Hannia Benítez

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Born in Guatemala but raised in Siler City, North Carolina, Hannia Benítez currently serves her local communities as Deputy Director at El Vínculo Hispano/The Hispanic Liaison’s office in Lee County and as Chair of Siler City’s Immigrant Community Advisory Committee (ICAC). Hannia shares her foundational experiences, including the need to be her family’s interpreter during her childhood and her engagement in several clubs throughout High School. A few years later, the advent of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program helped her during a difficult time in her personal life by opening opportunities for employment and education. While working in the housing sector, Hannia joined the Board of Directors of El Vínculo Hispano, eventually serving as board chair and later transitioning to staff as deputy director of El Vínculo’s first satellite office in Lee County. Lastly, she shares her experience during her first year serving in ICAC, which she explains has been a time for asking questions and learning the workings of local government in order to position their efforts in the coming years. Throughout, Hannia shares advice for future leaders by describing her sense of responsibility for the people and communities that she serves while showing grace and kindness in the face of adversity.



Daniel Velásquez: Hannia Benítez is Deputy Director at El Vínculo Hispano, the Hispanic Liaison, and Chair of ICAC, the Immigrant Community Advisory Council at Siler City. I'm Daniel Velásquez. I am interviewing you today for your oral history. Thank you for being with me today. It is November 18, 2022.
Hannia Benítez: Thank you for having me, Daniel.
DV: Hannia, let's get started by talking about your early life, your background, and set the context for us.
HB: Okay, so my name is Hannia Benítez. I was born in Guatemala, but I came to the United States at an early age. I grew up in Chatham County, North Carolina. I am the oldest daughter de mi mami and the oldest granddaughter out of more than twenty grandchildren. I identify as Hispanic Latina. I am currently deputy director for the Hispanic Liaison.
DV: Awesome. Great.
HB: And I am a mother of three beautiful children. I have a twelve-year-old, a ten-year-old, and a two-year-old. Married for ten years. And we also have a little fur baby, Milo. [Laughter].
DV: Great, so you were born in Guatemala. How long have you lived in United States then?
HB: It’s been over 25 years. I was born in ’92. I came to the United States when I was about four or five years old, but our first thought was Los Angeles, where my grandmother was living, and she currently lives there. And then a few years, within one or two years, then we moved here to North Carolina to join the rest of mis tíos, my mother’s youngest brothers and sisters that actually lived in Siler City, so that is where I grew up in.
DV: Maybe just tell me a little bit more about growing up here in North Carolina, in Siler City.
HB: Well, how do I describe it? Well, I guess when we--. I guess just from the beginning, so just to give you context my mother was a single mother with two daughters. My other sister, that is two years younger than I. She used to be a, what would you call it, like a pre-school teacher in Guatemala, so coming to the area she would, when we first got here, she would try to teach us, well mostly me, the basics of el abecedario, the alphabet, the numbers. Everything, she would do it in Spanish because she tells me, te lo voy a enseñar en español and allá en la escuela lo aprendes en inglés, so I’m going to teach it to you in Spanish, and you need to learn it in English in school. And I did just that. Whenever she came here, she worked for--. She started working several odd jobs, but then stayed at the chicken plant at that time. She worked there for several years. The biggest priorities, the biggest important things that she would say, edúquense, you know, educate yourself, learn a lot. And so, our biggest focus was on that, just learning as much as we could, learning the language, learning so many different topics. In school, being the oldest, I often found myself being like the interpreter or the translator for my mom, and then it translated with other family members. And because they would have this expression, like, para eso vas a la escuela. That's why you're going to school. So, you need to know what it is. And sometimes it would start with school messages that were sent home, and they were only in English. And she's like, ¿Qué dice? What did that say? And so, I would tell her mom, they're talking about this, this, this, this and that and trying to get her to understand what they were trying to say and what they wanted her to do. And then that then translated to the other aspects of our lives where I started having to understand how other systems work to be able to explain it to my mom, but at the same time there's still always that passion in school I loved. I'm not going to say reading, no I love reading, it was writing that I just struggled with it because there were so many thoughts in my mind, I was like I don’t know how to put it bien. Yeah, I always loved it. We were in the traditional ESL program. When I say traditional, it would be they pull all of us that are native Spanish speakers. They pull us out of the class. They teach us some English, and they put us back in. Unfortunately, I saw many other students that that was not helpful for. But, you know, I can say I was a little bit more fortunate that although