A Perfect Storm of Experience

Jessica Cavazos Brings Depth to Latino Chamber of Commerce
By Emily Leas

BORN IN MEXICO to a teen mom, Jessica Cavazos has traveled far to her new role as the executive director of the Dane County Latino Chamber of Commerce. The journey started with her young mother’s example: Work hard and you can obtain your wildest dreams.

“My mother has always been my biggest advocate,” Cavazos says of the woman who decided to leave her infant daughter in Mexico for a job in Milwaukee to build a better life for her family. After Cavazos’ mother had gotten her feet on the ground in the United States, she returned for her 4-year-old daughter. She eventually bought her own house, married and became a legal U.S. citizen through the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act’s  amnesty program.

“This is part of what drives me,” Cavazos says. “The fact that I had a family that came from very little and who has progressively gotten ahead.”

Raised in the inner city of Milwaukee, Cavazos and her younger siblings are the product of almost every social service organization, and she says that every struggle from her childhood has affected many aspects of her career trajectory.

Her work with the first Latino Wisconsin state legislator, Milwaukee Democrat Rep. Pedro Colòn, gave her a taste for politics. But her eight-year assignment as the Latino liaison for Democratic Rep. Gwen Moore, the first African-American from Wisconsin elected to Congress, opened her eyes to advocacy and activism, allowing her to be the voice for Latinos on issues that ranged from education to immigration reform.

Cavazos enters her role at the Latino Chamber at a challenging time for Dane County’s Latino community. A recent study done by the United Way of Dane County showed that the unemployment rate of Latinos increased 88 percent, to 6.8 percent, between 2009 and 2014. That and low wages contribute to a median household income that is lower than all other racial or ethnic groups in Dane County. Yet, Cavazos only sees an opportunity to help drive economic empowerment, which as she notes, can be a powerful tool to propel people toward stability, self-worth and success.

“People are struggling everywhere in the state and sometimes don’t know how to climb out of the system of inequity,” says Cavazos. “But in Madison, I feel like I can be a bridge between the Latino community and really any other community.”

No. 1 on her list is to create an incubator where business owners can meet, grab a coffee, discuss challenges facing their businesses or just have a place to call home base so they can build capacity, add jobs and grow their businesses.

Cavazos also wants to break down the walls of homogeneous business landscapes in Dane County, to create diversity and interconnectedness, not only among the different segments of the Latino community—which is unified as Spanish language speakers, but represents many countries and cultures—but also open doors for non-Latino businesses to employ and work with Latinos.

“In the future, I’d love to do a business expo, not just for Latinos, but for people who want to invest in the Latino community or those who want to attract a diverse market,” explains Cavazos.

Cavazos’ close friend, Tanyette Colon, is not surprised by Cavazos’ aggressive goals. Colon and Cavazos connected immediately at St. Thomas University in Miami when they discovered they came from similar humble backgrounds. And they shared a passion for community and social programs.

“She has always had a true love for empowerment and bringing people up no matter their cultural background,” says Colon. “And she’s real. With her, you get someone that is authentic and ready to make an impact.”

Colon says Cavazos brings “a perfect storm of experience” to her new role. She’s got the political and nonprofit chops for the job, and the authenticity of having lived the challenges that she hopes to improve during her tenure.

For this advocate, mom of three and self-described risk taker, tackling these monumental goals is just another step in Cavazos’ journey, building on her mother’s example of working hard and pursuing your dreams.

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