By: Mario Alegre-Barrios
IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN family —she remembers—, always that constant presence of her parents and siblings (“having siblings is always crazy,” she says), the connection with her mother —Olivia—, who was the one who was home a lot more than her father —Luis—, because he was going to work, but —also always— holding the emotion of waiting for his return.
“Run to hug and kiss your dad,” Olivia would say with loving enthusiasm to her five children when her husband returned in the afternoons from his job as Director of the Chihuahua-Pacific Railroad, as a promoter of harmony in the family and of the virtue of missing her father, Gloria Kat Canto never languished: they would hear the car arrive, shortly after the sound of the keys which Don Luis would leave on the table before kissing and hugging little Gloria—the youngest of the five— would hug his legs so that her father would lift her up, first above his head, and then lower her a little, to face level, for that unique and unforgettable kiss.
Always —since those first childhood memories in the city of Chihuahua, Mexico, in the 1970s— Gloria has been surrounded by family; first and in perpetuity, that of blood, her parents and her four siblings (Luis, Reyna, Oscar and Olivia); later —for three years— the clan of The Family Center / La Familia, a non-profit organization located in the city of Fort Collins, in the state of Colorado —which offers support services to families, especially those of immigrants Latinos—of which she is its Executive Director.
We recently spoke via Zoom under the guise of celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month, Gloria, at La Familia headquarters; I, from my home in Puerto Rico, always with that curiosity usually shared between countrymen when both are linked by nostalgia for the homeland, as is our case.
Originally, from Ciudad del Carmen, in Campeche, and with an early childhood in Chihuahua, from the age of 4 Gloria grew up in Mexico City (the eternal “de efe” for the “chilangos” at heart). As a child, she remembers, she often played investigator, like a detective looking for clues to solve the mysteries her creative mind would write.
“Everything I did was always some kind of experiment,” she recalls. I played in the garden and collected whatever I could find… stones, leaves. I would classify them and try to do something innovative with it. She remembers going to the kitchen and mixing up whatever seasonings she could find. “Creating something new, that was my favorite game. I lived in Chihuahua until I was 3 or 4 years old and from that stage the memories are very few.”
(Her house, her dog, roasting chiles with her mother…)
In the mid-1970s, the family moved to Mexico City, to the Narvarte neighborhood on Palenque street, near Xola and Obrero Mundial streets, and the Miguel Alemán Viaduct.
(On that street –-Palenque # 468– lived my aunt Nora, the matchmaker of my courtship with Ana Mayra, Cuban migrant from Puerto Rico who would become the mother of my children, Mario, movie buff and journalist; and Analía, Director of Development of The Family Center / La Familia)
Evoking that girl she was, Gloria asserts that she always remembers herself with many possibilities to be creative. When she accompanied her mother to the bank, she played with the forms of deposit because it occurred to her that she wanted to own a bank, for example, and write checks and manage money.
“The truth is that I feel there was a lot of freedom in those days,” she recalls. Near my house, crossing Doctor Vértiz Avenue, they had a park and they let me go alone… that was the best. The day they gave me my first skates, the traditional ones, with four wheels, and I went alone to the park, for me was one of the best days of my life. In those times, the city was not as it is now, there was less violence; you could play in the street. I would cross the avenue on roller skates and spend the whole afternoon there. I don’t forget that freedom. They were magical days, very funny.
When Gloria realized that not everything was a game and that she should have a profession, she thought of photography as a possibility, but decided that it was more of an art and something not very profitable to make a living. She then entered a private school to study Marketing, but the experience disappointed her. One of her teachers told her that she would not develop her full potential there. From there she went on to study Communication Sciences, at the Autonomous Metropolitan University, at its headquarters in Xochimilco, thinking that there she could take better advantage of her passion for reading and writing.
(She also thought of becoming a Marine biologist, for her love of the sea and the dolphins. She even took diving classes, which she left when her father had a heart attack).
—My first job was at the Secretary of Foreign Relations during the six-year presidential term of Carlos Salinas de Gortari —she explains—. I was about to finish my degree at the UAM and one of my professors —the writer Jaime Moreno Villarreal— recommended me for the job that finally led me to be Head of the Department of Cultural and Audiovisual Exchange, in Cultural Services of the SRE. I loved it… I handled cultural affairs, I was in charge of the Secretary’s Film Club and I worked with the UNAM Film Library. When Salinas left and Zedillo came in, that job ended and I took it well, without drama. I also decided that I no longer wanted to work in the government, that this experience was enough for me.So I joined the corporate world of Telcel, of the Carso group, whose owner is Carlos Slim, and I worked there until I came to the United States in 2005.
—What led you to leave Mexico?
-Love! She answers emphatically and without hesitation. I had a friend named who went on an exchange to Minnesota when she was a teenager, while at her house they received a French student. My friend’s mom loved me a lot and invited me to introduce myself to this student who was already leaving—and did—to his country of origin, but they were about to receive another exchange student. Among the requests was that of a young man named Patrick, from Boston, who seemed recommendable to me because I saw that he liked sports, he didn’t smoke or drink… well, very healthy. Without thinking about anything else – I swear – I recommended it. When he arrived, my friend’s mom called me to introduce him. He inquired a lot about me… I liked him very much but at that time I had a boyfriend… until he began to attract my attention. I was 17 years old at the time…
Patrick prevailed. Yvonne arrived —the eldest— still in Mexico City, who is already a cosmetologist and business woman) and later Sofia —already in Fort Collins—, a gymnast who just started the 6th grade.
