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The Vaca Family

Entrepreneurs, Philanthropists ­and Civic Leaders

By Nina Vaca

“There is nothing more powerful than a silent example.”

It is said that the apple never falls far from the tree. In that case, welcome to our orchard!

My mother was born Amanda Alvarez in the 1940s in Quito, Ecuador. By 18 she was married, expecting her first child, and had immigrated to Los Angeles, Calif. Five more children would follow – a total of three girls and three boys. She suffered the death of a child in her 20s, became a grandmother in her 30s, and a widow by her early 40s. But those facts reveal only one side of the life of this graceful and resilient woman.

Nina Vaca, and two daughters Katarina and Amanda Humrichouse.

Nina Vaca, and two daughters Katarina and Amanda Humrichouse.

Amanda Merritt with her children, Jessica, Christian, Nina, Monica, and Freddy Vaca.

Amanda Merritt with her children, Jessica, Christian, Nina, Monica, and Freddy Vaca.

In the 1960s the United States was far less Hispanic than it is today. While California has always had a fairly large Mexican population, there were very few South American communities. There were no community organizations and very few marketplaces, restaurants, or other venues for South Americans in general or Ecuadorians in particular to congregate. So as with all grassroots efforts, Amanda started small.

The easiest place to meet fellow South Americans was in the parks. Family cookouts, soccer games, and Latin American music were everywhere on the weekends. Amanda quickly got to know other like-minded Latinos, many of whom shared the same dreams as she did to introduce their culture to the U.S. the same way so many other immigrants had done in the past. They began organizing. Loosely at first, but with the common goal of preserving their South American cultural identity through food, music and traditions. They began celebrating country-specific holidays together. They became the first customers and employee bases of new marketplaces that would cater to their needs. Eventually, as with many people who share common interests, they got involved in politics.

After successive waves of immigrants continued to arrive in southern California, Amanda and other grassroots community leaders naturally gravitated toward helping the ex-patriots of their respective countries of origin rather than the South American continent as a whole. For Amanda, that initially led her to become involved in founding and leadership of local Ecuadorian associations – first in Los Angeles and subsequently in Houston, TX.

As these local associations began to proliferate, an umbrella group formed to provide more cohesive leadership at the national level. This group – the Federation of Ecuadorian Entities in the Exterior (FEDEE) – focused on organizing the dozens of smaller Ecuadorian community groups that had sprung up in cities all over the United States. FEDEE was based in New York City; its primary mission was to help the large and growing Ecuadorian population in America retain dual citizenship in Ecuador and the right to vote in Ecuadorian presidential elections. This was no small task. It required an amendment to the Ecuadorian constitution.

Amanda was initially elected president of the Ecuadorian Association of Houston and ultimately elected the first woman president of FEDEE. FEDEE itself eventually expanded beyond its initial United States charter to include Spain, Italy, France, and other countries with large Ecuadorian diasporas. She spent countless hours and significant personal funds traveling all over the world to advocate and organize. And while nothing worth having is ever easy, like so many women, she struggled with the dual responsibilities of family and career. When FEDEE ultimately achieved its goal of amending the Ecuadorian constitution, Amanda quickly became a naturalized American citizen while retaining dual citizenship in Ecuador.

Nina Vaca, Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship, keynote speaker at the Product Innovation Conference in Germany (2015).

Nina Vaca, Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship, keynote speaker at the Product Innovation Conference in Germany (2015).

Amanda Merritt with her parents, Guadalupe Alvarez (was a woman of strength and grace) and Cesar Alvarez.

Amanda Merritt with her parents, Guadalupe Alvarez (was a woman of strength and grace) and Cesar Alvarez.

A series of Ecuadorian government appointments would soon follow. Initially, the Ministry of Tourism appointed her to promote Ecuadorian tourism. Then, Ecuador’s president appointed her as an Honorary Consul with full diplomatic rights. In that role, Amanda began to involve herself in representing Ecuador and Ecuadorians in all manner of issues – frequently involving Human Rights and discrimination of Ecuadorians in the United States. From there, Amanda eventually became a full member of the Ecuadorian government when she was appointed by the Defensor del Pueblo of Ecuador as the Commissioner of Human Rights – initially for Texas and subsequently for all Ecuadorians in the United States.

