by Maria Sanjuan – Part 1 of 2

A New Immigrant

Maria Sanjuan portrait“As a philanthropist, I believe in creating opportunities for others – in fostering a sense of empowerment. In essence: teach someone to fish so they’ll never go hungry. This is what Hispanic Unity of Florida (HUF) is all about – and this is HUF’s story.”

I arrived in Broward County in 1960, one of a few Hispanic families in the area. In the years that followed, I worked hard to become a part of the community, and established myself in a successful sales career.

Over time, I witnessed the struggles of others like myself, and did my best to help them integrate. I provided translations, legal referrals, whatever people needed. One thing was clear: immigrants needed somewhere to turn.

Advocates Unite

It all began in 1983 at a “cocktail party.” This unconventional gathering was held at a real estate office in Davie, a modest spot in a mall populated with Hispanic-owned businesses. The informal meeting included seven or eight other people who were tirelessly devoted to helping refugees. I immediately recognized the magnitude of their cause, and I knew this was a group I had to be a part of.

These dedicated advocates shared that they had hundreds of people who needed their help – but no money or resources. I dove in, eager to help. After many attempts, we finally secured a $30K grant from the refugee program, run by Broward County Human Services Division and led by Ellen Rodriguez, an American woman married to a Cuban. The funds supported two part-time employees – and HUF was officially off the ground.

Helping Refugees in Need

Our first task was to find work for the Marielitos, the mass emigration of Cubans in 1980; their number had reached over 100,000 in Miami. Many came to us for help with job opportunities, but we quickly discovered that other basic needs were going unmet. HUF was still struggling with funding and leadership. I was impatient, as I remembered all too well what it was like to be alone in a new place, surviving on 10 cent Royal Castle hamburgers.

There was still so much fear, and very little acceptance of Hispanics. Cubans had no home to return to, and they needed us. Refugees did not know how to navigate the various systems of this country – the banking system, the health or school systems, the credit system, etc. Maybe we couldn’t place everyone in a job, but we could certainly provide support by helping them with basic tasks. My stubbornness wouldn’t let me give up; I was inspired to make HUF succeed!

Bound and Determined

At the time, the Hispanic population in Broward County was being overlooked, and most of the funding for refugees went to Miami-Dade. I set out to visit the county and area cities, determined to advocate for the plight of new immigrants. It took patience and a lot of compassion, but with time we gained some stability.

One major victory came when HUF started teaching ESL – English as a Second Language. Many critics pointed at Hispanics as not wanting to learn English, but we proved otherwise. All they needed was a tool! We quickly enrolled a large number of students, which brought us to the attention of the school board, which started supporting us.

Finally, we started to grow!

READ PART 2 (Conclusion) of this story. 

Watch Maria Sanjuan, HUF’s Driver of Growth In Action (Released in 2012)

About Maria Sanjuan

maria sanjuan and josieFew individuals have had as deep and lasting impact on the success of HUF as Maria Sanjuan.

An articulate, passionate visionary who, with rolled up sleeves and perfectly coifed hair and make-up, took on every challenge thrown her way. She was instrumental in laying the foundation of HUF’s board governance, she launched every fundraiser that sustained the agency for more than 20 years and served on its board for the first two decades of its existence.

No one has given so meaningfully, selflessly and for so long. Our debt to her is immeasurable. She has been my personal inspiration and mentor for the past 18 years. She is the reason I am at HUF. She is the reason why many of us are at HUF.

Enjoy this first-hand account of HUF’s history by our most important history-maker and storyteller, Maria Sanjuan.

-Josie Bacallao, CEO & President, Hispanic Unity of Florida

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