Hispanic Soul


The diverse, aspirational and controversial world of  Hispanics in the city.

By Joe O’Donnell

Photography by Beau Gustafson

Freddy & Isabel Rubio This power couple has been at the forefront of advocacy for the Hispanic community. A native of Puerto Rico, Freddy Rubio is on the ACLU national board of directors and is actively involved in immigration litigation. He received an accounting degree at the University of Alabama in Birmingham and a J. D. at the Cumberland School of Law. Freddy formed his own law firm, Rubio Law Firm, P. C., in 2009. He is an advocate for comprehensive immigration reform and hopes to dedicate part of his time to constitutional issues affecting the immigrant community. Isabel Rubio has also been a frontline advocate for Hispanic interests as executive director of HICA, the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama.

The controversy that has erupted over new immigration laws in our state has taken up most of the attention and headlines that touch on the Hispanic community in Birmingham, but there is a whole other story to Hispanics in the city. That more complex story plays out in thousands of lives and hundreds of ways day after day. Hispanics touch the city in fascinating ways and from a myriad of cultural and national traditions that lend a world of flavor to metro Birmingham.

Here are some of those stories…

Freddy Reyes was born in Lima, Peru. After graduating from high school, Reyes went on to major in computer science and systems. In Peru, Reyes worked in banking. His wife of 19 years, Magaly Marchena, worked as a social worker. The couple have two children, Andrea, 18, and Nicholas, 8.

“The bad economy in Peru in 2000 forced us to migrate from our country,” Reyes says. “In 2001 we arrived in Miami for a short period of time and were invited by a friend to come to Birmingham,  and since that day we fell in love with the state. We decided to live here and work very hard. My work experience has varied a lot over the years. I worked in cleaning, sales, waiting tables, as an RV technician, until finally, I built my own business, Kings Services LLC. For a little over seven years I have been working in landscaping, lawn care and home renovation. I named my business Kings Services because my last name, Reyes, means Kings in English.

“What I most want in life is for both of my kids to graduate from college and become successful professionals some day. My older daughter has started her first semester at Jefferson State Community College and is studying to be a radiology technician. She will transfer to UAB for her major. Those are her plans, and I have no doubt she will accomplish them. I want my son to do the same. He’s a very intelligent boy. He recently qualified to be in the gifted program  in his school.

“The topic about immigration that is being touched by all of the politicians affects anyone with Hispanic roots. But at the end of the day, we know that we are all equal under God’s eyes and that should matter more. You have to understand that the only thing that people like me want is to just work hard to have a decent life so that in the future, our children can serve and do something for this country that we love and are so grateful for.”

When Isabel Scarinci was a little girl in Brazil, her mother taught her the importance of taking care of your health. Her mother’s focus came from the first-hand experience of caring for Isabel when the little girl was struck with polio before her first birthday. That led to her mother’s community work in support of vaccine awareness.Today Isabel Scarinci is a professor and Associate Director for Faculty Development and Education at the Division of Preventive Medicine at UAB and feels the tug of the past in her own commitment to health awareness and advocacy.

Dr. Scarinci, a graduate of UAB, has been actively seeking funding for minority health-related research projects since joining the faculty as an associate professor of medicine in 2002. She also has been heavily involved in several state and local organizations whose missions are helping the under-served. Because of her work, Scarinci was selected as the recipient of the 2007 Odessa Woolfolk Community Service Award. She obtained NCI funding to conduct studies investigating African-American and Latina women’s beliefs and attitudes regarding cancer prevention. She also successfully used the community health advisor model to train lay Hispanic and African-American individuals in health promotion, disease prevention, adoption of healthy behaviors and development of community resources for improved health and decreased disparities. Dr. Scarinci has also promoted and established a program to provide low-cost or free breast and cervical cancer screening, follow-up and treatment for Hispanic women. In addition, she also is assuming a leadership role to enhance the UAB Minority Health and Research Center activities for the Hispanic population.

She has also played a prominent leadership role in establishing the first mentoring program for Hispanic students at UAB, called Manos Juntas, or Helping Hands. Dr. Scarinci came to UAB as a student from Brazil in 1989, despite not yet speaking English. She was mentored by Laurence

Idelfonso Ramirez Ildefonso and Lucia Ramirez founded the original Kool Korner in 1985 in Atlanta. The shop was a grocery store that was slowly converted to a sandwich shop, and Ildefonso and Lucia both worked and lived in the old building. The store was the epitome of the American Dream. The Ramirez’ arrived in the U.S. from Cuba in 1972, having left family and friends behind, in search of freedom from Communism and with hopes for the American Dream. Kool Korner grew in popularity in the Atlanta area and became an icon of Cuban sandwiches for generations of Georgia Tech students. Eventually Ramirez closed the old Atlanta store and opened a new one in Birmingham. The New Kool Korner Sandwiches is located at the Vestavia Hills Publix Shopping Center, just off Montgomery Highway. The store is still operated by Ramirez , who now has the help of his son Bill and his family.