—Patrick had already bought a house in Fort Collins in 1998 and was renting it. In 2005 we decided to come to live in the United States. I left everything then. I quit my job, left my house, sold my car and moved to California while I did paperwork with Immigration. Once everything was resolved, after a year, we decided to come to the house in Fort Collins, in 2007.
—When and how did you begin to feel that call for your neighbor, for working for the community?
“In California I started connecting with the Latino community and making friends,” she recalls. Once I got to Fort Collins I saw an ad in the newspaper asking for volunteers from the Salvation Army. I approached them because they were looking for bilingual people to register Latino people interested in receiving Christmas gifts. I loved that, feeling the satisfaction of connecting with my countrymen, with my people. That was my first approach to nonprofit. Then I had temporary jobs that convinced me that I didn’t like working for for-profit corporations… and searching the internet I found a job with the United Way, on a helpline, 211.
She was hired and after several weeks a full-time position opened up, also at United Way, as Information and Resources Manager and working with the database. They gave it to her and she stayed there for almost ten years, while continuing to connect with the Latino community and knowing their needs, always driven by the desire to help people communicate, because she does not tolerate seeing someone unable to convey their needs and desires.
“That’s how that passion grew in me,” she says. People come here and say that everything is very nice, where is the poverty, because the notion of poverty for Latinos is very different. I myself used to say “everyone here is doing very well, the houses are very nice, everything is very clean”, but a little further on there are communities in need, spaces for mobile homes… and when I got there I saw that other reality that is not talked about, that is not seen.
In 2016 they shut down the program at United Way and Gloria stayed until the end to make sure everything ended well for everyone, including her colleagues. Two weeks before leaving there, they offered her a job in a company, a very difficult time because it coincided with her mother’s diagnosis of kidney cancer.
“Then I went back to study for a bachelor’s degree in Human Services at Colorado State University,” she says. I was about to finish my degree and then I saw the position of Program Director at La Familia advertised, which I already knew about because Sofía —my youngest daughter— had been in their nursery. I didn’t pay much attention to it but one Sunday, after returning from a trip, I carefully read the job description and realized that it was for me. That was in 2019, shortly before the pandemic and after graduating Summa Cum Laude.
They had already closed the admission of applications in La Familia, however they called Gloria for an interview and hired her. It was August 2019 when she started as Director of the Family Support Program.
—But shortly after the pandemic arrived, thanks to my training in disaster response, I entered into that framework of thought and we immediately responded to the needs of the members of our Latino communities, with leadership, assertiveness, very aware that we cannot leave our people without resources in this critical process —she explains—. I became the natural leader and since then we began to manage ourselves and act as a true team, from those conditions as harsh and adverse as defined by the pandemic.
Not a peaceful or gradual start. The members of the Board of Directors strongly supported her and the results led to her being named Executive Director.
—What challenges and goals did you set for yourself at the helm of The Family Center / La Familia?
—Restore confidence, a sense of belonging and stability to the team, she says. I was hurt not only by the pandemic, but also by the changes of leadership. Of course there was skepticism when I was appointed, but the support of the Board and the results have changed that and we are doing very well. I also decided to preserve the prestige that La Familia has among the community and always support the organization, from humility. I came here to learn and to teach what I know… I am a co-worker like everyone else, always willing to serve and listen to what all team members need or are concerned about. I am the executive director, but I attend to those who seek me directly, from all levels, both from the donor who has millions, and from the family who has nothing to eat.
—What makes you go to La Familia every day, what is your fundamental purpose as director, as a Latina, as a migrant woman who left her native country to settle where —it is said— the “American dream” is dreamed of?
—I am very motivated to achieve the disappearance of the immense gap between power structures —usually oppressive— and communities like ours, which struggle to survive and have a dignified and normal life. Do that through honest, empathetic and committed dialogue. Ensure that those who are in charge of preparing public policies and putting them into effect are more sensitive to those who are in the lowest part of the system. That is my commitment: to support the community with enough wisdom not to necessarily put myself against the system, but in favor of that genuine dialogue so that those who hold powerfully understand what our communities need. End injustices and achieve the changes that make a real difference.
“What do you see when you try to imagine the future?”
—I would like to see that I am not one of the few people who are fighting for changes, but rather that there are more and more of us. May all the incredible people who work here at La Familia continue this effort, may their work consolidate them as leaders and, in turn, continue to inspire others. La Familia is not just a resource center, but a cultural icon that belongs to the community.
If life granted you one wish, what would you ask for?
“That people have decent access to health, that they value it and take care of it,” she says with a long sigh. I lived it with my mom, who left us two years ago in October… and, already thinking a little selfishly, traveling.
Yes, for Gloria her center of gravity has always been the family, families, both, the one from Mexico and now the one from Fort Collins, always inspired by her desire for
freedom, communication, support, equity and always with the neighbor—especially the one who has less, the one who needs more—as a compass.
(The author is a journalist, born in Mexico City and living in Puerto Rico since 1977. He has the blog www.estoeselagua.com)