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Leader Aims To Be A Link For Hispanics

By Susan Daker

February 9, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

DELTONA -- Zenaida Denizac walked into a fast-food restaurant 17 years ago and asked for fried potatoes. She meant to order french fries.

Denizac had just immigrated from Puerto Rico and knew little English. She had confused the translation between Spanish and English and the person taking her order laughed, embarrassing Denizac.

Now Denizac, 42, wants to save Hispanics like herself from feeling ashamed. As newly elected president of the Volusia County Hispanic Association, she wants to bridge the gap between the growing number of Hispanics in the county and other residents.

She plans to organize a business association to accommodate the growing number of Hispanic store owners and to help secure jobs for Hispanics.

Denizac became involved with the Hispanic association two years ago, when she stumbled into one of the group's meetings and decided to join. A short time later, she became the organization's secretary and in November was elected president.

Denizac will serve a two-year term.

In 1991, John Hernandez and others founded the association with civic goals in mind, some similar to the ideas Denizac has. In the past few years, Hernandez said, the organization had gotten away from that purpose.

"It became a social club," Hernandez said.

Hernandez said there is nothing wrong with the association's planning entertainment, but he is looking forward to the direction Denizac plans for the organization.

Leaders are reorganizing and increasing membership, whose numbers could not be determined. The association represents the growing Hispanic population.

According to 2000 U.S. Census data, 29,111 Hispanics live in the county, more than double the number a decade ago.

'Education and unity'

"The numbers are great [but] numbers without education doesn't accomplish much," Denizac said. "I think we need to get those numbers trained, educated and empowered."

"Education and unity is power," she said.

Denizac said she wants to unite the Hispanic business community by organizing association to help promote their restaurants, grocery stores and other enterprises.

She wants to help people find employment. Knowing little English and trying to find a job can be intimidating, Denizac said. Immigrants who know little English have skills that are in demand.

Denizac learned that firsthand.

In 1986, Denizac, her husband and three children emigrated from Puerto Rico to Deltona. They spoke little English and had no family in the area.

For the first few weeks after their arrival, Denizac's family lived in a hotel. She fed her children bread and butter she bought from a local convenience store. With the help of friends made after their arrival, Jose Denizac, a cabinetmaker in his homeland, found similar work in west Volusia and the family rented a house.

"I really came here in search of an American dream," Zenaida Denizac said.

Denizac knew she had to find a job too. She had a teaching degree from Antillian College in Puerto Rico. She said she prayed to God, opened the phone book and looked for area schools.

She saw an advertisement for Trinity Christian Academy in Deltona. When she called, Denizac learned of an opening created by a teacher's sudden death.

Denizac was hired to teach Spanish.

"My English was bad. I learned right with the kids," she said.

Denizac has already started working to place Hispanic people in jobs.

Sometimes newcomers from a Spanish-speaking country feel intimidated, lack educational records and have a hard time filling out applications written in English.

In a recent meeting with Volusia County school officials, Denizac learned about available jobs that Hispanics could fill and a few tips to help secure them.

"It's just right now, they won't complete an application," Jerry Yaris, manager of custodial services for the school district, said during the meeting.

When people do complete an application, it may take months to confirm information, because many immigrants do not bring records with them to the United States, Yaris said.

Working with schools

If the school district and the Hispanic association work together, both Yaris and Denizac said, each group will benefit. Serving as a conduit between organizations such as the school district and the Hispanic community is one way Denizac said she plans to make a difference.

Denizac, who is on a leave of absence from teaching at Pine Ridge High School, still works with young people.

She recruits teenagers and her own children to help support the association.

She is organizing a youth advisory board.

"They only way to get people to go to meetings is to make them fun for them," said Yoileana Jimenez, 17, who will serve on the board.

"[Zenaida] is very dynamic and very outgoing. She is very social."

Yoileana thinks Denizac's personality will attract young people to the group.

"She wants to make a good change," said Denizac's son Joed, 21, a student at Seminole Community College.

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