people information, knowledge. I was in healthcare, so I made an impact whenever the vaccines rolled out. People didn’t want to get it. There was a lot of misinformation out. I got the vaccine and shared my knowledge, the science behind it and you know, people in the community looked up to me for that because I knew the science. They considered me a reliable source. So, then I got the vaccine. Some people followed. Some people chose not to, and I said that’s totally your decision. It’s something that you can decide for yourself, but here at the facts. And I think that, being in this position now, you know, a year later after all that’s happened, it’s kind of shown that I can make a difference. I can influence people in a positive way, never fooling anyone into believing something. Never, whatever my personal beliefs are, I’m never going to shove them down somebody else. “You have to believe this because this is the right”-- it’s freedom, just have all the facts and then you decide. You choose what you want to know, what you want to believe. So, ultimately, I think that’s just kind of…I feel like I’m here for a reason and hopefully I can fulfill that reason. [Laughs]
MC: Yeah. I think you touched on really important things, like representation, and when you talked about navigating that education system and going into college. I know, you touched on a lot of things that I resonate with as well because I was first a generation student going to college and I really didn’t have any guidance going through that process. I didn’t know everything that was available and it seems that you kind of went through that as well. It seems like it was just, a lot of it was just trying to figure that out yourself. And I think that representation is really important.
GR: Yes.
[31:01] MC: Now, I want to talk about maybe how your, maybe just experiences being Mexican-American, how that ties into your current role now? You know, how does that help you in your position now?
GR: I think it helps in a lot of ways because, you know, we have that first gen experience. We essentially, we are the community. We are the target community that Centro Latino is trying to target. I benefited from Centro Latino when I was a kid. My parents came. They did the parenting classes that they were offering at the time because my older sister was getting ready to go--she was in middle school. I was two years behind her so they were like, ok. These are waters we’ve never navigated. We need help. My older sister I guess was getting rebellious. They didn’t know what to do. So they sought out help and Centro Latino was here to help. And just being somebody who can say I benefitted from the services here I think really makes an impact, and I feel like it’s just knowing-- I don’t represent all Latinos. But I can be a good representation, I guess is what I’m trying to say. I can be a good representation of Latinos, but I’m not the only representation. I don’t represent everybody, but I think it’s a really good place to start, because how is your target population going to be Hispanic Latinos but then you don’t know first-hand experiences? You know, the fear of being first gen, the fear of being an immigrant in this country. Both of my parents thankfully, we’re very grateful for the fact that they’re both US citizens, but they don’t get treated that way. You know what I mean? People see and assume that they’re illegal. They see me and automatically think, you know, where are you from? And I’m like, from Hickory. No, where are you really from? I’m from Hickory! No, where are you really from? From Hickory; where are you from? And like that’s when I kind of just, ok I’m turning it around on you. Where are you from? [Laughs] So, I think I understand those challenges. I understand the struggles. I consider myself a privileged, quote unquote privileged person because there is things that I do know that some people in our community may not know. And I know it sounds crazy to say it that way but I consider that a privilege. You know, there’s certain resources that I know, you know. There’s certain stuff in the health care field like, you know, people don’t know how to go and defend themselves or, you know, defend their child or defend their loved one who’s ill because it’s happened. I don’t know about you but it’s happened to me where it’s my symptoms were dismissed. And then you know, I insist and I insist, and I feel privileged that I can communicate, that I can-- I know most of my rights. I don’t claim to know everything, but I know, well, ok, if you can’t help me then I will find someone who can. I know how to speak up, but that’s something that a lot of our family members, our friends, cannot do. So, I think just knowing that and experiencing that first-hand allows me to be able to turn around and say ok, what are the services that we can provide? What are the programs that we can create? Or, who should we partner up with in the community who offers these great solutions and help. They offer