Cover Story

Cover Story

Thelma Ceballos-Meyers: Challenge Completed

Thelma Ceballos-Meyers: Challenge Completed

por AnaMaria Bech 

Click aqui para español- > Reto superado. Thelma Ceballos-Meyers

Thelma Ceballos-Meyers is the number one State Farm Agent in Louisiana, a great accomplishment for any insurance agent. It’s an even greater accomplishment for a Latina who beat the odds after becoming a teenage mother.

Chances are that you have driven by one of the many billboards with her name and face on display, but what you don’t know is that to get all this recognition and achieve success, there have been great sacrifices.

Ceballos-Meyers “did everything backwards,” she claims, when referring to the fact that she had a baby at 16, finished high school two years after, and got married years later. “I did not become a statistic,” is what she prides herself on when reflecting on her accomplishments and analyzing the outcome of many other teenage mothers.

 Ceballos-Meyers is a very energetic person with a great smile all the time. She is a hands-on type of boss who will greet you in the office, serve you water, answer the phones, and close shop. Even after a steady business and a good financial position, she gets in early and stays up late if necessary. When business is slow, she joins her team to hand out flyers from door to door. Ceballos-Meyers does not sit still.

She met her husband Craig Meyers when she worked at the Sheriff’s Department. After working there for a while, she wondered what else she could do to end the paycheck to paycheck financial cycle. She attempted to be a medical assistant, but cleaning wounds was not for her. She really wanted to be a court stenographer, but classes got canceled because enrollment was low. She then moved on to work as a secretary at a State Farm Agency. Always the hardest working person in the room, Ceballos-Meyers kept looking for a way to bring more money home.

 “When I tell you, I couldn’t buy a pack of gum, that is an understatement.” As a single parent, Ceballos-Meyers had to work hard to provide for her daughter Jessica. For many years, they had just enough. “People live a lifestyle that they cannot afford, but they miss what’s more important,” and for Ceballos-Meyers, providing a good education for her daughter was priority. She chose to pay for private school and forgo nice things for herself like a better car or an expensive handbag.

Being a young mother grounded her. Going out was not an option because even though she found a great support system in her parents and grandmother to help with her child, they would only take care of Jessica for work and school-related activities.

While working at State Farm, Ceballos-Meyers began realizing that agents could earn good salaries. In her former boss she found a mentor and a voice of encouragement who kept reminding her that she had all the capabilities to become a successful agent. State Farm paid for her school, so she attended Tulane University, where she got an associates degree in Business Administration and Marketing. 2007 was the year she graduated, and the year she became a State Farm Agent.

Ceballos-Meyers had a lot of encouragement and support from her former boss, but she also heard negative reasons from other agents as to why she should not attempt her own agency. “There are no clients, they used to tell me. I said, let me figure that out.”

Ceballos-Meyers had noticed that in her area there was no one tapping into the Hispanic market. After Hurricane Katrina there were so many questions about insurance. People, including herself, were so confused with coverages, and she noticed people in the Hispanic community were totally lost. She was ready to fill a need while also carrying out her mission to educate her community.

“State Farm gave me the opportunity, and I was willing to out-work anybody else that they were going to give it to.” On December 1, 2007, just a few months after becoming an agent, she opened the doors to Thelma Ceballos-Meyers State Farm Agency, along with three full-time employees and her daughter, who worked part-time.

“There was no Latina State Farm Agent. I’m the first, and still the only one after 10 years. From day one our goal was to educate our clients about their policies and the financial services.” She knew her grandmother and mother were known in the community, so she dragged them to all her events, and that’s how Ceballos-Meyers began to market herself.

Ceballos-Meyers believes in brand recognition and early-on she advertised in various media while sponsoring several community events. After just three years in business, she opened the doors to her new beautiful facility on 501 Whitney Avenue, where the agency has operated for the last seven years.

Her team now consists of seven full-time employees who can help customers in English, Spanish and Vietnamese. Besides the auto, home, property, business, life and health insurance policies, the Thelma Ceballos-Meyers State Farm Agency also offers financial services.

Ceballos-Meyers remembers the first agency years of 12 to 14-hour long days. She jokes about getting to work at seven in the morning and having moments where she would cry and pray that things were going to go right that day before getting out of her car. Having a supportive husband was key to her success and she makes sure to give credit to her husband Craig. “He knew I did not eat sometimes because I was so busy, so he would bring me lunch.” Together, they would clean the office every Sunday, and if something needed fixing, “Craig was my fix-it guy.” She is also grateful about having assembled a great team. “Team is everything. I cannot do this by myself,” she says and reassures that if anyone was to attempt their own agency, she would be happy to share her knowledge, but “the most important thing is to remember is that it takes a lot of work.”