my mom didn't speak English, but she had the basic foundations in Spanish that she just kept on trying at home. And then I also tried to learn everything. I was like, okay, I got to learn about, you know. So, I was in the ESL program for several years. Then I graduated out of it, I think, maybe second or third grade. And it transitioned into the AIG program, the Academic and Intellectually Gifted. And there was a group of other students that we grew up with that were also part of the ESL program that were in that as well. So, it was just a lot of that focus on education and trying to learn. And so, that was just elementary school. Like I said, being the oldest, I was always a para arriba para abajo with a single mom. The father figures that stepped in were obviously mis tíos, and so, I would love to be with them outside. You would not see Hannia in the traditional role of being in the kitchen. My mom would always be like, Hannia, come and learn how to cook. And I would look from a distance, and I'm like, okay, I know the basics. I know how to do eggs. And then I would, I'm like, ma, I have homework. Tengo mucha tarea. And so, I would go back into the room, go do my homework. And when I finished that, then I would be outside. You would see Hannia, there was a storage next to the trailer, and you would see Hannia on top of the roof and jumping from the roof and playing with my male cousins and yeah, just doing the non-traditional female roles. And it was a little bit different with my younger sister because she loved to cook. She loved learning all the traditional dishes that was going on in the kitchen. So yeah, that's what you would see. Hannia would be out there throwing rocks. We would just be using our imagination outside and just wandering around with my cousins. And then there was the school, so my focus was school, family, school, family. It continued all through middle school as well, and then high school the same way, very much inclined to education. Middle school is when I started learning a little bit more about clubs, like Beta Club, and obviously in part because of the academics. But in high school is when we started seeing more different types of clubs because middle school it was the academics, but then other areas that I started desarrollando my leadership was in the communities of faith, when I was 12. Which was something we didn't grow up with. My mom never talked about religion, none of that. Like, we never knew about churches. It was until about--. I was 11 or 12, that one of my uncles got married, and his wife was going to church. It was funny, because they would always take me, I was their mini chaperone when they were dating. So everywhere they were going, they would take me. And so, one of the places that they started taking me was at a Community of Faith in Asheboro, about 30 minutes from Siler City. And so, I remember the first day I went to that congregation, I saw youth about my age that were playing music. At that time, I was also in band in school, playing the trumpet, the quietest musical instrument around.
DV: Sure. [Laughter].
HB: And I remember seeing a kid about my age. I was 11, and he was 13. And he was up there. And he was playing the instrument. It sounded so cool. Other kids my age was playing piano. I was like, oh my gosh. I want a space. I want to be here and see other things. And so, within that space, I quickly asked the leaders they call them I think ushers in English but at the church they would call them diáconos or servidores and I was like I want to help. Put me wherever, and they were like okay we'll do that. And Hannia was up there sweeping in church, and every service they would have Hannia in childcare in the back and in sala-cuna or the nursery. And so, I would be out there and I would love engaging and they would talk about, okay you know Sunday school, teach this to the children, learn about this. So I was doing that but then also learning some of the other things that the church leadership were doing and I loved seeing that, and I loved starting getting engaged into it at an early age. It was the church treasurer, and they were like, do you know how to write properly? Do you know how to do this? And I was like, yes, I love it, I love it. You see, Hannia in that context very much engaged. So that started middle school age. And then high school, it continued. But then in high school, that's where other clubs were available. That was like FBLA, Future Business Leaders of America. There was obviously Beta Club. I was briefly in HOSA, Health Occupational Students, something like that. It was very brief. But then the other one that really stood out for me, it was called AIM Club, Action, Inspiration, Motivation. And so, at that time, there were, everybody, I guess, unofficially called it the Hispanic club, because it was mostly Hispanics and mostly immigrant students. The first year I was there, I was excited. I was seeing everybody. Everybody engaged and that looked like me, because in the other clubs, I was the only Hispanic. And because I joined that group, there were other Hispanic kids that were coming in. But in this one it was all of us Hispanics. And so, I went in there, I think it was year two that I went in there, or year three, I don't remember, but then I became president for that club. And then at the same time becoming president for FBLA and learning more about the leadership, learning more about the roles, how do meetings run, with FBLA, everything about business and things like that. And so, and that's where I met, his name was Donald Byrne, and