assistance. Whatever it is that people need, they may have something that we don\’t, but how can we partner up with them so that we can offer them this assistance? These services? With them feeling comfortable. With them feeling safe. With them being able to communicate. So that’s, I feel like that helps a lot. Being able to understand the struggles. The intimidation, just being a minority in general in this country can… I don’t want to make it sound like it’s a negative thing, because it’s not. It’s a beautiful thing! It’s just what the past few years it’s become more of a struggle. I thought we were past it; you know? So, [laughs] it’s a little devastating to see how you know, 180 the country kind of did. You know, the past few years, but I feel like there’s definitely so many more people open to hearing the Latino, Hispanic… understanding the culture. Understanding the differences. And I’m like, one of the things that I say a lot is that we’re all human. We’re all more similar than we are different. The only thing is that God gave us these languages and He gave us different skin tones. But we’re more alike than we are different. It’s exciting as the new Executive Director here to see people welcoming, being so welcoming to me. Being so ready to partner up and to… how can we work together? You know? I know you offer these services we offer these; how can we make this work? And I think that just makes me very excited about the fact that our community is ready. They may not know they’re ready--its going to be hit or miss some places. But for the most part, I think people are wanting to start to listen. They’re starting to want to understand, and I think that’s very important and we have to be very willing to listen and to speak, and be honest. I’m like, this is my truth. I can’t hide it, you know? I’m not going to sit here and pretend that it was an easy journey and that because I speak English, it was easier. I’m not going to sit here and say I had a great a teacher who influenced me, because I didn’t get any of that. I didn’t see people who looked like me doing things like this, but I knew I wanted to be that. I wasn’t sure how because I wasn’t exposed to it until I was in grad school, essentially. And then being exposed to the boss who gave me that first business office position. She was a person of color. She was black, and she treated me like anybody else, but to me it meant something to have a person of color who was in a leadership role. I think it made me realize, I want to be a leader. I want to be a boss. I want to make a difference in people’s lives. I can do it too. So, I think most of my influence and…yeah, I guess you can call them my influence. My direction kind of became clearer later in life than earlier in life. I was definitely in my mid-twenties because I’m in my late twenties now. So it wasn’t that long ago [laughs]. But, you know, it was my path didn’t really become clear until my mid-twenties, I think. After I left undergrad, I thought I had a clear path. I had a plan and I ended up hating it and I think that’s something that’s important to talk about too. It’s ok to change careers. It’s ok to change paths. I don’t think there’s any such thing as back pedaling or back tracking. You can only go forward. So, yeah, I think… I think all my experience together have made me who I am today.
MC: Yeah.
GR: And I think that can positively impact me as a leader, as a somebody who’s in human services, and it just gives me the opportunity, firsthand experiences. I can understand, there’s no threat between me and our neighbor who doesn’t speak English, who just arrived to this country. I feel like they’d feel more comfortable speaking to somebody who understands first to somebody who just…because people mean well but don’t-- it’s that language barrier that can be threatening, you know? I’ve gone to other countries and can’t communicate, and it’s scary! It’s a scary feeling not being able to talk to the people sitting around you. Obviously I have that confidence that I will find somebody who speaks English, but maybe I don’t. But here, living here, creating a life, settling down your roots. It can be a little scary sometimes.
MC: Yeah.
GR: I can’t imagine! I moved cities. I was still in North Carlina and I felt like oh my gosh what am I doing? I can’t imagine crossing the border and moving to a new country and settling down and creating a life and a better future for your loved ones. That, to me, is just amazing. My parents are my heroes for that.
MC: Yeah. You touched on empowerment too. Taking your experience and using that to empower others in the community--
GR: --yes--
MC: --who have had similar experiences. I think that’s really important. Well, Ginny, one of the last questions I have are, kind of bringing it all back together is, [40:23] what are some of the most important resources you think that could really benefit the, you know, Spanish speaking community here in Hickory or in Catawba County in general that you see is more pertinent?