 Positivity and high energy are evident traits in Ceballos-Meyers. To relieve the mental stress from the job and to stay fit and healthy, she makes sure to work out every day. She started running in her 40’s. Now that her team is established, and business is steady, Ceballos-Meyers devotes some time to training and competing in triathlons, a passion she began at 44. “When you hang out with people who work out, they are so much more positive than people who don’t. Their outlook in life is so much different and I admired that, so I wanted to be like them, and I began to do triathlons.”

Ceballos-Meyers did not know how to swim well then, so she asked a lady at her gym to give her some tips. She ventured into her first triathlon where she had to swim 300 yards in a pool. “I was exhausted,” she laughs, while adding she still had to bike and run. But like with any other challenge in her life, she overcame and now competes all over the region.

Always learning new things and challenging herself is the way Ceballos-Meyers achieves things in life. In looking for ways to help her clients, she discovered AARP discounts. When she realized there were no Spanish AARP volunteer instructors in the state of Louisiana, she took charge, spent the time in training, and became one. She volunteers her limited off hours to provide free classes to adults aged 55 and over, who get a 3-year discount just by attending the class. “Which agent takes the time to tell you if you take the class you can save money?” Ceballos-Meyers asks while adding that the experience has helped her know clients better and people see her willingness to help.

Ceballos-Meyers gives back to the community in many ways. She has served on the boards of multiple organizations, including the Jefferson Workforce, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the AARP Diversity Council, among others. She also supports many charitable community initiatives.

Ceballos-Meyers is in a happy place. After all the sacrificing during her youth to provide for her daughter, she can now devote time to her hobbies. She is an atypical grandmother of three, who enjoys spending time with her family. The New Orleanian, who is the second child of a Guatemalan father and a Nicaraguan mother, enjoys traveling and going to festivals. She loves to dance, even though she does not get the chance to do it that often. She eats healthy food, but can’t resist a Guatemalan breakfast with chirmol, black beans and hand-made tortillas.

Her goal is to keep her company going strong and to invest intelligently, so she can secure a decent retirement. She emphasizes the importance of planning for retirement and is happy to guide people in that respect. “Thelma actually cares,” Ceballos-Meyers says when asked about what people should know about her. She knows the importance of receiving the right advice and getting a helping hand. “I honestly want to help. If I can help within reason, I will.”

 

Media

Romi Gonzalez, An Ambassador of Latin American Culture.

Romi Gonzalez, An Ambassador of Latin American Culture

By AnaMaría Bech

Click aqui para español->Romi González, el embajador de la cultura latina

Romualdo "Romi" Gonzalez has achieved great success as a lawyer, but in his heart there has always been a priority to advocate for the Latin American community in the United States, to highlight the best of this culture and to motivate Latinos living in the country to become active members in their communities. School Years. A step away from the war. The law was the path he chose to follow the advice of his father, Reverend Romualdo Gonzales, Bishop of the Anglican Episcopal Church of Cuba, who told him that it did not matter what profession he chose as long as he could help others. After having obtained his English diploma at the University of the South in Tennessee, and having completed a diploma in Spanish Culture at the University of Madrid, he applied to Law School at Tulane University. It was possible that his duty with military service could interrupt his first semester. Gonzalez became part of the army reserve at Tulane's ROTC in 1972, and on December 1st, his birthday, the fear of going to war dissipated when he found out his lottery ticket would allow him to stay in the country and continue his education. Gonzalez obtained his Juris Doctor degree from Tulane University. It was only until he participated in the law clinics required as service hours to obtain his diploma when Gonzalez got to know people in the Latin American community in the city and reconnected with his cultural heritage. That's how he became known among Latino immigrants. He enjoyed working with his community and becoming a resource of help in various ways beyond legal issues.

 45 years of law, a lifetime of cases

In his 45 years as a lawyer, he has undertaken hundreds of cases, locally and internationally. One of the most significant in his career was when he represented the families of 14 victims of Pan American World Airlines flight 759 which collapsed on a residential area of the city of Kenner, in 1982. He still has contact with one of his clients, Erica Velázquez Aust, the only employee who survived the tragic New Year's Eve fire in the Casino of the Dupont Plaza Hotel in Puerto Rico in 1989. That day, nearly 100 people lost their lives. Gonzalez achieved the highest amount of all the cases from that event and assisted the family during their stay in New Orleans during medical procedures for her client. The success of these and many other cases has allowed him to dedicate his efforts and time to causes that he is passionate about. "Being part of these causes has been very important for me, but nothing causes me more pleasure than being able to help our people," Says Gonzalez, adding that "this is why I have had the desire to start things that have been good for our community, despite our community."