then he comes into my life a couple years later. But after high school, I got pregnant at an early age. I was 17, so it was my last year of high school. And how would I say it? Thankfully, all my other friends that were part of, by that time it was called SLI, Scholars Latino Initiative with UNC, for the most part, they were also the same students that were with me in the ESL program, in elementary school AIG program. They were also in there, several of them DACAmented and things like that, which is another group that we were in in high school. Thankfully by high school, those who were in there and fulfilled certain requirements, although they were undocumented, where able to go to the university. And so that's where my pause kind of ended. At the high school level, thankfully, I was able to graduate, but by that time I became a mother. Unfortunately, not only within family but with other folks I would get a lot of comments like, okay, this is the end of your life. This is it. This is over for you. And I remember trying to, I was like, okay, maybe I can't go to university, maybe I can go to a local community college. And I applied, and I got rejected. I got a letter that said because I didn't have a social security number and I was like, pero porque no? So, I was like, okay, so what do I do now, like--. And so at that time me ajunté con el padre de mi hijo. So, I got together with my son's dad. We were together for a brief couple of years. There were a couple of years of I would say just pause. A little bit of darkness throughout those years, but then I got married. Couple years, I got married in 2012, two years after I graduated. I met my now husband. And I'm not gonna say it was a fairytale love story because there were a couple of hardships in the beginning as well. But within, let's say year one, year two of our marriage, that's where they passed the deferred action. So at that point, I was able to go back to school. If I wanted to I could go to work. I could pursue so many other things, and so, by that year was I had just had my daughter, my second child. And so not only the need for a household, taking care of our household expenses, but then also an opportunity for me to get out of the house. I started going back to work. I loved to work. I was trying to learn not only the basics, but other things and it was easy for me to keep on picking up. It was a little bit hard in the beginning because a lot of folks se desesperaban like employers that they would get a little bit frustrated because I was also learning the gap.
DV: And this was around 2014?
HB: 2014, ’13 yeah. And there were a good several jobs that dismissed me in the beginning. I was like, man, but I want to, I want to learn, I'm trying to learn this, things like that. A lot of: you're not compatible, or we're cutting back positions and roles, and we’re like, okay. At that time, that's when I decided to go back to school, and I went to CCCC, Central Carolina Community College. That would have been around, that would have been around 2016, I believe, where I went to get my nursing aid certificate. After that I started, I moved back to Siler City and I was working at night at a nursing home, and coincidentally, I--. how would I describe it to you? So, it's a dead-end street where I used to live. On the sides of that street there were the apartments and that the end of the street was a nursing home. So, I lived in those apartments and the nursing home was there. So, at night I was working there. And during the day, obviously, my kids were at school one of them, the other one was still small, but family was helping me with her. And I would notice that in that apartment complex, the maintenance man was almost unofficially in charge. And so, but there were some tenant issues that were going on. And one day the owner actually was there. No, his name was Tom Smith. The day that I met Tom Smith was when we were urgently trying to find a place. We, being my younger sister and I, and we were trying to find a place on our own because we couldn't be at my mom's house. It was too crowded. And we were desperately trying to apply. And we were calling. And we're like, we're really interested. We really want to get in there. And then, I don't know why, but the owner went to the unit that we were at. He's like, I wanted to see what was this commotion about two sisters so urgently trying to get an apartment. Like what's the big deal? But he just, I guess he didn't realize that it was a big step for us. It was not a luxury apartment. The homes are--. They’re still there, those apartments are still there, but they're one of the oldest apartment complexes in Siler City. And so, he went there, and because of my observation of how the process went when you move into an apartment, when he went in there, and I guess he just, I don't know what he expected out of two Hispanic young ladies coming into an apartment on their own. And I was like, okay, I'm ready for the movement inspection, and I need you to fix this, this, this, and that. And hey, I was pointing things out in the apartment. And he's like, how do you know that? And I'm like, oh, we did this whenever I moved in somewhere else and he's like, oh okay. He's like where are you working at now? I told him I was working over there. And I remember just blurting out like well whenever you need help just reach out to me, and he did literally within that week. He's like, what about I give you a contract out. And that's when I started into the housing.
DV: Okay.
HB: And I was Liaison Services. And so, I essentially--.
