Interview with Mariela Quesada Centeno: New director of adult programs helping Centro to continue to grow
by A. David Dahmer
“I like to see Centro as an empowerment hub in this community — a place where we can really empower people,” says Mariela Quesada Centeno. “We’re trying to create an environment here where people really feel welcome.”
Quesada is excited about her new job as director of adult programs at Centro Hispano of Dane County. “We do help a lot of people here at Centro Hispano and if we can’t help people here, we can create the connection people need to get what they need, “Quesada tells The Madison Times in an interview in the Heroes Room of Centro Hispano on Madison’s south side.
“Madison can be really complex if you don’t speak the language and if you’re not connected. Just having a contact at a place like this where you know you can come and ask anything and that person will most likely have an answer for you —that’s something you cannot quantify.”
As the director of adult programs, Quesada works directly with the Centro staff who in turn work with the people in the community through various innovative programs. “Each of the staff have a program that they have been running at Centro for many years and [Centro Executive Director] Karen [Menendez Coller] recognized that there was a need for the staff to have a point person that could be a resource for them … to help guide their decisions and help provide them assistance in improving their personal and professional career,” Quesada says.
“Their projects are so complex and they are so passionate about what they do and they really want to expand what they do and help more people,” Quesada continues. “It has been very exciting working with them on the programs.”
Centro Hispano offers various services and programs for individuals and families. These services and programs include:
• The General Support Program provides support through advocacy and language assistance. Whatever the question, the General Support Program helps people find the support they need from housing to health to education to food stamps.
• Career Pathways provides integrated training in the area of health care services to Latinos in the greater Madison area.
• Centro de Avance Latino (CAL)’s purpose is to improve and/or provide employment opportunities as well as connect the Latino community with educational programs, technical training, and personal development.
• New Routes for Adults provides vital support for individuals working through the criminal justice system.
Despite its rather small staff, Centro is able to help many people and make a positive impact on the greater community. Quesada would love to see these programs expand as funding increases. She also would like to see Centro start new programs.
“One thing that we would like to do is to have a Spanish-speaking AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] for Latinos … there is not one in Madison,” she says. “[Centro Hispano New Routes Coordinator] Jorge Quintanilla would love to do that.
“Since Karen [Menendez Coller] and I are both public health practitioners, we are really interested in having wellness programs at Centro, too,” she adds. “We’re going to be starting a cancer prevention — Cancer 101 — workshop and have some other things that we have been thinking about. We could be an important health education provider for the community.”
When Quesada first found out about the position of director of adult programs at Centro, she was very intrigued and applied for it right away.
“I was really excited when I saw that this particular job was available,” Quesada says. “I went through the checklist and I checked everything. That’s never happened to me in the past. This job was a perfect match for my experience and skills. It’s the type of job I’ve been looking for ever since I came to Wisconsin.”
Quesada was born and raised in San José, Costa Rica, the country’s capital and largest city. After finishing her veterinary degree at Universidad Nacional (National University), she moved to Madison where she got a job as a research assistant at the School of Veterinary Medicine with Dr. Ronald Schultz and worked there for almost two years. In Madison, she also met the man who would become her husband, Jeremy, and they married in Costa Rica in 2005. “During that time, I did a lot of volunteer work on Allied Drive and at UNIDOS and I started to push my boss to work with farmworkers in the area of food safety and transmissible diseases from animals to humans ,” she remembers. “I was really interested in working with the community.”
She would soon see an opening for a volunteer position at the Linda and Gene Farley Center for Peace, Justice, and Sustainability and pursued that. “They had just received a USDA grant to work with minority farmers in a project called Ganando Terreno (Gaining Ground),” Quesada remembers. “A position opened up there for Latino Outreach Coordinator and I applied at got that position where I worked for two and a half years.”
At the Farley Center, Quesada helped in the development of programs that provided technical assistant to beginning farmers and helped them find the tools needed to start a small-scale farming businesses in Madison. She also worked to engage communities of color in the food system movement through education and outreach.
Still today, Quesada is passionate about food systems and she has brought that passion to Centro. She’s really interested in food safety, food justice, and food access.
“Madison is a great place for community food and regional systems. There are a lot of things happening,” she says. “Many people would say that Madison is very ‘foody.’ But we need to acknowledge that there are a lot of health inequalities in our food systems and access inequalities.”
Quesada’s background as a veterinarian helped her understand the prevalence of food supplies and food access from the perspective of animal husbandry, zoonotic diseases, and farmer profitability. Now she is tying in socioeconomic factors to the equation of food production and availability.
“In particular for us Latinos —we are in every single link of the food chain from the hands who harvest our food to the hands that prepare our food. I want Centro to be in the forefront of that,” Quesada says. “There are literally hundreds of organizations working in one area or another in food systems from advocating for farmers, to providing information to consumers … but there is no Latino organization doing that — and we should. That will be one of my priorities. I would love for Centro to be a part of that. We will be looking for grants that will help us do that.”
Quesada says she would love to see Centro have its own piece of land with a big garden and a commercial kitchen some day. “We could grow our own food and cook for ourselves. We can use the land and the gardens for our programs and for our families. It’s a long-term goal … but wouldn’t it be great?” she asks. “Statistically, Latinos — along with African Americans — we have high blood pressure rates, diabetes, obesity, and a lot of that is because of what we eat. When you are able to grow your own food and eat healthy, those disparities will go down.
“In Wisconsin, the wave of Latino immigrants is rather young. We’re not that far away from our original country to foster that [love of food] in our children,” she adds. “It gives them a sense of identity. Sometimes when you migrate you wonder, ‘What am I? Am I from here or from there?’ Food can be a great connector.”
Quesada, who earned her master’s degree in public health at the UW-Madison this past May, says that it’s important for her and the staff at Centro Hispano to continue to build trust with new immigrants that come to them for information and resources.
“It takes a while to get too involved in the community and it has taken me a couple of years to understand this culture … And I still don’t completely get it,” Quesada smiles. “Being in Wisconsin, it’s taken a few years to feel comfortable in my own skin. So I can understand what a lot of people are going through in their minds living in Madison. For us, to do good work, trust is an important part of the equation. People have to trust us.”
Less than two weeks into the job at Centro Hispano, Quesada has big goals.
“I’m currently a student in environmental leadership fellowship and we have to write a PPP (Personal Professional Plan). Right now, I’m writing one for 5 years. When I think about my goal here at Centro, I can’t separate it from my professional life,” Quesada says. “I really want Centro to grow from within and to be able to change the frame of thought that a non-profit always has to be asking for money. A non-profit can generate money on its own that creates sustainability. I would like to help Centro diversify its funding and revenue.
“I think that we have a lot of talent here in our staff right now. I want Centro to be that place that everybody wants to work and we continue to bring in top talent,” she adds. “In the course of 3-5 years, I want Centro to really foster Latino leadership in our community. It’s time for Latinos to be the ones who are in positions of power in our community from health care to the City Hall. We could be an incubator for that.”