 Pioneer of cultural, economic and civic causes

"Romi" Gonzalez has been the pioneer of countless cultural, economic and civic causes in the city. "The primary goal in my life has been to 'Americanize' our community and expose the best of our culture to the rest of our city, state and country,' and he has achieved it because his profession has allowed him to open some doors. The list in his curriculum of the organizations in which he has participated is extensive. He has been the founder of organizations such as Carnaval Latino, Latin American Chamber of Commerce, The International Cuba Society, The New Orleans Hispanic Heritage Foundation and Jupiter Hispanic Leadership Conference, among others. Some of these organizations continue, some have new names, and some have evolved. Gonzalez has been a member of numerous boards, conferences and commissions such as HISPAC, World Trade Center, NOMA, Mayor Moon Landrieu's Latin American Advisory Committee, National Commission of Hispanic Ministers of the National Episcopal Church, Canal Street Development Corporation, City Building Corporation, and New Orleans Tricentennial Commission, to name a few.

Jupiter Leadership Conference

Gonzalez proudly remembers the Jupiter Leadership Conference, where a group of city leaders went on retreat to discuss, plan and find solutions to the most critical problems for the Latino community. The conferences had the presence of expert speakers recognized at the national level who guided important initiatives, such as The New Orleans Hispanic Heritage Foundation.

The origins of the Chamber of Commerce

Along with professors Ricardo Arellano, a marketing professor at the University of New Orleans, and Ruben Armiñana, former vice president of Tulane University, Gonzalez formed the Latin American Chamber of Commerce, a division of the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce. The idea of forming the Latin American Chamber of Commerce emerged as an initiative for political leaders to include Latino businessmen and bilingual leaders, who could help reclaim New Orleans' position as the main connection to Latin America. For many years, New Orleans had become without much effort the "gateway of the Americas," but when the city lost its largest trading partner with the embargo of Cuba, New Orleans lost its hegemony as such. Gonzalez believes that city leaders had a hard time accepting that they did not have the vision to promote trade with Latin America by strengthening relations with Latin American residents, while Miami welcomed thousands of Cubans who were knowledgeable in the trade business and desperate to make a living. The Latin American Chamber of Commerce got authorities to recognize the importance of a Latino business force in New Orleans.

Episcopal Church Task Force

Being a member of a Task Force convened by the Episcopal Church to do a three year study on the request by the Episcopal Dioceses of Cuba for readmission to the Episcopal church of the United States of America,was very special for Gonzalez. "This was very important to me, as my father was the last Bishop of Cuba before the Cuban Dioceses had to be separated in 1966 from the US church, due to the political fray between the two countries". This reunification is a significant step towards Romi Gonzalez's hope that the relations between the two neighbors would one day normalize.

The party begins! Carnaval Latino

Carnaval Latino (Latin Carnival) has been one of the many causes that Romi Gonzalez has nursed through the years as a flagship of his efforts to promote Latin culture. Carnaval Latino was conceived in 1989 with the idea of offering a platform to showcase local and international musicians and businesses in the City of New Orleans, and to promote the Latino culture to society in general through a professional production free to the audience. The golden years of the Carnaval Latino were between 1989 and 1996, when Canal Street was filled with spectators from what is now Harrah's Casino all the way to the river. At that time, they presented internationally recognized folk groups, and masters of ceremony who would introduce great artists such as Rita Moreno, Celia Cruz, Johny Pacheco, Willy Chirino, Rey Ruiz, Las Chicas del Can and Wilfrido Vargas, among others.

Union and disunion

The success of these initiatives has caused the desire of many people to carry out similar projects. "The saddest thing I have suffered in my whole life is to see the inability of our community to work together. This happened to Carnaval Latino...suddenly there were similar initiatives that wanted to imitate it, we asked them to stay with us, and we asked to work together...," recalls Gonzalez, pointing out the division of efforts and resources as the main reason for the interruption of the Carnival for several years. The division has been a big obstacle for good initiatives to be strengthened. At some point around five Latino-oriented Chambers of Commerce existed in the city, destined for the same purpose. One of the achievements of the second Jupiter Conference in 1995 was an agreement to merge all chambers into one to provide greater benefits for the members, and to represent the business community in a more unified, strong way. The result of Jupiter II was the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Louisiana, which is a very solid institution today. Carnaval Latino was revived in 2007 after Hurricane Katrina. On Saturday, October 13th, Carnaval celebrates its nineteenth edition. During this celebration, everyone will be able to enjoy dance performances and cultural events for free at Washington Park in the Marigny and they will also observe the traditional Parade of the Americas. The celebration will close with live music performances at the iconic House of Blues, during their regular Bamboleo! party! This exhibition of Latino culture will feature activities for all tastes of music and typical foods.

