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Tanya Gonzalez: A Career of Culture

Witnessing the triumphs of a community working to achieve the “American dream,” and helping families that have had a family member deported, are just a few of the events Tanya Gonzalez, manager of the Hispanic Liaison Office in Richmond, experiences during a day at work.

Gonzalez has been the manager of the Hispanic Liaison office since 2004 and describes her job as a juggling act because the office works in reaction to the needs of the Hispanic community it serves.

 Gonzalez’s roots are in Mexico, where her father was born. A disconnect from her culture during her teen years left Gonzalez searching for her roots in college. Eventually she was able to reconnect with her Mexican heritage and that has translated to her work with the Richmond Hispanic community. Gonzalez’s Hispanic culture isn’t just a part of her past but part of her daily life and the way she combines her passion for culture with her compassion for the people she serves.

 “I think that this job for her [Gonzalez] isn’t just a job, it’s almost like a mission,” Mayela Heifetz, a volunteer at the Hispanic Liaison Office, pointed out.

Gonzalez explained that she spent her formative years growing up in McAllen, Texas, located along the border between the United States and Mexico. According to Gonzalez, her father, a Mexican, has lived in the United States for more than 40 years now, but her mother was born in the United States. Gonzalez explained that her mother has always embraced the Mexican culture and speaks Spanish as well.

Gonzalez was able to preserve her Hispanic heritage because both of her parents emulated the Hispanic culture. At 4 years old, Gonzalez was introduced to dance, the one thing that helped her revisit her roots. In McAllen, she took ballet, jazz, Mexican folk dancing and Spanish Flamenco. However, Gonzalez’s family moved to Albany, N.Y., when she was 13 and there weren’t as many cultural options for dance. After the move to New York, Gonzalez said she left behind her once bilingual existence and lost touch with her culture for a period of time.

            “I didn’t know I was “Mexican” until I left McAllen,” Gonzalez said.

            A large portion of the people that live in McAllen are Mexican or Mexican American so Gonzalez said she didn’t know that she was “different” until after she moved to New York. Only a year after moving to New York, her family settled in Richmond, where they still live. Gonzalez said that it wasn’t until she went to college at Brown University that she was able to connect with her roots again.

At Brown she joined a dance group that practiced traditional Latin American dance along with more contemporary dances like the Salsa and the Meringa.  During college, Gonzalez studied abroad in Mexico which is where she was able to regain some of the Spanish she lost after moving away from McAllen. She said the experience gave her the opportunity to see Mexican society from the eyes of a young adult rather than as a young child visiting family.

“The most important aspect of the trip was understanding the classism dynamics of Mexico and seeing why people make the decision to go to the U.S.,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez explained while she was in college in Rhode Island she noticed there was a well established Hispanic community and organizations that provided services to the community. During summer breaks, she would return to Richmond where she would notice that the Hispanic community was growing, but there weren’t resources for that demographic in Richmond.

Gonzalez explained that after graduating from Brown, the growing Hispanic community is what pulled her back to Richmond. She said she knew she wanted to be a part that community and all the changes that were taking place regardless of the results.

“I was a Latin American Studies major so I knew I wanted to do work with the Spanish speaking community and in Providence there’s already a large established Latino community. I could see there were agencies and organizations that had services, that provided services and I knew that here in Richmond that didn’t exist,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez taught Spanish for a year at Matoaca High School in Chesterfield. From there, she worked for Refugee and Immigration Services which is now Commonwealth Catholic Charities.

One of her co-workers, Wilken Fernandez, an interpreter for the Hispanic Liaison Office, said he remembers meeting Gonzalez nine years ago when she worked for Refugee Immigration Services. Fernandez explained that Gonzalez helped his family enroll his daughter, who will graduate from U.Va. this year, in a local school. Fernandez has worked with Gonzalez for five years now and said her passion to serve the underserved shows through the impact she has had on the Hispanic community.

Her [Gonzalez’s] Mexican roots, and her passion for the diverse Hispanic heritage, have also played a very important role in her interaction with the community that she serves,” Fernandez said.

It has been eight years since the Hispanic Liaison office opened its doors, and Gonzalez said she hasn’t had a chance to catch her breath. Gonzalez was hired as the manager of the office and her co-worker, Paz Ochs, was hired as the liaison. Initially there wasn’t any space within a government building for the office, so it was located in a private building in the heart of the Hispanic community. She said this was a blessing in disguise because the staff was able to build trust within the Hispanic community before moving to a government building.

