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She's A Voice For Hispanics

Marytza Sanz is a compassionate but no-nonsense force to be reckoned with.

By Kelly Brewington | Sentinel Staff Writer

March 7, 2004
Copyright ©2004 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

Passionate advocate.

Mar 7, 2004

Latino Leadership didn't open its doors until 9 a.m., but the woman arrived at 6 a.m., desperate for help.

For a month, she had been living in her car with four children. They took showers at truck stops in the morning before the kids set off for school.

Too embarrassed to turn to family and too frightened to seek help from social-service agencies for fear they would take her children into custody, the woman went to Latino Leadership. There, she heard, a woman named Marytza would help her without judgment or penalty.

Marytza Sanz has that kind of reputation. Although she founded Latino Leadership to empower Hispanics through voter registration, it has grown to offer everything from courses for new homeowners to social-service referrals.

Sanz, 45, told the woman to seek help to end the abusive relationship that forced her to flee her home.

Still, Sanz felt helpless because she has seen complex cycles of domestic violence before.

And she would see it again. Several weeks later, Sanz arrived at work to find another woman fleeing abuse. She was wearing pajamas, with three little girls in tow.

"You just always wish you could do more," said Sanz, who directed the woman to Harbor House women's shelter. She has not heard from her since.

To the many people she counsels in late-night phone calls or in her office at Latino Leadership, Sanz is a therapist, a mother, a fund-raiser, a teacher and a friend. She is also a staunch activist on issues from health care for the uninsured to education for undocumented immigrants. And she is known for putting the needs of others before her own.

"She is a very strong woman, and she talks to whomever to get help for others," said her husband and partner at the organization, Carlos Guzman, 48. "If she needs go to the president of the United States to ask for help for someone, she will. But she won't ask for help for herself."

Sanz insists she's not a martyr. Instead, she says she is passionate about helping others. She has been that way since she was a child in Puerto Rico, collecting her old clothes for the homeless.

Volunteers at Latino Leadership say she is genuine, which can explain why for more than five years, her family-run organization has been a rock for the region's burgeoning Hispanic community.

Central Florida is home to more than 322,708, according to the U.S. census, many of them new arrivals from a diverse array of countries. Many arrive unfamiliar with the basic education, health and government systems here.

"They don't understand the difference between the city and the county government," Sanz said. "But they want a voice. And we have the responsibility to do this, to help them have a voice and a place at the table. We are a very quiet community. It is time for us to wake up."

For five years, Latino Leadership has helped not only acquaint new arrivals but push them to take ownership in their communities -- from registering to vote to joining their kids' parent-teacher associations.

With an army of more than 300 volunteers who help run the nonprofit's multitude of outreach programs, Sanz is known throughout the Hispanic community as a compassionate but no-nonsense advocate who gets things done.

Sanz has also garnered the attention of Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, who last month pledged that the city would partner with her agency to open the Hispanic Office of Local Assistance (HOLA, or "Hello" in Spanish). Sanz moved to a spacious center closer to downtown from the cramped three-room office she had on University Drive.

With greater visibility, she hopes to leverage additional grants to broaden existing programs and start new ones.

But in the meantime, it's the needs of the most desperate that keep Sanz awake at night. People who have no immigration documents are looking for work. Families who can't afford the electric bill have no heat during cold nights. Elderly people ask for help to pay for dentures because they have no health insurance.

"They are young people, old people, the whole population, there are people suffering," Sanz said.

Her clients are too scared to get a cancer screening, even if it's free, because they don't have the money to spare if the doctor finds something is wrong.

She knows what that feels like. Sanz herself doesn't have health insurance. Her nonprofit organization generates little revenue.

"I get paid whenever we have money," she said. "I have to take care of myself. I pray every day that I don't get sick."

She knows, too, what it's like to be an outsider in a new place.

When Sanz and Guzman arrived in Orlando from Puerto Rico 19 years ago, just a handful of Spanish-speaking families lived in their East Orlando neighborhood.

They moved to Orlando, seeking good schools for their oldest daughter, also named Marytza, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

When Sanz started to get involved at school, she found herself one of just a handful of Hispanic parents. She was shy and a bit intimidated but stayed involved.

Shortly after, she was named to a superintendent task force, where at the first meeting she found out she was the only Hispanic on the committee.

When members of the committee asked if she was there to translate for others, Sanz was insulted. She was there to make a difference, she said.

"I told them, 'I am going to be very opinionated, I'm going to be asking questions, and I'm going to make things happen,' " Sanz said.

That was the end of her soft-spoken demeanor.

"Before that, if I saw someone trying to humiliate me, I was scared to talk back. That was a mistake."

Sanz and Guzman started having meetings in their living room for parents of children with disabilities. The meetings were the beginning of an outreach group that would emerge into Latino Leadership years later.

From those early days, the dedication has been a family effort. Her daughters, Marytza, 23, is a pet groomer but helps out around the office during the holidays.

Daughter Marucci, 20, is a college student who writes grants for Latino Leadership programs.

"We are not one, we are four," Guzman said.

They help her organize her hectic schedule. On a given afternoon they are all busy multitasking.

Sanz keeps sticky notes with reminders on her refrigerator, her makeup mirror and all over her car's dashboard. Guzman calls himself her unofficial timekeeper.

"She gets involved in a conversation in the office -- next thing you know, it's been an hour or two hours," he said half-joking. "She pays a lot of attention to the people, but she likes to talk too much. She gets involved in everything."

Balancing work and personal time is something Sanz is learning to manage.

"The girls tell me to slow down, that I can't do everything all the time," she said, "but this is my life, this is what I do."

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