A book, his next step

Romi Gonzalez works constantly to expose the best of our culture in our society. The lawyer confesses that he is preparing a book to collect all the stories he has been involved with. Gonzalez is practically a living encyclopedia and is a chronicler when it comes to the history of our city, its connections to our community, and he knows very well the ties between New Orleans and his native Cuba. Speaking of the legal needs for the immigrant community, Gonzalez believes that "it is important to seek stability for the people who are already here and to show the rest of the community that an undocumented person is not a criminal." For the attorney, the term "undocumented" was sufficient when referring to those who are getting their documentation in order. Gonzalez rejects the term "illegal” and smiles when he mentions that he does not like the term 'alien', adding that "we must teach the rest of the community that we are part of them and not 'aliens'...we did not just fall from the moon."

Family first

Of his greatest pride, Romi Gonzalez does not say much. His eagerness becomes obvious when he meets his sons, Romi and Pablo, in his office on the twelfth floor of the Whitney building just in time for a family portrait. At some point during the conversation about Latin American culture, he mentioned that his late wife Sally Ann Howell, the mother of his children, was an American native of Monroe, Louisiana who greatly enjoyed traveling through various Latin American countries and learning about their different traditions. Gonzalez re-married and currently shares his life with his wife, Sara Lapene Puglia, a successful commercial manager, originally from Guatemala. For a brief moment, the respected lawyer, the entrepreneur and the executive, ceases to be all of this to become simply a father. Between the laughter and jokes with his children who pose for a photo, it is evident that Gonzalez has truly achieved a successful life.

Media

Colmex Construction

The Power Couple Behind Colmex Construction

By Claudia Vallejo

Click aqui para español->Colmex Construction

Angelica and Roman sounds like two names in a love story from Greek mythology, just as Helen and Paris, or Andromeda and Perseus. But this 21st century love story is built -hammer and nails in hand- here in New Orleans.

Angelica is methodical. Roman is creative. She takes care of the numbers. He handles ideas. She likes administration and finances. He prefers the hands-on, technical part. She begins the sentences, he finishes them. Angelica, wife, is the president and Roman, husband, the vice president.

Parents of four children, Angelica and Roman are the Yin and the Yang. Angelica Rivera and Roman Lopez are the co-owners and founders of Colmex Construction, a construction company for commercial, residential and multi-family buildings that has membership in more than seven organizations and has been recognized with awards from Entergy and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Louisiana.

The company has received multiple certifications, including the 10,000 Small Businesses of Goldman Sachs and one from the United States Environmental Protection Agency. In 2018, Colmex Construction celebrates ten years of being founded on June 2nd, to be exact. It was born with three workers and has grown to have 25 employees and 30 subcontractors. From a room as an office in the home of Angelica and Roman, today the company is located in a commercial building of 10 thousand square feet on 4334 Earhart Boulevard in New Orleans.

Originally from Cajicá, a town in Colombia, Roman was Angelica's first boyfriend when she was 13 years old. At 16, she emigrated to Florida: she finished high school, she started working in several companies, she continued her life in the United States... "but she remembered that she had left something good in Colombia!", Roman whispers, and both laugh.

Roman arrives later to Florida. Using his manual skills, he offers maintenance services and then home inspections. The housing crisis, the scourge of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and the invitation of a group of Mexican friends encourage Roman to move to New Orleans to work on the wooden structures of the houses.

He was not as fast as his friends, so he was advised to look for clients... and customers started arriving. "I almost panicked when I learned how they kept their accounts. That's when we decided to organize ourselves," says Angelica. That is how Colmex was born, a name whose first three and last letters are dedicated to Colombia and Mexico.

"There came a time when we understood that we could offer the complete construction service, from building the foundation to adding the final touches to the home," explains Angelica. They obtained the operating licenses, the appropriate permits and contacted non-profit organizations. Angelica says that "continuing education has been the key for growth. It is important that people educate themselves on how to grow their business and on the new techniques that exist within the industry."

Colmex Construction is a family-owned and family-oriented company, which instills a strong sense of belonging and creates spaces of motivation for its workers. Meetings are held every Friday, with lunch included. Recreational activities, such as games Olympiads, are also planned with employees. The company organizes and pays annual holidays with all employees and their families. Employees and family members will spend three days on the beach during the Labor Day weekend. "There are 57 people. We pay for the rooms. We've been doing it for five years now. It is a space in which we share with the children and the husbands and wives of all our employees."

Colmex Construction continues to grow every year, "but our goal is not to cover ourselves with money. Our goal is to continue managing this beautiful team we have," explains Angelica while Roman finishes the thought by adding that "the idea is to continue growing with the working group that we have formed. Many people have been working with us for 10 years. They are still here! It's about that, about valuing them and receiving that human warmth they provide.”

There is no need to look between the lines for a happy ending to this story. Upon hearing them, Angelica and Roman show the value of work, build the concept of family in the workplace, and are an example of a couple that advances in business and gives others the possibility to grow. They inspire love, understanding and a tenacious drive.