DV: You clearly impressed him. [Laughter].
HB: Something happened, but I was very loud and there was another person that had been there with the team that did not like me. And every chance she got she let him know, let the owner know, and copy him in there like she's not listening, she's not learning, and I'm wasting my time with her. And because she was tasked with training me with the technical things. And there were some things that I still, it hadn't clicked yet, but I was trying. I was like, oh my gosh, I'm sure. And then my husband-- like I would read her emails and I would be crying. And my husband would be like, why don't you just quit? I'm like, no, it's because I'm not going to learn. This is free training on housing and things like that. He's like, oh my gosh. So, I was climbing my way through that, but I was trying to learn everything that had to do with housing, not only with the process, with people moving in, the inspections, working with con--. Vendors, things like that, so just taking advantage of that. I eventually transitioned from working in the nursing home to housing. I had to go because I was in a dementia unit and a lot of my patients there were passing away, and it was just a very hard thing for me.
DV: Oh, yeah.
HB: So as much as I loved it, I was like, I can't, but I then transitioned into housing. And that's where I was learning more about it and being very vocal, and I would talk to the owner and be like hey, you know, we started learning about how to do the inspections and then prioritizing. And I would be working with him, and I would be like, hey, Tom, you need to fix this. You need to fix that. And then because a lot of the people that live there, they're like, why do you care? I'm like, because this is housing, like, you can't have a hole in your roof. You can’t have your door falling apart and things like that. And I understood the business part of it, because looking at the numbers, there was no money coming in because the homes were averaging between $300 to $500 a month. $500 for a three bedroom but, you know, not a lot of repairs have been done for several years. So, I started pushing to do a couple of repairs in the time that we were in there. A couple of--. About a year or so later, that's when I reached out to Cardinal Chase, which was my second place in housing. I don't recall what was the incident, but I remember going to the office and talking to the manager there. I was talking to her because I was looking for a different apartment for somebody. And I explained to her, I'm actually with Brookwood Farms--. Brookwood Apartments, and this so-and-so needs this. And she's like, how do you know about housing? I'm like, oh, this is what I'm doing here. And then she's like, okay, well, I'm leaving. So, do you want this job? [Laughter]. So, I was like, are you serious? And she's like, yeah. She told me where to submit my résumé. And I was like, okay, this is crazy. I’m going to do it, so I did it. And then by Monday of the next week, they were like, interview. I was on the job within like two, three weeks.
DV: Wow.
HB: And it continued my role with management, learning more about that, a lot of training in that program. But throughout these roles, I was also very intentional about advocating for the people we were serving. And it's something that I've carried desde pequeña. And then I felt that responsibility and my role in them and really letting the owners know, hey, it's much more than your money, much more than the rents. And within that second role, since it was low income housing, I would try to figure out ways with the tenants there about moving in. During their stay, trying to come up with payment plans, because there were so many people that were like I don't have a full amount of money. I'm like, it's okay let's breathe and I would joke around with them I'm like I'm not going kick you out unless you kick yourself out. And they're like oh my gosh, thank you. I'm like no, really, don't thank me. This is the least that I can do because this is your home. This is not just something that I can just up and say, screw y'all, go ahead and leave. So, it was around that time I was with Cardinal Chase. In comes Don Byrne. Around that time frame, Donald Byrne who was one of the teachers from Jordan Matthews at AIM Club, that was almost like a supervisor during their club meetings, that he reached out. And he's like, hey, you know, can I ask you to join me on a meeting one day with the Hispanic Liaison? And I was like, okay, I've heard of the Liaison because my mom always uses their services. And sure, let me go to a meeting. He's like, it’s a board meeting. And they're looking for directors. And he had reached out to another former classmate as well. And within meeting one, they were like, do you, would you want to be crazy enough to join us? And I'm like, of course, thank you. So, I joined the Board of Directors. At that time, it would have been 2016, with the Hispanic Liaison. And I think by the next year, that's when I became Board Chair with the Liaison.
DV: Did you continue your other job in housing during this time?
