VERDE VALLEY - From Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, the economic, cultural and social contributions of Hispanics in the United States will be commemorated with Hispanic Heritage Month.
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Food, shelter and clothing. Life's basics for survival - - and for over 15 years, Angie Lozano, director of Angie's House, has helped provide struggling individuals and families with a safe place to call home.
Now a manager of 10 residences, you may be surprised to learn that Lozano's journey began with a corporate career.
"I honestly never believed my life would steer in this direction. It's literally something I enjoy doing every day. Like they say, once you find your passion, you never work a day in your life," said Lozano.
"I was born and raised in Cottonwood and got a degree in financial management. My last job was working as a Chief Financial Officer in Sedona," Lozano said
"When I was doing corporate planning, I thought, 'I don't have a retirement plan. I better plan ahead and have rental properties in the event that I lose my job,'" Lozano said. "So in the mid-90s, I slowly started acquiring properties."
Fortunately, Lozano's insistence on remaining financially independent helped her avert disaster when she lost her job during a corporate merger. She turned to her rental properties for survival.
"I realized a lot of my tenants had trouble making both rent and the additional expenses, like utilities," said Lozano. "So I started including utilities in the rent. But that wasn't enough. These are hard-working people, our neighbors and family, and some of them were dealing with added problems like alcoholism and mental illness."
"So I thought, 'Let's kind of specialize. Let's have a home for people dealing with additional issues. So we did a couple of clean and sober houses," Lozano said.
At the time, the housing of the addicted, disabled, homeless and mentally ill was still an unmet need in Cottonwood.
"Some people were in recovery, some simply wanted an affordable and safe place to live that was pet-friendly," Lozano said. "It's amazing. Being able to get-up and not have wrinkled clothes, to take a shower, to not to have items stolen or disturbed, all those things. It's quiet, they can catch a bus to class. It's huge."
Lozano is reminded of "Maslow's hierarchy," a theory describing the stages in life that a human moves through based on priorities. For example, the most basic survival needs (such as safety) must be met before a person can free themselves to step-up to the next plateau (such as self-esteem).
"How important is it to a human being to have a house. You can't even think about that job if you are worried about where you are going to lay your head at night," said Lozano.
For Lozano, her life is about linking together the chains of life for strangers so that they can pull themselves out of their current situation.
"It feels really good I'm making a difference, to see how they transform. I had a woman who lost her three children to foster homes. We got her employment, got her counseling and now six months later she is clean and sober. She's now reunited with her children," she said.
Perhaps Lozano's generosity of spirit and unending work ethic is no surprise to those raised in a Hispanic family.
"The one thing I was blessed with was that my parents were very supportive. They instilled in us no matter what, we could do it, but also coupled that with the element of hard work. It doesn't just happen," Lozano said, adding that her father had a respected 35-year career in education.
"My grandfather worked the mines. I remembered working by his side with my brother, doing yard work, when we were very small, five or six-years-old. It was matter-of-fact, if Mom and Dad were working, so were we. You never questioned it, you just understood you would be helping the family unit," said Lozano.
"There was this unwritten rule growing-up that you were going to have to work twice as hard. It wasn't discussed, but it was always understood," Lozano said. "Mom said life isn't fair. I can look back at that and it was the best advice - - it will never be fair."
Lozano is wistful when she thinks back to growing-up in her diverse Cottonwood neighborhood, where "we were all neighbors, it wasn't a big deal." She feels the political climate over the past few years "just clouds it a bit" as the Hispanic community "struggles to reaffirm their hope and that good things can happen."
"I'm very proud to be part of the Hispanic community. I love the music, I love the food, I love the family, the hard work ethic. I feel so proud to be part of such a wonderful community," said Lozano.
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Travis Sanchez, 28, is a coach at CrossFit Glide, an inside-outside fitness facility tucked in the back of the Cottonwood Sears building. He is a solid example of Hispanic youth following a path other than a college degree to achieve an important, fulfilling career.
"Cross fit training is about preparing for the unknown and the unknowable. This type of fitness is not about being the biggest, the fastest or the strongest. We help people become well-rounded, to accept whatever is tasked to them in real-life. That's why it works so well for first responders," said Sanchez. "That's why I got into it, as a first responder class in the Marines."
