Karen Menendez Coller

Karen Menendez Coller, director of Centro Hispano, moved to Madison and took the position in 2013.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of the economy and added to the insecurity felt by those living in vulnerable communities, raids by federal immigration officers in 2018 and 2019 shook Madison’s Latinx community and brought into closer focus the need for the outreach provided by Centro Hispano.

“We all carry a lot of trauma and a lot of wounds at Centro Hispano,” Karen Menendez Coller, Centro’s executive director, said last week during a virtual event. “We really focus on those wounds and how we are going to heal and really come together to come out of all these struggles … I tear up a lot and a mentor of mine gave me advice a long time ago saying, ‘Own your heritage.’ Especially as a woman of color. It’s important for us to share our heart.”

As problems pile up during the pandemic and its response, even the fights over those ICE raids seem like better days compared to what people — especially undocumented immigrants — are experiencing. And Coller said she is more committed than ever to embrace the hardship of every obstacle the Latinx community faces while showing the leadership needed to make a difference. 

“So many people dealing with the COVID outbreak are undocumented people who don’t ge tthe help or benefits because of their immigration status,” Coller said. “Because of all these wounds being constantly inflicted on our community and country, you see us being more vocal. And that’s because these wounds need to be healed in the right way.”

Outreach and community partnerships seem to be what the right way is for Coller. Centro Hispano, which has been a community outreach leader in Madison since 1983, has helped to create the Latinx Consortium for Action Relief Fund specifically for the Latinx community, including undocumented workers and immigrant-owned small businesses. 

The partnership, which includes the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County as well as the United Way, allows undocumented workers and small business owners to apply for relief funds to help offset the economic hardship caused by the coronavirus. 

“Karen is a humble, inspiring and passionate leader who cares deeply about her team and her community,” Centro Hispano director of advancement Nina Gehan said. “I am honored to work by her side to help strengthen the capacity of Centro so it can better serve our community today and in the future. I also consider Karen one of my closest mentors and friends. At Centro, she has created a space where we can each come to work as our whole selves. Where we can approach with heart and passion our work for the community.”

As of April 20, the fund had raised $430,000. 

“Collectively, we’ve made great strides,” Coller said. “The Latinx Consortium for Action was a big help. It was a lot of trust-building and understanding of each other. That doesn’t happen enough in this city. We’ve been able to be a lot more vocal together.”

Centro Hispano continues to be available to the community during the pandemic. Staff are working remotely during regular business hours and Centro’s employment support programs are being conducted virtually. 

But beyond the programming and outreach, what Coller specifically wants people to understand is that the Latinx community is as much a part of Madison as everyone else. Being recognized only when new studies are released is just as hurtful as anti-immigration rhetoric, she said.

“I have seen so much progress in the last seven years, but there are some really obvious gaps,” Coller said. “When I go to a presentation of a report and we might not be talked about at all. When people are still asking me what it is to be an immigrant. For you to really hear me, you need to understand me. We’ve made a lot of progress in voices in spaces but we need to make progress in getting to know one another.”

During last week’s presentation, Centro Hispano aired a powerful video produced by Bravebird, a minority-owned Madison production company. The video, which featured a Madison youth named Maritza Quechol and was shot in the empty Centro Hispano building, showed both Quechol’s personal journey and the power of Cenrtro Hispano’s work. 

In the video, Quechol details what it was like to meet Coller and what her leadership has meant to Quechol throughout her early life. In the video, she calls Coller “LadyBoss” and says Coller is the first woman she watched fulfill a leadership role often dominated by men. 

As of May 4, Public Health Madison & Dane County reported 440 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 22 deaths. 

But stakes are highest among the undocumented immigrant population. The LCA gathering funds for people who will not benefit from any national stimulus packages, unemployment benefits or any form of public aid is vital, as is accurate information to deliver to undocumented populations. 

“It’s not only about how COVID-19 is affecting our families now, it’s how it’s affecting our undoumented community,” Coller said. “It’s how they’re all going to be able to bounce back after things start to stabilize a little bit more. How can entities like Centro be nurturing, healing spaces so that the families can stabilize and move forward.”

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued a statement in March that said there is no restriction against undocumented people having access to testing, screening or treatment of COVID-19. 

Pregnant women in Wisconsin are able to receive care regardless of immigration status and in the event of a health emergency, including COVID-19, emergency rooms and federally funded hospitals cannot turn away patients.

In the economic wake of Covid-19 it has become clear not just to administrators at Centro Hispano, but to nonprofit organizations across the county that having dollars in reserve for future crises is vital. Centro Hispano helps undocumented immigrants who have no other way of receiving financial help as well as provides programing to K-12 youths. Anyone interested in helping can go to micentro.org/give.html.

CORRECTION: This article originally misstated the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Dane County. It has been corrected.