HB: Yeah, it was during that time, because I didn't join the Liaison officially as a staff member until 2021. So, during that time, 2017, the Liaison--. 2015, 2016, there was a brief year where the Liaison closed. And so, I came in when they reopened. And so, the ’17, the organization was kicking back up and I would hear the reports from Ilana, from Janet, about all the work that they were doing, and I was like, just very impressed. Not only about the work they were doing but their passion for it, with work in our community, the issues that they were addressing. And so coincidentally around that same time, that's where Hispanic leaders from Sanford reached out to us in Siler City about opening up, well discussing opening up a different organization in this area, or a satellite office for the Hispanic Liaison because there's no organization.
DV: Here in Sanford?
HB: In Sanford, yeah. There was in 2000--. I don't know what, in the early 2000s, there was a Hispanic Task Force here in Lee County, but it dissolved within a few years. So, after that, there was nothing in this area. And a lot of Lee County residents were going to Siler City to get, ask for help.
DV: Like what kind of help? What does the Liaison do, or what do you do with the Liaison?
HB: So, there's different aspects of the kind of work that we do because we work with our community, but we also work with local nonprofits, government agencies, law enforcement agencies. So, with our community, we like to say we're the Google of our community. Todo. We do literally everything. Let's say for a community member comes in and asks for assistance. Generally, they might come for, where can I find assistance for X, Y, Z? And so, if we are aware of a resource, we let them know and we get them connected to the resources, or if the resources are not available, we become that resource. But it can be anywhere between housing issues, education, it can be anywhere between mental health, health as well. We also talk about documents, helping community members obtain important documents for themselves, for their children, for their family. That could be either US documents or foreign documents. We do a lot of interpretation. If, let's say, a community member comes to us and says, hey, look, I've tried to reach out to this agency. Pero no me entienden. Like, they don't understand what I'm trying to say. And so, we hear their story and then we essentially translate it to something that XYZ system can understand.
DV: I see.
HB: And so, we help a lot with financial aid assistance with the hospitals. In the peak of the pandemic, we did a lot of emergency assistance for rentals, utilities, hospital assistance as well. We had a solid-- currently have also a solidarity fund that were, that's for mixed status families or no status families where the primary income earner was impacted, the family was impacted financially and so many community members were not, you know, not eligible or there was a disruption with them getting some financial assistance during the pandemic time period. And so, it was a way to help our community as well, but those are just some minor examples. We also have a free immigration clinic, so a community member can reach out to us. We try to get them connected with a free initial consultation with an immigration attorney. We also get them connected if, depending on their case, try to give them information, for example, like the Battered Immigrant Project with NC Legal Aid, for several asylum seekers, getting them information about the immigrant refugee project. So many different projects that our community members don't know are available. But then the biggest thing is education and helping our community members go and understand the process. US systems that they might not understand or they might need a little bit more guidance because the ultimate goal is for our community members to feel empowered and that they have a space with a Hispanic Liaison that they can feel at home, but then they also could feel heard and that we're advocating for them and regardless of the field, so we don't limit ourselves to just one field.
DV: What an amazing resource for the community to have.
HB: Yes, and we work, that's with the community, and then also we work, like I said, with other non-profits, government agencies, businesses as well, so they can also--. How do I say? We give them guidance and suggestions, recommendations as to, hey, this is how you can better serve our community, or you need to consider this other perspective to try to break down barriers, miscommunication, misinformation. A lot of misconceptions of, oh, that's a cultural thing, actually, it's not. For example, oh, it's a cultural thing that Hispanics live all together in one house. And I'm like, actually, no. There's so many other factors that's out of a necessity that they are having to be together. And breaking down those kinds of examples. Or why is it that the child is interpreting? No, we don't. And because--. We faced that with my mother. I can't talk to you. You're a little kid. And there might not have been interpretation services available for my mom. Or even now, within systems that, let's say, she's going to a medical appointment or she's going to get some services, the interpreter might be there, and the provider is there or whoever is providing the service but it's the interpreter looking at my mom and the provider not once do they look at my mom at any point. And I was like, okay, so--.
DV: Are they here for me?
HB: Yeah, and not only that but then my mom starts, for example, like she starts talking to an interpreter and the interpreter was like, oh, I don't know. I don't know. Or actually, ask the provider. And then they're just kind of like, mm, no sé si le pregunto.
DV: There’s tension.
