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Celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month

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New Orleans’ Hispanic community is an integral part of the fabric of our business and social scene

National Hispanic Heritage Month is observed from September 15 through October 15, celebrating the momentous and historical contributions of American citizens whose ancestry is based in Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. The observation, which initially was only a week long, was expanded to a 30-day period in 1988 by then President Ronald Reagan.

The influence from the city’s own history with Spanish culture is present and flourishing today in our food, architecture and music. It is with great honor that New Orleans Living salutes prominent local figures in the Latino/Hispanic community for their hard work, contributions to the community and a positive image that we hope younger generations look to for inspiration and established leaders continue to support.


PHOTO: FRANK AYMAMI

CHEF ADOLFO GARCIA

In a city regarded as a melting pot of cultures, one chef has made it his business to create a dining experience that not only pleases the palate, but offers his guests a taste of home. And business has been good. While Chef Adolfo Garcia grew up in Metairie, he takes much pride in being of Panamanian heritage. The James Beard Award-nominated Latino chef has ownership in six local restaurants, including Rio Mar, perhaps the restaurant of his where “home” truly speaks to the guest.

After having studied history in college, what were the major influences on you for becoming a chef?

My studies in Latin American history provided me with an understanding of our past, the diversity in our culture and also a deeper understanding of why we Latinos are what we are today. Our journey continued with our development as a people into the United States. Today, I feel like we are a strong vibrant community that will continue to enhance this great country we call home. We bring blood, sweat and tears for our benefit and that of our adopted country, where our children will continue to grow and contribute. The desire to represent our culture through what I know how to do – cooking – I feel can be done with knowledge and respect for our cultural roots.

What flavors can we find in your restaurants’ dishes that represent what “home cooking” means to you?

I always start from home, and the flavors I grew up familiar with. The memories of sofrito, olive oil, garlic, the obligatory rice, beans and plantains. I crave these ingredients daily, regardless of all the trendy things going on in the food world.

How has your Panamanian heritage shaped your career, apart from the obvious influences in your cuisine?

My family’s native country, where I lived for four years in my adolescence, created a benchmark for me as to who I am. Before I lived there, I was a kid from Metairie whose parents spoke Spanish. After seeing and living the Panamanian life, I’ve become more in tune with my heritage and formed a lifelong bond with my roots while having been born in the U.S.

What does it mean to you to represent Latinos in New Orleans?

I identify with my craft strongly and am very passionate about hospitality and all that goes with the business. I try to provide a great environment for my guests, my employees and myself. The ability to perform at a high level serving traditional food with Latin roots has the added benefit that I think puts a true and genuine face on our culture for the uninitiated, despite what other food companies have done to Latin food with their caricature representations of our food and heritage. I want people to leave our restaurants happy, satisfied and with a better understanding about who we are.


PHOTO: DAVID TOMPKINS

DARLENE KATTÁN

Developing, building and sustaining a business is a challenge all entrepreneurs face in the process of making their dreams come true. When you have a like-minded, built-in community you can turn to for support, it may make the task slightly less daunting. Darlene Kattán, the Executive Director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, is there for Latino business owners to assist in achieving those dreams and fostering an economic environment that benefits not only the Latino community, but the state of Louisiana as a whole. Her commitment to the HCC and its members is an unwavering and invaluable resource that continues to improve business relations and progress for all.

In terms of business, how can the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce raise the voices of the Hispanic community and assure they are well-represented?

The Mission of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Louisiana is to foster the continued economic growth, development and promotion of Hispanic businesses and their associations in the state of Louisiana; as such, we represent and advocate for the Hispanic business community and its workers to ensure that they have equal access and opportunity, and that they are treated fairly.

In what ways is fostering economic and business growth among the Hispanic community important to the city of New Orleans as a whole?

There has been a continuous vibrant Latino population in New Orleans going back to the late 1800s. Most people think that Latinos only arrived after Katrina, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The Latinos helped rebuild this city after the storm, and to the degree that the city is moving forward economically today, we owe much of that to the Latino workers who put New Orleans back together brick by brick.

It is also important to note that Latino professionals occupy key roles in the economy of the city. As economic integration is further woven into our local fabric, a rising tide will lift all boats. Growing the capacity of Latino businesses and connecting them to the mainstream economy will mean new jobs, more wealth and more success for everyone.

HCCL is proud to have initiated an alliance and collaboration with the New Orleans Regional Black Chamber of Commerce and the Asian Chamber of Commerce of Louisiana. While we have different backgrounds and languages, as minority businesses, we face the same issues and therefore by working together, we can achieve greater success.

As a Hispanic American woman, what advice can you give to another Hispanic American woman hoping to build and nurture a business of her own?

You must always be prepared and well-studied. Learn the details, read the fine print, have a professional represent you in legal or financial business matters. Know more than your competition. Conduct yourself with the highest integrity and commitment. Respect others as you would have them respect you. Believe in yourself – it’s YOURS if you’re willing to make it happen.

What does it mean to you to represent Latinos in New Orleans?

Representing Latinos in New Orleans is an honor and a privilege –- and I do it with great love and passion.

My father, the late attorney David A. Kattán, was a renowned immigration lawyer and founded the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Louisiana Chapter. I worked in his office for many years watching him fight for the rights of Latinos and all immigrants. He himself was an immigrant and one of the first Latino lawyers in Louisiana. While I could never fill his shoes, as Executive Director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Louisiana, I am following in his footsteps and work hard every day to try to make a difference in the lives of the Latino community.