Media

Tribu Baharú. Shared Roots

Tribu Baharú. Shared Roots

By Jorge Fuentes

Click aqui para español-> Tribu Baharú. Raíces Compartidas

A recent visit by a Colombian band focused the spotlight on the continuous close relationship between New Orleans and Latin America. Preservation Hall, considered the mecca of our city’s native music, served as the host for Tribu Baharú during a recent residence where the two musical genres found their shared common roots. As far as New Orleans traditional jazz is concerned, Preservation Hall has no equal: a live music venue with performances throughout the week, it boasts its own band, which tours constantly, and is supported by a non-profit foundation that promotes all its activities.

As part of their international music residence program -- which seeks to bring together the city’s musicians with artists from countries whose rhythms influence the music of New Orleans -- Preservation Hall invites different bands to share the stage with their house band. That is how the “champeta champions” from Bogotá were featured on a recent Tuesday night during three sold-out sets.

Champeta music originated from the “sound system” culture in Colombia’s Caribbean Coast, where mobile discos were essential in spreading their mix of rhythms and influences, such as Colombian folklore, Congolese soukous, Haitian kompa and calypso, among others. “We are working hard to grow this music genre and to make it known to the world,” explains Oscar "Moniki", the band’s percussionist. “When music comes together, it touches the audience in their heart,” says Boricua, the founder and guitarist of Tribu Baharú.

As part of the residence program, guest artists also spend time working on outreach activities. In this case, Tribu Baharú, was able to bring their musical style to the radar of youngsters at a juvenile detention center. Pocho, the drummer of the band, explained that this experience was a great opportunity to showcase their genre to the youth of Louisiana, while at the same time, showing at-risk youngsters that there are different alternatives, such as art, when it comes to making choices in life. "It is a chance to show another way of life and to potentially change someone's life," he said.

 Tribu Baharú also got the experience of a lifetime when they recorded music with their local counterparts. Not everyone gets a chance to be part of a collaboration with a legendary New Orleans band, so their time in the land of jazz was even more special. “I would always ask what jazz was. I come from one of the islands in Colombia, and I was told that to really know jazz, one should visit the jazz capital of the world,” said Chindo, the bass player. “This is a dream come true for me.”

Preservation Hall invited Tribu Baharú next year to be part of Kanaval, their new Mardi Gras project. “We protect, preserve and perpetuate all forms of New Orleans culture,” said Preservation Hall Foundation's director of programs Ashley Shabankare. “We’re bridging the gap between jazz and other musical genres,” she said while explaining the mission of supporting music communities beyond New Orleans as part of Preservation Hall's international outreach efforts.

Media

Giovanni Vargas, Making music his business

Giovanni Vargas, Making music his business

By AnaMaria Bech

Click aqui para español->Giovanni Vargas: La música, su empresa

New Orleans is well-known for its great musicians who have been the fruit of a culture that revolves around music. We recognize the artists’ names but fail to recognize all the work and production jobs that all these musicians create. We hear about the producers, composers, and obviously the artists, yet many behind-the-scenes individuals remain anonymous to music industry outsiders.

Giovanni Vargas is well known within the industry, but most people do not know about his accomplishments as a tour manager. This local “Guatemaltico” – a self-coined title reflecting his origin as the son of a Guatemalan mother and Costa Rican father – has worked as the road manager for renowned artists like Barbra Streissand and Fleetwood Mac, and the tour manager for national and international stars such as Lil’ Wayne, Solange, Usher, Nicki Minaj, and Outkast, among many others. Vargas is currently managing American rapper Playboi Carti’s tour, and just made the difficult decision of withdrawing from Shakira’s El Dorado World Tour.

Vargas’s mentor and legendary production manager of many famous music stars Marty Hom offered him a top production position on the tour. After giving this offer a lot of consideration, knowing that the offer was not for the tour manager position, Vargas decided it was better to withdraw from a position that wasn’t in line with his expertise and his goals.

 But how does a young Latino from New Orleans even get that type of offer from a legendary music production manager? Certainly not by chance. It happens with many hours of work and sacrifice paired with a very strong work-ethic and professionalism. And it also takes drive. Vargas got into music since his teenage years at Bonnabel High School. “I did some wrapping back in the day,” he admits timidly, adding “that turned into wanting to make money to buy more equipment”.

He focused on making a career out of his passion and found jobs in promotions and street marketing. He met Sergio Cabrera of MamboMundo.com, who ran a promotions gig for the Latin events in the city. He started promoting the Jorge Moreno, the Havana Nights' soundtrack musician, who was performing at TwiRoPa Mills, the best Latino-run music venue in New Orleans at the time.