“The one thing I would have done differently is to be able to plan for six months and then open up and start services, but the need was such that we couldn’t do that. We really did not have the option to do that. So it was like from day one, people sort of already knew me from the work I was doing with Refugee and Immigration Services,” Gonzalez said.

Now, the office is located at 4100 Hull St. Road. At first the change in location became a challenge for the Hispanic community because the government building was initially protected by a security force that was unable to speak Spanish with patrons trying to access the office.

Now the Hispanic community seeks out the new office for assistance frequently. The size of the Hispanic Liaison Office has doubled as the volume of patrons increased, and since the new office opened, the number of full-time employees has doubled as well. The growth of the office is in response to the growing Hispanic population living in Richmond, she explained.

Gonzalez said the language barrier is a consistent challenge among the customers the Hispanic Liaison Office caters to daily.

“We sort of have that dichotomy of needs that we interact with on a daily basis from the people that are really just trying to survive day to day, to the people that have been here now for awhile, are making it, are becoming successful, and sort of want to go to that next level of the ‘American Dream,’” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez explained that the work that the Hispanic Liaison Office does is divided into three categories. The first is working to provide immigration assistance by referring newcomers to different places around Richmond that can provide services to meet their needs. For example, she explained that the Hispanic Liaison Office doesn’t provide English as a Second Language classes, but they can help clients find the class that is right for them.

The second area of assistance the office provides to the Hispanic community includes all community building activities. Gonzalez said that, from now until April, the Hispanic Liaison Office is offering a tax site at Ramsey Memorial Church, located at 5900 Hull St. Road, to anyone who needs tax preparation assistance. She explained that, although the office sees primarily Spanish speaking clients, this tax site is open to anyone who meets the maximum income to have their taxes prepared through the site. Gonzalez also mentioned that Paz coordinates with the Virginia Poverty Law Center to make a legal clinic available to assist victims of domestic violence with their immigration paperwork.

Finally, Gonzalez said the third area focuses on working internally with different departments within the city. The Hispanic Liaison Office helps city departments hire more bilingual staff, Gonzalez explained. She added that the office looks at brochures or listens to phone systems for different city departments to ensure that they are bilingual accessible. Gonzalez said the office is responsible for making suggestions that would ultimately make it easier for people who speak Spanish and are in the process of learning English to access these resources.

Gonzalez explained that, although her job as manager of the Hispanic Liaison Office is a hectic one, the wide range of work and the community that she serves keeps her there. Unlike some supervisors, Gonzalez comes in contact with the people she is working for on a daily basis, which means she hears the triumphs of people who are making it in the United States and the stories that break her heart about families being torn apart.

“We see some of the most amazing people come through the office, and a lot of times people that are experiencing very difficult situations and hardships. Resiliency and just spirit we see of the people we interact with is amazing, and I’m humbled by that almost every day,” Gonzalez said.

Although the office is on the local government level, she pointed out that the full time staff is faced with issues that have stemmed from federal government policies. Gonzalez said she has seen more families that have felt the effects of deportation, some losing the person who provided for the family, and they come to the office to get assistance. She explained that the Hispanic Liaison Office is not allowed to lobby or advocate in response to federal legislation, but she does let people know who their representatives are and how to contact them.

Gonzalez said immigration is often portrayed in the media as a “polemic and just divisionary issue,” but that isn’t the case if people would look at the human side of the issue.

“Unfortunately, we’ve [citizens in the United States] gotten to the point where there almost can’t be any dialogue about it [immigration] because people are so divided over it. Politicians use it in ways to further their careers and get votes versus trying to really figure out the right solution,” Gonzalez said.

The Hispanic Liaison Office is working to bridge the gap between cultures to display the beauty of a variety of cultures through their Imagine Festival that is held every year at Broad Rock Park. Gonzalez said that cultural exchange can be used as a strategy for community unification.

Not only does Gonzalez’s day job provide a way to preserve the Hispanic culture while also helping immigrant families adapt to a new environment, in her free time she remains closely tied with her roots through a dance group called La Mezcla Que Baila where she met her husband, Ricardo Ramirez. Gonzalez said that she was the director of the group when Ramirez joined, and eventually their loved blossomed as the group performed throughout Richmond.  She said they both share a love of Mexican folk dancing.

Heifetz described Gonzalez as very interested in not only Mexican culture but in learning about other cultures as well. Heifetz said Gonzalez doesn’t have a work schedule because she is constantly involved in the community she serves. In her time away from work Gonzalez said she enjoys watching horror movies and she has a secret talent for music mixing, a metaphor for the life she lives.