Throughout her decades of service, my mother, Amanda, received a litany of awards and recognition from countless organizations including the government, non-profits and foundations for her tireless advocacy for political and Human Rights. Just last year she retired and is living in Houston, TX, happily enjoying life as a grandmother to her 10 beautiful grandchildren.

Now let’s get back to the apples.

The most powerful examples are often silent. During the decades that Amanda worked so tirelessly for the rights of fellow Ecuadorians, her three daughters all came of age.

The oldest, Monica, followed a similar path. She too married and had a child at a young age while establishing her career as a realtor. Though she struggled initially, she ultimately found success by leveraging the same types of grassroots organizing principles and nurturing qualities that she had watched her mother use all her life. Rather than just trying to sell homes, she dedicated herself to mentoring young Hispanic families become better home buyers. She conducted seminars, educating first-time home buyers on how to qualify for mortgages, plan their financial lives, and why owning a home was such a critical element of wealth-building.

Today Monica owns her own Century 21 real estate brokerage with 35 agents. She is the past president of the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals (NAHREP), and was recognized nationally for her community service as one of only 10 recipients of the coveted Anna Maria Arias award.

Next in line, my sister Jessica, also began emulating her mother at a young age. A legitimate child superstar – she cut an LP in Spain at the age of 15 and performed live with other artists and packed arenas for several years – Jessica never lost her humility. She learned at an early age that the demands of a public life exacted a price on the body and soul for which money and fame could never fully compensate. So she left that life behind. After marrying and having her first child, she took a leap of faith, quit her job, moved her family, and joined me at a company I had recently founded.

Over the past 19 years, that company has blossomed – due in no small part to Jessica’s leadership. Like her mother and sister before her, my sister gives back to the community through mentorship. She is actively involved in supporting other women-owned businesses through the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council. She was also recognized as Mentor of the Year by Women of Vision International. Most recently, Jessica was inducted into the Hispanic 100 – a group of the 100 most influential Latinas in Dallas.

As for me, I’ve been blessed with these three trailblazing women as my role models. The perseverance of my mother, the nurturing qualities of Monica, and the grace and humility represented by Jessica continually inspire me and have formed the foundation of my outlook on life. That foundation has enabled me to become the woman I am today. The founder of Pinnacle Group – the 2015 WPO Fastest Growing Woman-Owned business in the country, and one of the largest Latina-owned businesses in the entire United States. Along the way, I have been further blessed to have been elected Chairman Emeritus of the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, selected to three corporate boards (Comerica, Kohl’s, and Cinemark), and appointed by the White House as a Presidential Ambassador of Global Entrepreneurship. These days, as a mother of four, I spend much of my time also juggling the triple demands of family, career, and community. In my family, as I learned long ago, those are just table stakes.

XVIII Congreso Mundial FEDEE 2004.

XVIII Congreso Mundial FEDEE 2004.

Jessica Vaca, LP “Un Corazon Para Dos”.

Jessica Vaca, LP “Un Corazon Para Dos”.

As I reflect back on the trails blazed by my mother, and then subsequently traveled by my sisters and me, I can’t help but look forward to the future generations of Latinas who will be inspired by these examples. My two young daughters – Amanda (16) and Katarina (14) – have already shown early signs of community leadership. Amanda has completed three mission trips – including one to Costa Rica and another to the Ecuadorian Amazon – to share her faith and to serve those in greatest need. Similarly, Katarina is about to embark on her inaugural mission to Ecuador this summer as a volunteer English teacher. It’s exciting to imagine what they will accomplish in the decades to come.

Our story while inspirational is not unique, its representative of thousands and even millions of stories that exist today in this country. Stories of immigrants immigrating to the U.S. and contributing their leadership, talents and offspring to make positive contributions to make America what it is today. Truly the land of the free and the home of opportunity.

My mother always said that if you want to know who she is, just look at her children. Inspired by those words, I can’t help but think “there is nothing more powerful than the silent example” and trust that my children will absorb every lesson. The apple truly doesn’t fall far from the tree.

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