HB: Yeah, and sometimes, even at those points of contact, systems are improving. Not saying anything, but there's certain points in the process that need to be addressed and need to be improved. And so, we bring in those recommendations with agencies and say, hey, this can work better. Ultimately with a goal of positively impacting our community and that they feel empowered and comfortable at the point of service. Many times, I get agency leaders that say, well it's not that we're not trying, I'm like, no sweetie, it's not about that. It's also the impression that somebody gets when they're interacting with either staff or leadership. You may feel the same way if you go somewhere else and people are disconnected with you when you're getting a service. Thankfully you are able to speak the language and you can say, hey, what's up with that? You know, hey, what's going on with this? But many of times it's not even the language barriers. It's a lot about the relationships, the trust that's within providers. I always talk about the example of my mother and my children. Although they're in a dual language program, they understand Spanish and they're trying their best to speak Spanish, but there are times that they, each of them are speaking their own language, but they still understand each other because they've got that connection, they have that relationship. And my mom knows my child's intention, my child knows my mom's intention as to what we're trying to get to. And it's all about the relationship, versus it's, oh, here you go, and that's it.
DV: Can you pick out certain things in your background that you think helped to prepare you, that were part of your journey and led you to this pathway to leadership that you are in now? You mentioned for instance, translating for your mother and that is still something you do today in this role, you translate for other people, navigate systems, things like that.
HB: One of the biggest things--. And I constantly have to remind myself, because if you look at other places they think, oh, leadership is with the degree, or if you have something behind your name, or you--. I would say the non-conventional ways that leadership is portrayed. But leadership, from what I have seen, is you are getting yourself down and dirty with your community. You're there on the ground. And what you're doing is you're eventually translating to people that don't know what's going on and letting them know this is what’s happening, and this is what needs to go next. And this is what needs to go next. And sometimes I mention within people, if I, when I say deputy director, in my head I was like, maybe that's just for other people to understand where I am. But eventually, I'm just another person in the community. I'm just another--. I'm just like you and I. Which is funny, because my mom would always tell me, eres una directora. You've got to look like one. You got to act like one. I'm like, wait, what? What do you mean, ma? And she's like, no, you got to look like a directora. Almost like if I have to be in a suit and in a tie or I don't know, heels or like a businessperson that we would see at FBLA, you know, the Future Business Leaders of America. That's the image that they portray. A leader is this and you know, and you know that they’re here.
DV: They look the part traditionally.
HB: Yes. And that their presence can be felt every time they're in the room and like they're the highlight of everything and I'm like, I don't like that. And I do remember, I'm like, okay, I'm learning, that's what I need to be. And it's funny because sometimes people come around like, okay, who's the one in charge? [Laughter]. And I'm like, actually, that's me. But it's understanding that it's a role, a responsibility. It's not about the title, it just says that the title means you have more responsibilities. The responsibilities for the people that you're with, that you're working with, that you're trying to make an impact, to change. That's where I would have truly embraced it. Coming back within leadership, like I said. After, when was it, 2013, 2015, it's been the non-conventional leaders. I would always have some classmates say, within that group that graduated, there was one classmate that said, you're smart, but you don't--. Ah, what was it? He's like, you're a nerd, but you don't act like a nerd. He meant in the most positive way, he's like, you're so smart, but you don't act like a traditional person. And he was just like, I don't get it. I just don't get it. But like I said, just coming back, obviously it took several years for me to embrace that. That it's not what is portrayed out there. It's about, como dicen, okay you face the challenges, okay there's moments of, dang, like did I do it right? Am I doing this right? Dang, you question yourself like, maybe someone better could be here or, man, it's stressing me out with working with these people because, you know, I consider that I don't come at an aggressive stance when I'm working with new people, but then there's some people that are just, wow. You question yourself like, why are you here, respectfully? Like you're in this role that you have a big responsibility on making an impact on people and you close yourselves to it. And we were joking around with a colleague and my husband, actually yesterday. You know what, I realized I've got a list of people that don't like me. And he's like yeah, I realized that too. And he's like but I guess we just need to know that we're not going to be liked by everybody and that's okay. And it's about picking ourselves back up and realize okay, what haven't I figured out yet? Or what is it that I need to know more? Because obviously we're humans. And self-doubt comes and you know, hesitancy comes. But it's like, okay, these are legitimate questions, regardless of whether people look at you or talk down on you. I mentioned when they--. Just your presence around them, they make you feel like why is this idiot here? Because you see that, and growing up I would always, you know, everybody's working together, and it's been a learning curve. Learning curve that some people just don't want to work with you and it's okay. And it's okay and you know, you got to step back and look at the big picture of what you're trying to do.
