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THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
Hispanic Fair's Organizer Succeeds In Helping Area's Newcomers
By Jean Patteson | Sentinel Staff Writer
July 30, 2004
It was one of those days at the office: long and frustrating. So when Marytza Sanz finally returned to her east Orlando home, she ran a hot bath and climbed into the tub for a soothing soak and a good cry.
Then she checked her phone messages -- and her tears dried up.
"I was feeling overwhelmed and depressed," says the normally ebullient Sanz, 45, founder and president of Latino Leadership, one of several outreach centers for Hispanics in Orlando.
Her biggest event of the year -- the annual Community Information Fair -- was just two weeks away, and one of the key elements was still missing.
The fair, started four years ago, provides Hispanics with information about schools, health services, housing and jobs. Key draws are the freebies for students: health screenings, haircuts and school supplies such as pens and pencils, scissors and glue, notebooks and backpacks.
"I was so worried we would have nothing for the kids," says Sanz. "But one of my messages was from AT&T. They're cutting us a check for $1,000 for school supplies."
Another message was from The Home Depot, offering to donate vacuum cleaners. "We gave 375 free haircuts last year. Cleaning up afterwards was a nightmare. We can really use those vacuum cleaners," says Sanz.
A third message was from a group of employees at Disney World, who'd collected socks and underwear for needy kids.
Last year, more than 7,000 Hispanics attended the fair. This year, 10,000 are expected to attend the event at Orlando's Jackson Middle School from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday.
Sanz, an outgoing, outspoken redhead, moved from Puerto Rico to Florida 19 years ago. She had no inkling then that she would one day be the go-to person for many of her Hispanic neighbors.
There are more than 322,708 Hispanics in Central Florida, according to the U.S. Census, many newly arrived from the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America.
"When you have an accent, when you don't know how to use a computer, when you don't even know how to get a book from the library, you feel so dumb, so helpless," she explains.
Sanz and her husband, Carlos Guzman, 48, were more fortunate than most. They'd attended college, and later owned and operated four Hallmark card and gift stores in San Juan. They spoke English.
In Orlando, he became a consultant with Primerica Financial Services. She worked first as Hispanic media coordinator with the Census Bureau, then took a job in the political department of the American Federation of State, Municipal and County Employees.
In their spare time, they helped other newcomers learn the ropes -- from opening a bank account to registering to vote.
Finally, in 1999, Sanz took the plunge and opened Latino Leadership to help Hispanics integrate into the community.
Money was tight -- both at home, living off their savings, and at the small office they rented in east Orlando, competing with other nonprofits for grant dollars.
The charismatic Sanz is the heart and voice of Latino Leadership. Guzman is its business manager. An army of 300 volunteers helps run the organization's many programs.
"We are like a fishing net," says Sanz. "Every day we go fishing. Whatever we catch, we deal with."
In some quarters of the Hispanic community this election year, there's a sense that Sanz is too outspokenly partisan, favoring the Democrats, though no one felt strongly enough to be quoted.
"When you are the head of an organization like this, a lot of people love you and a lot don't," says Sanz. "I think it's jealousy. They thought of doing this, but never did it. But I did. Me, a woman. For some macho men, that is frustrating."
Sanz says she checks her personal politics at her office door.
Among the fans of Latino Leadership's services is Yuliana Bolivar. The Kissimmee woman suspected her son Juan, 7, needed eyeglasses, but couldn't afford to have him tested.
"My mother heard through the radio about free eye examinations from Latino Leadership," she says. "I called them, and they gave me an appointment with the doctor. Then they ordered the glasses, all free."
Sanz's passion for helping people such as Bolivar is her greatest strength, says Nancy Sharifi, a senior deputy director at FannieMae who works with Sanz to help clients find affordable housing. "She's genuine in her efforts to help the poor, the people who do not have a voice."
Or a book bag. Sanz is using the AT&T donation for book bags to give away at the fair.
"I remember going back to school with the same old lunchbox and book bag every year," she says. "I so wished for new ones."
Instead, her grandfather simply repainted her old lunchbox at the end of each summer. And her grandmother shined her old leather book bag to a high gloss with shoe polish.
"It was embarrassing," says Sanz. "But imagine today, here in America, with the pressure from commercials to have all the new things. Imagine how embarrassing to have nothing new. Not even a pencil."