A. “Larry” Bradley, Ph.D, a professor of medicine in Clinical Immunology and Rheumatology. That experience has led to her own emphasis on helping young Latino students.

Dr. José R. Fernández is an Associate Professor and Vice Chair for Education in the UAB Department of Nutrition Sciences. Dr. Fernández obtained his Ph.D. in Biobehavioral Health from Pennsylvania State University, training in the genetics of complex traits. He continued his academic training at the New York Obesity Research Center at Columbia University as a post-doctoral fellow focusing on genetics of obesity. Dr. Fernández joined UAB in August 2001, bringing special expertise in the application of statistical models to detect and disentangle genetic and environmental influences in obesity-related traits.
Dr. Fernández’s main research interest is the identification of genes that contribute to racial differences in obesity and diabetes. “I grew up in a poor neighborhood in Puerto Rico, in a household of five children, mom and dad. Early in life my mother taught me the value of education. I was the first person in my family to go to college, and got a Magna Cum Laude Bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Puerto Rico. The New York City Department of Education offered me a job as a bilingual teacher in South Bronx High School. Once in New York, I went to Columbia University Teachers College for a Master’s, then to Penn State for a Ph.D,” Dr. Fernández says.
“I am particularly concerned about how the immigration issue can hinder the American dream, as I am an example of it.”

Lucia Rodriguez was born in Caracas, Venezuela. “When I was a year old, my parents and my older sister moved to the island of Curacao, and we lived there for nine years before returning to Venezuela.  We moved to Birmingham in February of 2001 where I went to middle school (Gresham Middle School), Shades Valley High School and graduated from UAB in May 2010 with a B.S in Physical Education with an Exercise Science concentration,” Rodriguez says.

“The transition to the United States was definitely a hard one, but my counselors and teachers throughout my educational career were very supportive and helpful. Not to mention my parents, who instilled in my sister and I the importance of doing well in school and becoming successful women as well as always staying true to our Venezuelan roots. Even though adapting to a new school system and new culture had its challenges, the fact that we had the privilege to make a life and career in the U.S. made it all worth it. The hardest thing is not being able to see my family in Venezuela.  It is hard not spending time with those you love and sharing memories of holidays and birthdays. Nonetheless, the sacrifice of not seeing my family often is something that I have grown to accept and also embrace since it only makes it that more special when I do see them,” Rodriguez says.

Rodriguez is currently in her third year of physical therapy training at Emory University in Atlanta. “I hope to become a well-rounded, successful physical therapist and establish a comfortable life for myself in the years to come. I love the profession I have chosen and hope to be a positive impact in people’s lives in order to allow them the opportunity to live to their full potential.

Miguel Vilchez | An information systems analyst at Southern Company Services, Vilchez is a graduate of Washington State University with a Bachelor’s degree in computer science. Vilchez is a native of Peru.live at their full potential.”

Mavi Figueres is a Southerner by soul and a native of Costa Rica. “I arrived in Alabama in 1983, graduated from AUM in International Studies, and for some reason the South captured my attention and thought me a few lessons on the way,” she says.

“When I first arrived in Montgomery, most people had never seen a Latina and were very curious as to what I was. I was even stopped by a person who asked me. ‘What is you?’ Not knowing what he meant, I responded. ‘What is you is grammatically incorrect in your language. What do you mean by that?’

“He looked at me strangely and asked, ‘What color men do you date?’ I had to pause for a moment, baffled by the question, and then responded, ‘Educated.’”

“Twelve years later, I moved to Birmingham with a dream of going into international business. After 9/11, my dream was challenged, and I had to find a way to earn a living. As a result, I found a passion I did not know I had, judicial interpreting.

I became Jefferson County’s judicial interpreter and started a new career interpreting and teaching Spanish to all who wanted to learn in the courthouse. Most judges attended the classes, some DAs and other court personnel. It was a great accomplishment to come into the building to hear people addressing you in Spanish, ‘Buenos días, cómo está?’

“I am very happy to say, that after 11 years, I am finally going back into my true passion, international business consulting, and have formed a company here in Birmingham, M Squared IBCC LLC, with a partner in India. We are representing several companies in the renewable energy business, along with several other businesses and products worldwide. I even invented a product, the Tanning Beach Bag, which is in manufacturing now and expected to be in the market by the beginning of next year.”

A native of South America, Silvia Hoyos was born in Bucaramanga, Colombia. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Business from the Universidad Cooperativa de Colombia in 2001. In 2002, she moved to the United States because her life was endangered by Colombian drug lords.

