Jessica Cavazos: Two Lanes

Photo by Jessica Cavazos

There are few unfamiliar with the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child,” and on its own, it’s a wonderful sentiment. What we gain learning from others helps us grow into a strong, well-rounded person. But there’s more beauty to be found upon extrapolation. That child fosters pieces of their caretakers and mentors, becoming an ambassador for certain schools of thought and champion of developed proficiencies. Ultimately, they grant a sort of immortality to those who’ve played a role in their life.

Jessica Cavazos, president and CEO of the Latino Chamber of Commerce, was raised in Milwaukee by a single mother working two jobs and long hours as a hotel housekeeper. As a result, she grew up fast. “A lot of my childhood was as a caretaker for my brother, since he was five years younger, and I was 10. I had to walk him home and make meals my mom precooked at three in the morning, telling me to turn on the oven at 350 for 45 minutes, since there were no microwaves.” Such is the life of the archetypal latchkey kid.

But Jessica’s mother, figuring out her family’s survival through hard times, did what she could to ensure her children grew up with strong role models when she wasn’t around. “I was the product of a lot of social service programs,” says Jessica. “Many of what they call safety-net programs.” Afterschool programs at the Neighborhood House, local community-center mentorship programs, and summer school programs. “My mother always had me in some type of activity: archery, ballet, arts. She would say, ‘You have to be in these programs to keep you out of trouble.’ In that passage, I got to meet a lot of caring people.

Photograph provided by Jessica Cavazos

“As a product of Milwaukee Public Schools, I remember my favorite teacher from grade school. Her name was Ms. Tedick. She was Irish and spoke Spanish fluently. She was my fourth-grade teacher and, knowing my mom was a struggling single mom, she would pick up myself and other classmates from similar backgrounds and take us to her house to bake cookies, do arts and crafts, and teach us about world affairs. She’d always talk about when she lived in Spain and her travels. It gave us a world perspective.” Jessica’s world at the time consisted of her neighborhood on the north side of Milwaukee and her school on 27th and Wisconsin Avenue. Now she had someone taking her to museums, fairs, and parks, encouraging her to learn through discovery and discussion.

The world Jessica knew changed dramatically when she graduated to a gang-prone middle school. A lot of her classmates were frequently truant and other issues lingered about the hallways. But, thanks to her mother and teachers, she remained focused, maintaining a 3.8 GPA. One teacher, Ms. Quiles, “had a great impact. She said, ‘Now you must lead. You’re a natural-born leader. We need you to be a leader for our community.’ She always said those words to me, and that meant a lot.” Jessica graduated valedictorian.

In high school, Ms. Trevino signed Jessica up for the model OAS (Organization of American States). This is the UN for Central and South American countries to debate and discuss policy involving peace, trade, and other international concerns. Jessica remembers herself as the quietest person in that summer session, but everything she learned would impact her life in a direct way.

“Those three teachers really did for me what my parents couldn’t do. They enlightened me. They showed me a different path. They opened books for me that I would’ve never read.”

She broke away from Milwaukee and went to college in Fort Lauderdale before finishing up in Miami. “I don’t know if it was the best decision for an 18-year-old, but I had exposure to a different culture, a different vibe, a different community.” People thought she might’ve been from Canada because of her Wisconsin accent, but she was having conversations she’d never had before with new friends. It was refreshing for her to be able to talk openly about sex, the world, and new interactions, something she didn’t really have before.

Photograph provided by Jessica Cavazos

Jessica left a piece of herself in Florida when she returned to Milwaukee, but she gained perspective. When she worked on Pedro Colón’s political campaign, a new direction appeared in her life. Less than political savvy beforehand, Jessica learned about campaign finance laws and different aspects of running local campaigns. When Colón became the first Latino on the Wisconsin Legislature, Jessica moved to working with Mayor Barrett on his campaign against Jim Doyle. After Barrett lost, Jessica joined the nonprofit sector, working for United Migrant Opportunities. Then, from 2004-2013, she served as Congressman Gwendolyn Moore’s constituent liaison serving Milwaukee’s ethnic communities.

The years went by fast enough, and in 2013, Jessica felt she needed to reunite with that piece of herself she left in Florida. Jessica became executive director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Volusia County, where Daytona Beach is located. Her time there would only last three years, however, before Wisconsin called her back…literally.

A headhunter found her LinkedIn profile and asked if she was interested in moving to Madison. “During the interview process, I was seven months pregnant.” She learned from her mother how to juggle her position while raising children, and she’d be doing it with the support of her family and partner. First, she had to create the chamber Madison needed. “The world of a chamber is antiquated. Organizations need innovations. It’s not just about networking and ribbon cuttings anymore. What I felt this community needed the most was to understand how to scale small business and build capacity. Understand how to manage a business in a different country, in a different language. How to raise their own expectations of themselves so they can build a better business model and be of greater service to their community through entrepreneurship.”

And that’s where she is today. Her kids are 3, 8, and 14, getting a lot of the tools they’ll need to find their passions in life. Jessica believes “Madison has been an amazing place to live and work and coexist in with other people because it’s a very nurturing and caring community.” Until she inevitably returns to Florida, Jessica will be living in Wisconsin to give legacy to those forever defining the person she continues to grow into.

Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie.

Photograph by Barbara Wilson