Sanchez served his country in active duty overseas from 2007 to 2011, then joined the reserves from 2011 to 2015.
"It was more like Navy SEALS, this type of training. Whether out in the battlefield or cops on the street or firefighters going out to a rescue, you don't know what is going to be thrown at you," said Sanchez.
Sanchez's story is about reaching a fork in the road, about making the hard choice between your heart or your head.
Born and raised in Cottonwood, Sanchez graduated from Mingus Union High School, enlisted in the USMC and upon returning home enrolled in aeronautical school at Yavapai College in Prescott to learn how to fly helicopters.
But a funny thing happened while pursuing his degree.
He discovered a cross fit gym in Prescott, got connected with certified cross fit trainer Mike Monge and decided to become certified himself. The two started a project, brought it back to Cottonwood and eventually found additional backing from Heath and Sacha Landsbergand, co-owners of CrossFit Glide.
"I'm really driven and passionate about this. It's not supposed to be my moneymaker, it's my passion. Why would you want to get stuck doing something you don't want to do?" Sanchez said.
"Yeah, I love helicopters, but for me here, helping people change their lives for the better, it's a great accomplishment," said Sanchez. "I love it. I've helped so many people lose weight, give people more confidence. They are able to do things they never thought they'd do."
"For those who are at a loss right now or are not driven or just kind of sitting around or not doing the right thing, find what you're passionate about," he said.
This hit home to Sanchez after losing a childhood friend.
"A friend I grew-up with, he got stuck, went to Phoenix, got into some bad stuff, came back home but couldn't fix himself. One thing he said to me that I always remembered was, 'Don't talk about it, be about it,'" said Sanchez.
When asked what it meant to grow-up in a Hispanic family, Sanchez remembers "it was hard work, discipline, it was family-oriented. When it was somebody's birthday, you all would meet-up."
Perhaps it is this family time that makes it so easy for Sanchez to coach children and teens, both of which he is also certified to train.
"Kiddos need to move. We activates the neurotropic brain function so that they can focus on what they need to do at home, like homework or chores," Sanchez said. "Sometimes the parents like to drive their kids - - 'Come on, do one more' - - but this is not the baseball field, it's not the football field. It's supposed to be fun for kids."
For that reason, Sanchez encourages his young students in a positive manner as they work-out the rough edges. He says he won't have a child lift a barbell until they reach their teens and know how to lift correctly. Working with Sanchez as they do, it's inevitable that his youthful clients look-up to him as a mentor.
"If I had a message for kids, it's that it is important to know where you come from. The value of being bilingual is so effective in this world," said Sanchez. "Spanish is derived from Latin and Latin is everywhere. If you can understand Spanish, you can understand some Italian. It all ties-in."
As for the future of the Hispanic community in the Verde Valley, Sanchez is optimistic.
"I see great athletes. I see hard-working people going to school. I see a lot of Hispanic nurses. I see Hispanic teachers. We have a variety of cultures here. I deal with everyone. I see it becoming tighter as a community," Sanchez said.
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Genaro (Gene) Garcia, firefighter/EMT with the Verde Valley Fire District, lived with a burning childhood dream he could never extinguish. Fortunately, with the blessing and sacrifice of his family, he switched careers and became a full-time firefighter at 38 years of age.
"I've always wanted to do it. I had an incident in my youth and I needed help. The fire department came to help me and I saw how well they took care of us. For the very first time, I felt like I could do this as a career," said Garcia. "And being raised mostly by my mom, she was always helping people out and trying to give to the community. She was a good role model."
"I grew-up in Avondale. I worked a regular job most of my life. When I was about 31, my wife Dina said, 'You've always wanted to be a firefighter. Do it.' She knew when I was 19, I stopped being a fire cadet in Avondale because I was a little shy back then. So I signed-up for EMT and Firefighter 1 and 2 classes. After I got done, I started applying and I got hired as a reserve in Buckeye for a year. But then I had to go back to working my regular job again," Garcia said.
But that wasn't the end of his story. Eventually, Garcia learned that the Verde Valley Fire District was hiring reserves. Even though he already had a job and was coaching on his time-off, Garcia considered adding reserve firefighter to his schedule.