DV: You face the challenge.
HB: Yeah and just like with everything there's a huge learning curve, and it's about having patience with yourself and it's harder than just, how would I say it, it's hard but at the same time it's important, it's valuable. Because you go through that moment and then you're looking at all the different points and then--. I always call it the dots are connecting in my brain. And understanding, okay this is different routes I need to take, these are different responses I need to do to whatever these challenges or opportunities are, and then you keep on going. And then you can do whatever you got to do. Si vas a limpiar, limpia. If you got to go and do something else, self-care, you do it, and then you get back up. You get back up and keep on trying. It's about not giving up in that part. I would say if there's, whoever's listening, if you are in that role, it's a matter of showing grace and kindness to other people because we're all just really trying, trying to make a difference, trying to make a change. Not only for ourselves, I always--. Obviously now I'm a mother, and I always think about the change for my children, the generations to come, my neighbors, my community. It's so cliche, I love it. How they say, I cannot change the world, but I can change my world. And my world is my family, my friends, my community.
DV: Well, speaking of your community, you were in all of these clubs in high school, then you were working in housing, then you became Deputy Director here at El Vínculo, the Hispanic Liaison. But more recently you were also Chair of ICAC, the Immigrant Community Advisory Council in Siler City. How did that come about?
HB: So, with ICAC, the Hispanic liaison had been involved with the Building Integrated Communities project with UNC in collaboration with Town of Siler City. That was around 2017 when it started. Out of that, there was an action plan, essentially telling the town of Siler City, here are some recommendations of how you can integrate immigrant communities into Siler City. Within the action plan, there's some Siler City action items, and then there's some other outside agencies that are involved in it, so it's just like a collective work. So, obviously the pandemic hit and there was a couple of pauses for one or two years and then in 2021, last year, Building Integrated Communities and El Vínculo Hispano approached the town of Siler City with a resolution to build an advisory board or committee to the town of Siler City to help guide them through this action plan, to give them recommendations with the ultimate goal of really pushing the action items among other responsibilities. So, when they made out the call for members of that committee, I submitted my letter of interest. To be part of this committee, you have to be an immigrant yourself, a child of an immigrant, a grandchild of an immigrant, having a close connection to Siler City. Either you live, or you work there or have a very specific interest with Siler City. That was pretty much the biggest responsibility, the biggest requirements really, and of course submitting the letter of interest for it. And so, I applied, and I became part of the inaugural group. There were seven of us and within our first meeting, that's where the group elected me to be their board chair. And so, within this first year, it's been a lot about learning. Learning about our role and truly understanding it on what does it mean to be in an advisory capacity? What are the regulations? But then also understanding and asking, well, why are those regulations in place? And so that we can fulfill our role to the best of our abilities. Within that group, there are wonderful professionals. There's an immigration attorney, there is a local law office manager. There is someone that is in marketing, someone that's a business owner veteran, someone that's in the school system. So, these are all professionals within our community involved in this group with different expertise and different insights to share a portion of our immigrant perspective in our community. And that's where we are today. Like I said, I'm chair over that advisory committee.
DV: Great. In your pathway to these leadership positions, do you have any challenges that you can pick out that you would want to share? Or maybe other lessons that you've learned along the way that you would want to share?