Victor Palafox | At the young age of 20, Victor Palafox has been at the forefront of the fight against the new immigration law in Alabama, a fixture at rallies, forums, and even on the cover of Time magazine standing next to the journalist Jose Antonio Vargasof, who wrote the story, “We Are Americans, Just Not Legally.” Born in Mexico City, Palafox came to this country illegally with his parents. Prompted by the tumult caused by the immigration law controversy, and after years of hiding his illegal status, Palafox went public in a big way. In a YouTube video, Palafox says “There was no reason in hiding something that my parents sacrificed to give me, which was a better life.”

“My dad and my mom both worked for the government in Colombia. While living in Colombia, we had safety issues because of the work my mom and dad did. After the political party they worked for started a campaign against the guerrillas and the narcotraffickers, their work was getting more visible and more dangerous. We started having more problems and, sadly, I lost my dad when he was assassinated.

“After this overwhelming tragedy for my mom, sister and I, we left our house looking for protection and after a really hard time, my mom decided that what it was best it was to move to the U.S. We moved to South Carolina in 2002 because my dad’s family lived there, and my mom thought that we would have some support while trying to adjust to our new life. After two years, we moved to Alabama to reunite with one of my cousins who lived here.”

Hoyos is currently the assistant director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama and believes strongly in the work of non-profits. She is pursuing her Master’s in Public Administration at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She was in the Leadership UAB class of 2010 and is in the 2012-2013 Leadership Birmingham class.

“I have been able to combine my skills learned in my business undergraduate studies and also practiced what my mom and dad always taught me — to do the right thing.  I have to say that as a child growing up with more than what I probably needed, my mom and dad always did their best to teach my sister and I that we always have to give back because  there are people less fortunate than us and that money and material things are fleeting but the feeling of helping someone last forever, and I cannot agree more with them now . I have the pleasure of working at HICA with great people that work tirelessly to make sure the Hispanic community has the chance to have a better life.

“Moving to Birmingham, I never thought that I would face so many challenges. People have misconceptions and stereotypes about my community, and just for having a Hispanic name and having an accent when I speak, people have thought that I am undocumented, that I am not educated, that I am from Mexico, none of which are true.  On the other hand, I also never thought that I would have the opportunity to help others and to educate others about immigrants — who we really are and why we are here, whether documented or undocumented.

“I hope in my lifetime I will use my passion to help others have a fair chance to succeed, whether they are immigrants or other people who are disadvantaged. I believe that no human being is less worthy than anyone else, no matter who they are or where they come from, and I want to help create a world where everyone has opportunities to achieve their dreams and aspirations.”

Fiesta 10

Fiesta, a Hispanic Culture Festival, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. The colorful event brings Hispanic and Latino culture to Birmingham on Saturday October 13th at Linn Park. Guests will immerse themselves in all aspects of the culture, food and entertainment of more than 20 different countries. With nine different villages to entertain the entire family, there is something for everyone.

Fiesta joins forces with the Birmingham Museum of Art to host The Arts Village, an area where visitors of all ages can enjoy art from many different cultures and create some of their own to take home.

The Main Music Stage and The DJ & Dance Stage will offer music and dancing to entertain patrons through the night. Some of Fiesta’s performances will include Brazeros Musical, Toby Love, Las Valenzuela, Oro Solido, Destakados De La Sierra, Ballet Folklorico Corazon Azteca, DJ Ivan Correa, DJ Master-Beats and Lobo DJ.

Natives from more than 20 different countries will take over The Cultural Village as patrons can wander through the different countries, meeting natives, learning about their heritage and truly experiencing their culture. The Family Village offers a Fun-Zone, Reading and Storytelling Tent and Home Depot’s Family Building Together Tent. Every child will experience culture and fun no matter their age. Throughout the Hispanic culture, sports play a major role, especially soccer. The Soccer Village will be home to clinics and small-group tournament play, all with trophies and prizes.

Hungry? Visit The Multi-Cultural Food Village. This is a great way to try something new or find your favorite Hispanic and Latino flavors. In The Health and Wellness Village and The Community Village, you can learn about different organizations in the Birmingham Community that are here to help you. The Health and Wellness Village offers health screenings and information. The Community Village gives non-profits the chance to showcase their services and tell people how to get involved.

Fiesta’s goal is “to educate the mainstream public about the many different Hispanic countries and cultures through the best of art, music, dance and food.”  Simply stated, Hispanic music is more than Ricky Martin’s≠≠- “Living La Vida Loca.” The food is more than tacos with salsa. The dance is more than a Mexican Hat Dance. And the history is surprising to many. Hispanics aren’t really newcomers to this country. In fact, Hispanics arrived in this country more than 500 years ago.

Leave a Reply