Beyond the fiesta

By Merrill Wolf

RALEIGH, N.C. – M. Zulayka Santiago, the new leader of El Pueblo, North Carolina’s largest and only statewide Latino advocacy organization, knows first-hand what it means to work hard to make a better life in a new country.

She was only 6 when her mother, whom she describes admiringly as a “warrior,” moved her and her sister from Puerto Rico to Louisiana, where her uncles had jobs at an oil refinery.

By working long hours, the native of the Dominican Republic eventually was able to move the girls to Massachusetts and set them on the path to success.

“She’s a reflection of what I want to be,” Santiago says, “an amazing woman…who doesn’t have any academic education but has struggled through life and done her best to provide opportunities for her two daughters.”

Santiago says both her mother’s example and the Church tradition in which she grew up led her to a career in public service and a freshman-year internship at an after-school program for minority children in New York City confirmed that direction.

Now, as the new executive director of El Pueblo, she plans to address issues facing the state’s Latino population, including immigration reform and access educational opportunities.

After completing college and graduate school, earning a master’s degree in public administration, Santiago spent three “emotionally draining” years expediting child abuse, neglect and dependency cases through North Carolina’s juvenile-court system.

To recover, she went to northern Arizona and worked with The Boys & Girls Clubs, returning in 2003 to the Tar Heel State and taking a job as director of youth programs for El Pueblo, Inc.

M. Zulayka Santiago

Job: Executive Director, El Pueblo, Raleigh

Born: Guayanilla, Puerto Rico, July 4, 1975

Education: B.A., Pan-African Studies, Barnard College, Columbia University; M.P.A., UNC-Chapel Hill

Family: Single; mother and sister in Rockingham

Hobbies: Nature, dancing, hula hoop

Inspiration: Her mother

Book recently read: “The Temple of My Familiar” by Alice Walker

In December, Santiago was named the 12-year-old organization’s executive director, replacing its longtime leader, Andrea Bazan-Manson.

Bazan-Manson helped found the group, led it since 1999 and recently left to head the Triangle Community Foundation in Research Triangle Park.

The shift in leadership comes at a time when numerous new challenges face El Pueblo, which is perhaps best known for the Latino cultural festival it organizes each year.

Now held at the N.C. State Fairgrounds in Raleigh to accommodate the growing crowds, La Fiesta del Pueblo drew more than 60,000 attendees in 2004, compared to about 2,000 in 1994, its first year.

It is the largest annual event of its kind in the Southeast.

The festival’s exploding growth mirrors that of North Carolina’s Latino population, which nearly quadrupled during the 1990s and is now growing faster than any other state’s.

Current estimates put the number of Hispanic residents at about 650,000, more than 7 percent of the state’s total population, and about half of them are thought to be undocumented.

That growth has dramatically expanded the scope of El Pueblo’s work, which now includes advocacy, public-safety education, leadership-development and cultural programs.

Among the key issues Santiago expects to be on the organization’s agenda in coming years are the currently hot topic of immigration reform and promoting educational opportunities for Latinos.

One strategy she plans to pursue is forging stronger relationships with other relevant groups in the state, such as the Charlotte-based Latin American Coalition.

“I am most excited about coalition-building,” Santiago says, “working with other Latino organizations grappling with similar social-justice issues and being creative about ways to work together.”

She also plans to look for opportunities for El Pueblo to work more directly with grassroots organizations.

Before making major decisions about whether or how to change El Pueblo’s focus or strategies, however, Santiago intends to do a lot of listening, including traveling across the state to hear community leaders’ views of the organization and its role.

That input will help El Pueblo’s board and staff clarify and perhaps redefine its mission, Santiago says, and develop a strategic plan.

There are no immediate plans to increase either the $1.3 million budget or the staff, which currently includes 14 full-time employees, two Americorps volunteers and an intern, she adds.

“For now, my priority is to take a minute to reflect, look at where we are and determine if it’s in our best interest to expand or focus on tailoring our programs,” she says.

Santiago says she is excited, if somewhat daunted, by her new position but she believes she has the energy, enthusiasm and humility to do it well.

“I am very open to feedback and to tailoring the organization to best fit the community’s needs,” she says. “To me, the construction worker is as important as the state worker.”

As for the challenge of filling the shoes of her predecessor, who is beloved by North Carolina’s Latino community, Santiago has a ready answer: “I have my own shoes,” she says. “I’m not trying to fill anyone else’s.”

Besides, she adds, she’s not in this alone.

“Because I’ve been part of the staff for two years, it feels like all of us are stepping up to this challenge together,” she says.

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