In August 1983 Tampa mayor Bob Martinez issued an executive order establishing the Mayor’s Hispanic Advisory Council (MHAC), a twenty-five-member group of community volunteers. The new council was to meet monthly and was charged as follows by Mayor Martinez: to “promote good relations and serve as liaison” between the City government and the Hispanic community. Eighteen months earlier Mayor Martinez had appointed a similar group to serve the African-American community. The creation of these councils stemmed in part from the perceived dearth of Blacks or Hispanics among city employees, including the police.
Under the capable leadership of founding MHAC chairman and retired Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Deputy, Raymond Fernandez, the early Council heard anecdotal evidence from the community of the need for greater representation of Spanish speakers in City entities and other vital local employers. This led the Council to gather demographic employee data from City offices. Results from the data showed that only 10% of City of Tampa employees who interfaced with the public, had any ability to communicate in Spanish. Further, bilingual employees were often “borrowed” from one department to another to help in situations when needed. Leaders from those offices, including the Police Chief, were invited to meet with the Council.
In the early 1990s, CEOs and other leaders of vital enterprises throughout Hillsborough County were invited to meet with the Council and were asked to bring their demographic employee data. The chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors was the first to attend an MHAC meeting and dialogue regarding the need for greater inclusion of the growing Hispanic/Latino community. Tampa International Airport, TECO, the Hillsborough County School District, Tampa General, HCC, and USF were among those whose leaders also came to dialogue with the Council. One of the findings that emerged from these meetings was the need to better inform the Latino community of services and jobs available to them. Better Spanish language outreach, including the use of professional translators, more bilingual staff, and the installation of bilingual telephone business access was recommended by the Council. Another finding was the willingness of those with whom the Council met to hire more Spanish-speaking staff and management. The issue, they said in many cases, was the scarcity of qualified candidates for key positions with the appropriate degrees or credentials.
In response to the findings of these meetings, the MHAC undertook two actions. One was the creation of public forums held twice yearly for the Latino community conducted in Spanish and English at which they could learn about available services directly from key city offices, and could ask questions and bring issues to their attention. The forums, held at local Hispanic churches or at Jefferson High School, were well attended and held during the mayoral terms of Sandy Freedman, Dick Greco, and Pam Iorio, who were very often in attendance. The City of Tampa Television played a pivotal role in helping the Council by recording the public forums and airing them often so that many more citizens could learn about city services. The forums were discontinued when avenues to access city services were significantly expanded through increased bilingual staff and bilingual online and telephonic venues.
The other important activities undertaken by the MHAC was the creation of the Latinos Unidos Luncheon (LUL) in 1998, to showcase the increasing influence of Hispanics in our region, state, and nation. Then global CEO of Coca-Cola, Roberto Goizueta, had accepted the Council’s invitation to be the inaugural speaker. Unfortunately, he died before the event took place but Coca-Cola sent Senior VP for Latin America, Rudy Becerra, in his position instead and a successful launch took place on March 31. A vital component to the luncheon was added shortly after the inaugural one when the Council voted to award scholarships to local Hispanic students at the University of South Florida with financial needs, through proceeds from the event. Soon after, Hillsborough Community College and the University of Tampa were included to complete coverage of Tampa’s three main institutions of higher education. Through this action, the Council does its share to increase the pool of credentialed Latino candidates in a variety of fields. Further, to ensure its scholarships in perpetuity, the Council established endowments at the three institutions. As of 2017, the total of the MHAC’s endowments at the three institutions exceeds $550,000. During the early years of the LUL, the MHAC also hosted a “Leadership Development Seminar” and included a session on how to do business with the Hispanic community. The seminar, which took place during the morning of the luncheon event, presented a variety of speakers from the business and non-profit world. In 2014, the inaugural presentation of The Matilda Martinez Garcia Leadership Award was included in the luncheon program. Named in honor of an exemplary community leader, Tampa-native, and founding Council member, the annual award recognizes a person or organization that makes extraordinary contributions to the Hispanic community of Hillsborough County.
In its bi-annual meetings with the mayor, the MHAC has an opportunity to dialogue directly and exchange ideas for enhancing visibility and addressing the concerns and needs of the Latino community. Another way the Council has addressed the visibility and recognition of Tampa’s Latino history and accomplishments is through the creation of statues—and in one case, a park—in honor of illustrious Latinos of our community. The dedication of Salcines Park in West Tampa was the first such recognition in 1989 and honors Emiliano Salcines, entrepreneur and public servant. Statues to honor historian Tony Pizzo, restaurateur Cesar Gonzmart, and newspaper publisher Roland Manteiga are found in Ybor City. Mayor Bob Buckhorn led the unveiling of the latest statue, that of jurist and historian, E.J. Salcines, in October 2017 at the entrance to the old county courthouse in downtown Tampa. The MHAC raised private donations to fund these community projects and worked closely with city and county offices to bring the projects to fruition.
Perhaps singular among the nation’s cities and certainly in its accomplishments, Tampa’s Mayor’s Hispanic Advisory Council has achieved a great deal in its first thirty-five years. But as former chairman Anthony Perez promises, “We’ve only just begun.”