"We talked about it as a family. We have 5 kids. I knew if I was going to be gone in the Verde Valley (he resides in Avondale), I would need my family's full support. There were days I was going to be gone and my wife works, too. I don't know how she did it," said Garcia. "I was thinking about going back to a regular job if I didn't get hired by the time I was 40."
With his family's blessing, Garcia joined the Verde Valley Fire District as a reserve. For over two-and-one half years, Garcia juggled work, family and training commitments. Six months ago, he tested for a full-time position and was hired.
"You have to put your time in to get to know the apparatus and the guys and the area. I worked hard and there were definitely times when I thought, 'Am I ever going to get hired?'" he said. "I've had a lot of help from some great firefighters at Verde Valley along the way. I've learned a lot and continue to learn something new each day."
As one of two Hispanics on the fire department, Garcia feels his role "adds diversity to the department. People come from different walks of like. I know what it's like to have things and not have things. Being a firefighter shows kids if you work hard enough, you can reach your goals."
Another contribution to the community is Garcia's bilingual skills. He often finds himself translating during an emergency.
"There's times when we've come upon a scene and the people are Spanish-speaking only," said Garcia. "You don't see a lot of Spanish people calling-in because of the communications barrier. I told my buddy for us to call for help when we were growing up, we'd have to be really sick. I wish if they have an emergency, they would not be afraid to call us."
"I wish more Hispanics would pursue firefighting. It's dangerous but it's very rewarding," he said. "I'd love for my kids to follow my footsteps."
For Garcia, all the years of sacrifice and hard work are just part of growing-up in a financially-struggling yet caring Hispanic household.
"My mom raised me that if I had five dollars and someone needed it more, I'd hand it to them. My mom was in a similar situation. I've learned to be caring and compassionate and work several different jobs to make ends meet. As the oldest, I had to step-up to be the man of the house and try set an example for my brothers and sisters," said Garcia.
"If you want something in life, work hard enough and do not give up," Garcia said. "I'm very grateful for my job."
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James E. Garcia, director, communications and public policy, Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, has been a very busy man in his life - - playwright, journalist, university lecturer, business owner, radio and TV commentator - - yet the booming demand for Hispanic goods and services will only make him busier.
"Mexico is the third leading trade partner with the U.S., with China in first place and Canada in second place," said Garcia.
"The one thing we know, by the end of this year, Hispanic purchasing power in Arizona will amount to $42.5 billion. We are already at about 125,000 Hispanic-owned businesses in the state, generating $10 billion to the economy every year - - and that trend is not going to change anytime in the future," said Garcia.
"There's a new attitude towards the Hispanic community. Part of it is economic and part of it is political. When you exert substantial political influence, it tends to open doors economically," he said.
"Businesses in general have gotten the message loud and clear because they can count numbers. They get that this market is growing and needs to be catered to and understood in a sophisticated manner so they can sell their product," Garcia said. "What is not known is if the political leadership in the state can be responsive to this new base of voters."
Garcia believes the entrepreneurial spirit of the Hispanic community is a perfect match for growing Arizona's economy.
"We can't ignore the importance of immigrants. Twenty-five percent of new businesses were done by immigrants. Immigrants are real good at one thing - - leaving a place far away and starting over. That is the epitome of an entrepreneur - - 'I don't know where I'm going to go, but I'm going to do this.' They came ready-made with an entrepreneurial spirit," Garcia said.
He told the story of an undocumented worker who was laid-off from her job at a dry cleaning shop. Rather than go back to Mexico, she drove around nice neighborhoods, picking-up discarded junk from the curbs. After gathering and repairing enough items, she set-up shop in a parking lot. Today, she owns her own thrift shop.
"I think that the big thing to understand with our relationship with Mexico is that there definitely was some fallout from SB 1070 (the 2010 Arizona law requiring police to determine the immigration status of someone arrested or detained when there is 'reasonable suspicion' they are not in the U.S. legally). At one point, our government was 'non-gratis' with Mexico. But a lot of damage has begun to have been repaired because the government has been reaching out to Mexico. A lot of doors have been opened again," said Garcia.