GR: Yeah, so, man, there’s a few. [laughs] Like, right now, we, El Centro Latino, we serve the unifour area because we’re the only one in the area. So, we serve surrounding counties. It’s not just Catawba County and Hickory. Right now, we have our ESL classes. We’re starting to set up for Spanish classes. You know, it’s not a one-way street. That way businesses, business owners who have a majority Latino Hispanic community, they can be able to communicate at least the basics. So, we’re going to offer Spanish class. I think right now one of the biggest needs is just--and I think the pandemic brought this to light. It’s definitely not a new problem but it just brought it to light. A lot of kids have struggled in general, being virtual. Not having that support at home. I think that hit worldwide. I don’t think that’s just the Latino community at all. But, working for the Latino community, I think that a lot of kids aren’t at their reading level that they need to be. In third grade you have to do the intergrade tests. The majority of the Hispanic Latino students are not passing those. They’re not even at third grade level reading. They’re like two or three years behind. So, that’s one of the biggest things that we’re working on. We’re trying to get kids to be successful and to be able to read and do math, and it’s just a challenge whenever you go home and--and this is first-hand experience--you go home and your parents can’t help you because they just don’t know. Math is a little more universal, so they were able to help me a little longer than they were with English, and same with the students today. It’s something that we’re focusing on is the students. Middle school, getting them engaged. Getting them…and just me being out in the community, having friends, having family I hear a lot of kids in middle are ready to drop out of high school. They’re ready to turn sixteen and I’m like, no! But you’ve got so much potential! You’ve got so much to offer! And I think it’s just getting that engagement. Getting them involved in stuff that isn’t just, you know…I don’t know what kids do these days [laughs]. But the pandemic kind of just changed everything. But it’s just more than just hanging out on your phone and TikTok and Facebook and Snapchat. It’s more than just hanging out with your friends and partying. There’s a lot of things. You can do that too, but here are other options. Here’s what you can do. You don’t want to go to college? That’s fine. Let’s start--there’s technical schools. You can go get a trade. Anything. You can become a mechanic, own your own mechanic shop. You can--you want to be a construction worker? That’s awesome. We need construction workers. But maybe you want to own your own construction. Maybe you want to focus more on drywall and painting, be more--there’s so many things that we need to just educate our community and then offer these resources. We’re partnered up with the Catawba County Partnership for Children. You know, having a lot of conversations with CCM and all these other great non-profit organizations want to work with us and offer their services to our Hispanic population. So, we’re essentially just working with them. People come, you know, a lot of people lost their jobs and unfortunately due to the immigration status, a lot of people can’t get these jobs that need to be fulfilled. There’s all these companies that can’t find employees, but due to the lack of a social security number the majority of the Latinos, Hispanic people have an ETIN number. I think that’s what it’s called. And that allows them to work and pay taxes and open bank accounts. There’s been people who come searching for help and assistance to pay their light bill, pay for their children’s food next week because “they’re not in school, and I thought they be there so I didn’t buy groceries, and now I don’t know what to do.” We’re essentially a resource that, if we can’t provide the assistance, they need immediately, we can either go with them or send them somewhere we know that will welcome them and give them the assistance that they need. So, that’s essentially kind of where we’re at. Because we offer everything here at Centro Latino. We offer immigration services, all kinds of services. It’s just kind of everything. What do you need? Referrals, you know, translating services. We kind of do it all, and it’s just three of us. The AP Director, she’s focused on just the students, so that just leaves me and Mónica, our Client Services Advocate. We’re getting ready to hire new employees, so I think there’s many great things to come in our organization. And hopefully…we want to serve the people the way they need to be served, so we’re thinking of doing surveys and meetings where the community can come and tell us what it is that they’re looking for, what it is that they need, because we may think we know, but we may not know. We may think, this is what they want or need, but it’s not. When it’s something completely different. So, essentially, it’s just listening, hearing, and learning, and just providing that help, that resource. We’re essentially a resource for the Latino community in Catawba County and surrounding counties.
MC: Yeah. Well, I think that’s awesome, and I think the listening portion and the survey, I think that’s a really great idea that I haven’t really heard a lot, and I think that’s really important to start doing that.
GR: For sure.
MC: You really touched on some really great points. Well, those are all the questions I have. Is there anything you’d like to add?
GR: [Thinking] Um, no, I think I--
MC: --we covered it all? [Laughs]
GR: Yeah! I think--
MC: --awesome--
GR: --you know, as much as a I could in a little bit of time. [Laughs]
MC: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much Gianella.
GR: Yeah.
MC: Thank you for your time, and thank you for all your insight and sharing your story.
GR: Yeah, absolutely! Thank you so much.