Their Latin night, ‘Tumbao’, was always packed, and it wasn’t only Latinos who enjoyed the venue's events. After appreciating the quality of Vargas’s work, co-owner Angel Collazos and his assistant Eduardo Courtade, hired Vargas to handle promotions for the club. This position evolved into handling stage production as there were live performances on a regular basis. Collazos brought Latin acts as well as known bands from other genres, which gave Vargas the opportunity to get into live music production and work with acts such as the Marley Brothers, for example.

Vargas kept exploring the production world, moving on to work in music festivals. He attended Music Business Symposiums held at Loyola University since he was 16 years old, and finally he was able to be part of the action and he was finding a place within the industry.

Reginald Toussaint, son of legendary New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint gave him the opportunity to work at Jazz Fest. Vargas admired Mr. Toussaint for being a New Orleans musician and composer who influenced the national music industry, for becoming relevant in R&B, and for gaining national and international recognition in the industry without having to leave New Orleans or without losing his kind and courteous demeanor. For Vargas, Toussaint and Trombone Shorty are the perfect examples of what he aspires to be: A New Orleans local music industry professionals who make an impact on the industry and who is recognized not only for his quality work, but also for his affinity with people, proving to be pleasant to work with.

Working at the Jazz & Heritage Festival and at Voodoo Fest gave Vargas visibility amongst tour managers of several performers. This also gave him the opportunity to make connections that would shape his career path. One of these connections was made over the phone. After reading a newspaper article his father had pointed out to him about Melissa Giles, Vargas knew he had to reach out to her.

Giles ran a successful women-only street promotion team in Miami when she was only 18 years old. “Reading about a Latina doing things in Miami with a street team was inspirational for me, so I reached out to her and she connected me with people.” Soon after his graduation from Tulane University with degrees in Sociology and Business Administration, Vargas’s work came to a halt because of Hurricane Katrina.

His friend, Pablo Quevedo, a connection acquired through Giles, offered him a job with the tours of Latin stars Don Omar and LDA. He rode the reggaeton wave and worked with many recognized artists of the genre. Once this wave started to phase down, Vargas came back to festival work. In 2009, Vargas booked Questlove for a DJ concert in New Orleans and met Tina Farris, the tour manager for The Roots.

Having become friends, Farris recommended Vargas to Lil Wayne, the world-renowned rap artist, who then hired Vargas as his tour manager. As a tour manager, Vargas is responsible for all the logistics of a tour. He makes all the necessary travel arrangements, books flights and tour buses, deals with immigration documentation, and advances the arrangements with the promoters of the venues where the shows take place. He ensures readiness, so that when his artists arrive to the city and venue of the performance, all needs are taken care of, and everything goes as smoothly as planned.

Vargas takes prides in his performance, considering every show to be a highlight because “there is something you get when you walk an artist on stage and there are 20,000 people screaming. They don’t know anything about me, they don’t know I exist, but I know I’m responsible for making it happen, and it is a great satisfaction.”

‘Gio’, as most people know him, is making his mark and getting the recognition he deserves as a successful tour manager from New Orleans. To Vargas, it is very important to represent New Orleans as well as possible, so that those in the industry may recognize that business talent also exists in the city. Vargas wants to change the perception of New Orleans which he learned during the Loyola symposiums he attended as a teenager, that there is great music in NOLA, but no great music business resources to service the talented musicians.

“My goal is always to be a catalyst in some way shape, or form, bringing the music business into New Orleans a bit more,” explains Vargas, who sets the bar high for professionalism when his company, Monopoli Projects, is hired to handle any event.

 Vargas hopes to spend more time in New Orleans to push for a music business culture change. He is working with a group of colleagues, including his friend PJ Morton, by meeting with the mayor to advocate for music business in the city. This group of music industry professionals believe New Orleans should have a NARAS Chapter to help foster music business, so Vargas is supporting Morton in that mission.

Vargas believes the music business community and the Latino community of New Orleans are similar because they are underrepresented and do not have a voice at the decision-making table. He understands his voice is needed and is committed to working to improve the conditions of both communities.

When asked about which artists’ tours he would like to manage he took his time and answered, “I am a huge fan of D’Angelo. I am a huge fan of Ruben Blades…those are probably two I’d like to do.” In that answer one can understand how his bicultural experiences have enriched his life. His mind is open to enjoying culture, traveling, relating and working with completely different personalities, working hard and representing who he is: A New Orleans-Latino-Music Industry Professional.

He wishes more people to expand their minds by experiencing other cultures, and would like to see a mesh between Americans and Latinos in New Orleans. “If you are American don’t be shy to walk into a Latin joint to eat. If you are Latino do not go only to the concert of ‘El Torito’. Go and try new things, experience other cultures because you may not like them…you may LOVE them.”