HB: Okay, well definitely there's going to be a lot of barriers that may come into play. It could be anywhere between access to education or maybe, especially if you never had that role model, which is very hard, or a mentor. But don't be afraid and ask. That was one of the things that they would always say: es que la Hannia habla mucho, she talks so much. And she will go and talk to anybody and it's not that I'm--. I might not seem like it, but I'm actually pretty shy. [Laughter]. I still like, okay, let me ask this, I need to understand this, because um so you'll find barriers either because you might not have the tools but that doesn't mean that you can't have the tools. Or you might know the resources yet. And so you'll find that. And what does that mean? That means approach people in leadership. And ask those questions. And keep on asking them until you understand. If they get annoyed, let them get annoyed. But no, you're going to keep on asking the questions, because it's important that you understand it because ultimately what's gonna happen is you will also be the advocate for the next person that comes in and share that, pass that information along, that knowledge along. And just like with anything, there's always that learning curve with anything new that you start. They say anything new with a business, anything new in education. I think that a pattern, a trend, that I've seen within the first three years of you doing anything, it's a lot about learning. Have grace with yourself while you're learning. If you can push through that, year one is a lot about, okay, here I am, I'm on the ground, and you're running. [Laughter]. Year two is your evaluation year. Okay, what happened year one? Because year one, you're going in there, you're going passionately. And year two, you're evaluating what's the processes? How did it work? How did it flow? What were the barriers that you found? What were some of the trends that you noticed? What were some of the activities that you saw for yourself, with your community, while you were doing whatever work that you were doing, and then just take a moment to step back and be like, okay, now what's going to be my response to it? What can I do next? And some of those you might not have an answer to, and that's totally fine. And then you keep on. Right now, and I can say that because we're going on to year two with the Immigrant Advisory Committee, going onto year two with our Lee County office, year two with my little one. He's that child that we fooled ourselves into thinking oh he's going be the same as the other two and we've got this and we're experienced parents and we're learning. But you keep on, you keep on and caring for yourself, you know yourself. Surround yourself with people that do care about you and people that will encourage you and people that will, maybe they might not have that answer for you, but that they're your safe space. You know to keep on keeping on.
DV: Speaking of keeping on, what do you envision for the roles that you're in right now in the future? Things you might want to accomplish, things you'd like to see your community have access to or accomplish. What do you see the future looking like, or what would you hope for the future?
HB: Well, within my role with the organization, still a lot of learning. Learning anything from A to Z. I love what I do. Growing up that was my goal. I always envisioned myself wanting to lead an organization, lead an organization, manage an organization that had the social aspect, and I am in this role. And I never thought that I would be, especially in the dark three years of my life. I was like, I am never going to accomplish that. Keep on learning that, being the best that I can for this role in this organization that I am in. With the community, giving the very best of my abilities to my community. I also see my community rising and being empowered by all the work that we do, being inspired, inspiring each other, and showcasing all the beautiful things that we have, especially in our culture and anything to do with the food, definitely, the music, the arts, the professionals that we have, the brilliant minds that might not be in traditional roles but darn, they are good at what they do. Highlighting that but then also collaborating with other communities. There is so much beauty, even when people might not think it. My son does not think it, my twelve-year-old. He is like, man this small town in boring, but there are so many beautiful members in our community. Being together, working together. There’s always going to be the hustle but there is also going to be life and enjoying. Unfortunately, vulnerable communities, communities of color--. In what we say, okay Hannia we have got to be realistic, and yeah, we are being realistic because there are different barriers that one would say would prevent our community to live that. That is when we say, okay we are going to strive for life and joy and everything that we deserve, but we are also going to hustle and raise our voices and say this is not correct. We are going to be working together collectively to make change, to make movement, make noise regardless of whoever gets frustrated, and sometimes we have to move quietly and that is totally fine. Seeing that grow in our community, and then for myself at the end of it all, I think I told you but, quiero un ranchito, I want a little casita. [Laughter]. Just like out in the country, with at most two acres, pues tan poco quiero exagerar. I just want a place that is not too big. Just enough for myself and for at least two other guests when they need to go there. My kids swear up and down that as soon as they get old, they are going to get their own places. I want that for them, but I know, especially because I would see it growing up my mother was an unofficial matriarch of our family in Siler City so our aunts and uncles would go there, pay their respects. Then they would leave and go do their things. More of like, hey big sister I am here I love you. Alright you are good? Yeah, and then you are done. Just a place that our family can go. I envision a patio that has enough gathering spaces for everybody to be out there, having their own hamaca, having a place for the kids to go and play. I want to see all the young and the old together. I want the younger ones to hear the stories of the old folks because they have some crazy stories let me tell you. [Laughter]. Learning from their experience and just a space. A space where they can be family. I will give a hand into gardening maybe. Not really, maybe just the basic plant because I don’t want to kill the plants. I’ve thought about a couple animalitos de granja, and a lot of plants, I like plants. You will just find me there.
DV: Okay, Hannia. Hannia, thank you very much for sharing your story with me.
HB: Thank you, Daniel.


Transcriber: Sofia Godoy and Daniel Velásquez
Interview Date: 2022 November 18
Date of Transcription: 2023 July 17 / Revisions: 2023 October 9