Renata Soto, the well-respected founder and executive director of Conexión Américas, is a passionate visionary when it comes to the thousands of Latinos in Middle Tennessee she serves. Not only does she understand the obstacles they face, more importantly, she understands the value they bring to our city. Savvy and enthusiastic, Renata is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to her knowledge of the importance of cultural aspects of the Hispanic community, and it is with great pleasure we introduce you to her today.
Where were you born?
San José, Costa Rica.
Why did you make the decision to move to Nashville?
College brought me to the US, but love kept me here. I married an all-American man and his job brought us to Nashville in 1996. We love living here with our two children.
Can you describe your early childhood memories?
Lots of skating on sidewalks, books, theater, kickball, poetry, lots of women–sisters, mother, grandmothers, great-grandmother, aunts.
As executive director of Conexión Américas, can you share with us the mission of the organization?
To empower Latino families in Middle Tennessee and promote their social, civic and economic integration in the community. We offer free or low-cost programs and services such as English classes, tax preparation, legal advocacy, referrals, parent engagement education in the public schools, among others.
What life skills prepared you for this job?
I am an optimist. I believe that all things are possible, especially when the mission is true and right. I have seen dreams come true against all odds, not just for me, but for the families Conexión Américas works with.
What have you accomplished at Conexión Américas that you are the most proud of?
Mobilizing the resources to make Casa Azafrán a reality. It was a 5-year process to create this beautiful new landmark at the gateway to Nashville’s international district that offers services for all of Nashville.
Is there a goal for Conexión Américas that you hope to accomplish in the near future?
Passage of comprehensive immigration reform. As Congress considers legislation to reform the immigration system, I hope Conexión Américas successfully engages Nashvillians in that conversation. Immigration reform is both a national emergency and a local priority. Already 1 in 6 Nashvillians is foreign-born. Our state has the 6th fastest growing Hispanic population in the country. Furthermore, by 2040, 34% of Nashville’s population will be Hispanic.
The immigration story is local and, therefore, it matters to Nashville’s future prosperity that we reform an immigration system that is broken, outdated and that doesn’t serve the economic and social interests of our city and our nation. We need to make sure that the nannies, domestic workers, roofers, landscapers, restaurant workers, taxi drivers, doctors, programmers, engineers and other workers needed in Nashville’s economy have the opportunity to be fully a part of our community.
How many Latino families live in and around Nashville?
According to the 2010 Census, more than 60,000 Latino families live in Davidson County. But we believe that is an undercount.
What misconceptions do people have about the Latino culture?
That we are a monolithic group. While we are bound by geography and certain historical legacies, Latinos come from more than 22 countries–and the US, if you were born here. We speak many languages, not just Spanish, although that is the language that binds us together. Each country or region has distinct culinary traditions, celebrations and idiosyncrasies. We are white, black and indigenous, among many other cultural and ethnic mixes.
As a civic leader in Nashville, what are some of your concerns as Nashville continues to be labeled the hottest city in America?
Not all Nashvillians benefit from that prosperity. For example, not all children have the opportunity to attend a high quality school. We should build upon our strengths and enjoy the accolades, but we must be careful not to become complacent about the status quo. There are too many Nashvillians who are being left behind.
Is there a piece of advice you’ve received that’s stuck with you?
“If it is easy to achieve, you are probably not thinking big enough, bold enough.”
Do you have any irrational fears?
I do have irrational thoughts about car accidents sometimes.
What are your favorite restaurants in Nashville?
In my own Sylvan Park neighborhood, I love Café Nona and Park Café. Near my office at the gateway to Nashville’s international district, it is hard to pick, but I love Istanbul Café (best Mediterranean salad in town), the new Guantanamera (the Cuban-Colombian menu takes me home in a bite), and Shish Kabob–all on Nolensville Road. I also love City House and Lockeland Table. Oh! and the pop-up restaurant by Chef Carlos Davis from Riffs Fine Street Food right here at Casa Azafrán the last Friday of each month.
Do you have a favorite vacation spot?
I love to travel. Do I have to pick one place?
Is there an event coming up in Nashville that you are looking forward to?
The monthly pop-up restaurants at Casa Azafrán by Carlos Davis. The next one is May 24 and I can’t wait.
What books are on your bedside table?
The Rough Guide to Morocco. I am going there this summer.
Do you have a favorite musical artist?
Many, but Ella Fitzgerald is on top of the list.
Name 3 things you can’t live without (excluding God, family and friends).
Coffee, beautiful high heeled shoes and Belcourt Theater.
Thanks, Renata! To learn more about Conexión Américas, visit their website: www.conexionamericas.org.
And thanks also to Ashley Hylbert for the beautiful photos. See more of Ashley’s photography at her website: www.ashleyhylbert.com