Mayra Pineda a Champion for Business

Mayra Pineda a Champion for Business

By AnaMaria Bech

Click aqui para español ->Mayra Pineda Campeona Empresarial

From the 10th floor of her Poydras office, Mayra Pineda directs all the efforts of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Louisiana and its Foundation. The Honduran native moved to the city in 1980 when her mother widowed and decided to try a future with her young children in New Orleans, where she was offered a position with the Consulate of Honduras.

Pineda is no stranger to hard work. Pineda held jobs in the service and tourism industries. She worked for a Honduran airline, the Hyatt and Double Tree Hotels, among others, and was herself an entrepreneur managing a franchise restaurant for 25 years.

Her poise, elegance and demeanor make a lot of sense when one finds out she followed in her mother’s footsteps and became the Consul General of Honduras. Pineda master the art of diplomacy, a relevant skill for her current endeavor where she must mingle with government officials, business leaders, and members of the Hispanic Chamber who come from diverse backgrounds.

Throughout her career she has been involved in the business community and served on the boards of various organizations. She volunteers her time with other organizations because through serving she also gets access to networking opportunities and to interesting insights that can be applied in her leadership position.

After serving on its board for many years, Pineda was named President and CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Louisiana and the Hispanic Chamber Foundation in 2014. She had a head start on this role because as the president of the board, she had a very clear idea of how the chamber needed to address the need of its members.

Pineda turned around the organization which is evident in the growth of membership, the sponsorship from corporations, the involvement of the National Hispanic Chamber with local events, the monthly seminars, conferences and trainings offered, and the recognition by government officials who are aware of the economic impact of Hispanic entrepreneurial efforts.

Last May, Pineda was named with the Minority Business Champion by the Louisiana Economic Development and the U.S. Small Business Administration. The award was given at a ceremony at the Governor’s Mansion. Pineda had to rush to it in a marathonic effort after leaving the very successful Annual Women’s Business Symposium that was taking place the same day.

Even though this isn’t the only award the she has received during her presidency, this one “touched my heart. It summarizes in three words what we are trying to do--be a champion for small businesses,” said Pineda.

In her day to day, Pineda attends several events. From business breakfasts to evening galas, she makes sure she attends and supports as many events of other organizations as possible. She understands how much work goes into creating these events and how important it is for people to attend. Hector Pineda is a great supporter of his wife. He copes well with the fact that sometimes the businesswoman gets home late at night just to sit at her computer to take care of pending items. He supports her and accompanies her when required and according to Pineda, he is happy to see her succeed. The fact that their son Hector Rodrigo Pineda is already married, makes it easier for Pineda to focus on her job and to put in the extra hours required to lead a successful chamber of commerce.

 One her short-term goals is to increase participation of members in the chamber’s events. Belonging to any chamber of commerce is essential for anyone wanting to run a business.  “The more businesspeople unite in this or other organizations, the bigger impact we create for others to take us into account”, says Pineda.  “I understand small business owners get absorbed with the day to day operations, but it is important to step outside and attend the events” explains Pineda.

Members get the most from the chamber when they make the effort to participate, when they make connections with other business people and when they find out about available resources. “Stepping out allows for the growth of their company and the chamber allows this opportunity,” she affirms.

Capacitation with the National Hispanic Chamber has been a great resource. Through this relation Pineda has been able to put Louisiana on the radar for big corporations that were not listening at the local level. Benchmarking with chambers from other cities has also fostered ideas and programs that have been successfully replicated in Louisiana. This becomes essential, especially as New Orleans celebrates 300 years and is in a great moment for economic development.

“Our geographic location and diverse culture makes New Orleans a gem” adds Pineda. The attraction of investments from technology companies, the relatively low cost of living, and the many events in the city are attracting young professionals and entrepreneurs. New Orleans is the place to be, according to Pineda: “We have the best food in the world, a unique lifestyle with diverse festivals, an unmatched geographical location. I love living and working here.”

Interacting with people, being up-to-date on what’s happening in the state regarding economic development and being able to pass that information to the chamber’s members provides great motivation for Pineda.  She is the happiest when she sees one of her members get the benefit of doing business and growing their company thanks to a connection that the chamber facilitated. One example is Juan Barreto from Promo Ad and Orleans Embroidery who met corporate representatives through the chamber’s events and is now fulfilling large contracts with Entergy and Blue Cross Blue Shield, to name a few.

“I’m satisfied personally and professionally. I have a lot of fuel to keep going and want the chamber to continue to grow” says Pineda. Just as the Chamber accomplished the goal of opening the Bilingual Workforce Training and Business Development Center, Pineda’s long-term goal is to create a Business Development Center for Women Entrepreneurs, and idea that is in the works and that came from the connections made at the National Hispanic Camber level.

Pineda would like all professionals and entrepreneurs to join the growing Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and to participate in the events to take advantages of the opportunities and benefits that come with the membership.