PHOTO: DAVID TOMPKINS

ALEX GERSHANIK

The paths we travel in life can take us many places. Some of us choose a bohemian lifestyle, while others appreciate a more structured corporate environment. Some aren’t happy with the paths already forged, so they set out to create their own. Alex Gershanik, President and instructor of The Power Courses, decided that education was his calling. When he isn’t assisting his students in their preparations for standardized testing such as the SAT, ACT and PSAT, he is the Vice President of the New Orleans Hispanic Heritage Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving the culture of the Latino community. It is through this and other civic-focused groups that he taps his knowledge of varying disciplines to pave the paths for future generations.

Why did you establish your business, The Power Courses?

After working in law, politics and finance, I thought the profession where I could make the biggest difference in our community was education. I wanted to be able to work with students from different backgrounds and schools, so I created an independent educational consulting firm. We have had the opportunity to work with students from across the city, the state, the country and the world. We have students who attend private, parochial and public schools, as well as home-schooled students. It has been extremely fulfilling to make a big difference for so many students, families, schools and communities.

How does your involvement with Family Service of Greater New Orleans play into your role as community activist?

I have been incredibly privileged to be involved with Family Service of Greater New Orleans for over a decade. FSGNO’s work strengthens the emotional health and fosters the self-sufficiency of families and individuals throughout the entire Greater New Orleans area. The agency has played a vital role in New Orleans since the 1800s and was one of the first agencies back to work rebuilding the community after Hurricane Katrina. Just in my time at FSGNO, the agency has served over 100,000 individuals and families. We learn so much from our service to the agency, especially about the challenges many people in our community face on a daily basis.

As a Vice President of the New Orleans Hispanic Heritage Foundation, what can we do to help preserve Hispanic culture in a city that was once under Spanish rule and now, post-Katrina, has a growing Hispanic population?

The Hispanic community in New Orleans is as vibrant as ever, and the NOHHF has been a leader in providing fantastic scholarship opportunities to area students and promoting Hispanic arts and culture. The Hispanic community in New Orleans is incredibly diverse, and two of our challenges are to be better understood and better organized. The NOHHF plays an extremely important role by bringing together and supporting individuals, families and organizations from a variety of Hispanic cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. Our hope is to develop a greater awareness of the importance, service and vitality of our Hispanic community in New Orleans.

The Foundation places great emphasis on its scholarship program. How are funds raised to help deserving Hispanic students?

The NOHHF scholarship program is our organization’s primary initiative. The program is funded through our annual black-tie fund-raiser, the Azucar Ball. This fantastic event allows the entire New Orleans community, Hispanic and non-Hispanic alike, to enjoy a gala event that includes amazingly talented Hispanic musicians, food from the finest New Orleans restaurants, an incredible silent auction, beautiful art and much more, all put together by a tireless group of dedicated volunteers. To qualify for the scholarships, applicants must have top grades, demonstrate financial need, be nominated by their high schools and receive financial support from their schools.

What does it mean to you to represent Latinos in New Orleans?

I am honored to represent a diverse, culturally rich and super-interesting Latino community. Every Latin American country is represented in our New Orleans community, from Honduras to Argentina, Cuba to Mexico, and every place in between. Latinos are involved in almost every area industry and profession. There are Latino and Hispanic families in New Orleans who have been here for many generations and others who are recent arrivals. The traditions, values and experiences that Latinos bring to New Orleans are invaluable and add to the special nature of our city.


PHOTO: PETER SCHAAF

MAESTRO CARLOS MIGUEL PRIETO

The concept of being “world-renowned” may seem easy to grasp, but once you begin to think of all that entails, you realize there is a whole lot of “world” out there. Maestro Carlos Miguel Prieto has a thorough understanding of this concept. He is currently the music director of the Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional de Mexico (National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico) and the Orquesta Mineria in his native Mexico, not to mention the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. He has been guest conductor for numerous orchestras in North America, every major orchestra in Mexico and orchestras throughout Europe, Israel, Russia, Tokyo and more. But the maestro isn’t only known for his talent for conducting, or his accomplishments as a Grammy-nominated violinist. Carlos Miguel Prieto presented the first all-Mexican program in Hungary and has conducted more than 50 world premieres of works by Mexican and American composers, many commissioned by Maestro himself. The Princeton and Harvard graduate is also a proponent of music education and is principal conductor of the YOA Orchestra of the Americas, a multicultural, world-class symphony orchestra of 100 talented musicians, ages 18 through 30, from more than 20 countries of the Western Hemisphere. It is through his love and passion for music that he brings attention to other Mexican-born artists and inspires the world with a flourish of his baton.


PHOTO: FRANK AYMAMI

ANTHONY AMATO

Education reform is a hot topic in New Orleans politics. The strategies, plans and programs of yesteryear no longer cut it. Today, we rely on technology, innovation and experiences from outside school systems. Anthony Amato has served as teacher, bilingual/multilingual educator, principal and superintendent of schools in large urban cities from New York City to California, and now he leads the International High School as Head of School. Amato’s reputation of dramatically improving the academic success of the students he served precedes him, and he brings that passion for change to New Orleans. In addition to working closely with students, he has also spoken nationally and internationally on the techniques and programs that have garnered positive results and praise. One could say that he’s had a bit of practice at home on the subject of nurturing young hearts and minds; between Amato and his wife, they have seven children, four of which they adopted together.


– LESLIE J. ALMEIDA