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Success with Latin Flavor

Success with Latin Flavor

By AnaMaría Bech

Click para español - Éxito con sabor latino

While attending Delgado Community College, Edgar Caro and Antonio Mata became close friends, which was preserved during their student years and strengthened as they grew as adults.

Mata, a Salvadoran native, focused on his education, continuing his undergraduate degree in Finance from the University of New Orleans. Even though he worked as a waiter during summers in Missouri, and at the restaurant Azul in New Orleans, his objective was always to find a job in corporate America and climb the corporate ladder.

As Mata attended college, a Chef was being made. Caro opted to use real world experience as his school and began working in the kitchen of Cooter Brown’s. It was there he learned the basics of the business. Caro worked in various positions and was quickly captivated by the service industry. He has fond memories of his experience at Veracruz, a restaurant that served the college crowd and a job where the owner trusted him to freely manage the place.

After other ventures, Caro was seduced by fine-dining during his time at the steakhouse The Living Room in Uptown. “I fell in love with that environment, with fine dining, with high end service, with bourbon and with fine wines,” confessed the Chef. Chef Caro later gained recognition with his hit Latin American restaurant Barú Tapas on Magazine Street. Inspired by the flavors of his native city of Cartagena in Colombia and refining his extensive knowledge in various areas of the business, with Barú, Caro revolutionized the expectation of Latin American cuisine in the city.

Antonio Mata watched his friend’s success while working as the manager of the French Quarter artisan stores Latin’s Hand. With his aspirations of growing in management, he went on to pursue an MBA. His other wish was to apply his business knowledge in a venture with his friend Caro, but there had been failed attempts at securing a venue.

“I had given up and thought my only option was to seek a corporate career in Miami or Houston. Two weeks before my MBA graduation, Edgar called me," said Mata, as he remembered how the opportunity to open a restaurant together finally came true. The Caro-Mata partnership was solidified with their first business, Basin Seafood & Spirits, where all finance theories Mata learned in school were tested.

Basin offered traditional New Orleans dishes--a category with fierce competition that forced the co-owners to find creative ways to stand out. Basin served as a training ground for the two men and made their partnership stronger. They learned essential industry lessons like the importance of consolidating a skilled kitchen team, and the need to design a delicious, but cost-effective menu. The administrator and the Chef realized catering to different crowds and experimenting with strategies to attract customers was necessary to survive. “We understood how to satisfy our customers without compromising our integrity,” explained Caro about turning the restaurant around while preserving his vision.

The partners overcame hardships with perseverance and dedication. A couple of years after opening, the Magazine Street restaurant became a favorite place for brunch, a preferred location for cocktails, and a main destination for fresh oysters. After the rigorous training at Basin, where Mata even learned to cook, the duo launched their second venture, Brasa Churrasquería last June.

This fine dining concept was ideal for the affluent crowd of Old Metairie, where the co-owners quickly seduced a clientele typically accustomed to European cuisine. Brasa Churrasquería is a South American steakhouse, the only one in town that prepares meat in a traditional firewood grill.

Brasa offers a farm to table experience daily with regional ingredients and Latin flair. The menu is not limited to signature premium cuts of beef, but includes lavish appetizers and meals with vegetables, chicken and fish. Everything can be paired with wine from the select list or with an exotic cocktail from the internationally stocked bar. “Our clients are a new generation of professionals open to trying new flavors,” explains Mata, who was pleasantly surprised by a crowd comfortable with sitting at the bar to enjoy cocktails and small bites.

In less than a year, Brasa Churrasquería has become one of the most desired restaurants in the area. It is a dream come true for Mata and Caro, who had long planned to develop a high-end concept that included traits of their cultural background and some of their favorite flavors. When questioned about what was in the works, Chef Caro quickly answered, "mi Mexican restaurant." 

The duo recently traveled to the Oaxaca region and Mexico City for research and inspiration for their third and current project. Zócalo Cocina & Cantina is Chef Caro's concept of authentic traditional Mexican meals mixed with street food. A casual, hip atmosphere designed in the extinct Vega Tapas venue will offer hand-made tortillas, a variety of mezcal and tequila brands.

Zócalo caters to the young professionals and their families. “We are going to maintain fair prices and create a fun design for this place,” says Mata.

Zócalo Cocina & Cantina is sure to become the next quick success for these two hard-working friends. It will open late Spring.

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Publisher's Note

As the holiday season approaches the first thing on my mind is "I can't believe the year is almost over!"

Thanksgiving is the perfect opportunity to count the many reasons why we should be grateful, so I take this opportunity to thank first, our readers and supporters. We are still a young project and it is very rewarding to hear your comments and to receive words of encouragement. I feel very grateful and flattered every time someone says they love what we are doing.

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