Reno’s social fabric

Swatch by swatch, the Hispanic culture is woven into the tapestry of the Truckee Meadows community

Photo Illustration by David Jayne

Imagine the Truckee Meadows as a wrinkled quilt, just like the ones that fetch the high prices on Antiques Road Show. The Truckee River is a sparkling blue seam running right down the middle. The Pah Rah Range and the peaks around Mt. Rose are the blanket’s borders. In between is a patchwork of neighborhood colors with roads joining the pieces like stitches.

As in a quilt, every patch of Reno-Sparks has its own odors and hues to make the piece a section unto itself. Downtown Reno is magenta and gold and smells like alleys. East Fourth Street is dirt-colored and smells industrial. Wingfield Springs is the green, humid-smelling swatch. The new Northwest looks planned and smells of barbecue sauce. Wells Avenue brings whiffs of churros and accents of colorful piñatas.

Just as that quilt can be examined by its individual parts, so can the Truckee Meadows’ population. One large swatch, 19 percent, of Northern Nevada’s community is Hispanic. It’s there we want to look, at some individuals who contribute to the Hispanic culture of Northern Nevada, with the idea that an examination of threads and sections of cloth can give a better understanding of entire tapestries.

We have to work together
It’s a bright morning outside, but colorful Mexican rugs draped over the windows darken the interior of Bertha Miranda’s restaurant. Metallic clangs emanate from the kitchen as the staff prepares for the day. The smell of fresh tortillas wafts to the tables.

Bertha Miranda sits in a wicker chair. Her hairstyle is chic, but her dress is casual—a red sweater and jeans. She wears a grandmotherly smile as she speaks. John Cetina, member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, sits across the table. He is a short man from Colombia, with a full smile filling his round face. The two discuss the whirlwind of activity within the Latino business community.

“There is a dream of business within the American Dream, but it takes information, determination, financial help and knowing your talents,” Miranda says.

She points to a black and white photo hanging behind the cash register. It shows a younger Miranda with the same welcoming smile. Her arms are linked with her three sons, and behind them is her first tiny 15-seat restaurant. Today, her restaurant is more grandiose, with a capacity of 180 customers.

Bertha Miranda started with a restaurant that seated 15 people. Today, her restaurant accommodates up to 180, and she gives $20,000 in scholarship money to Latino youth every year.

Photo By David Robert

“It is important you do what you like in this life and put spirit into it,” Miranda says. “When someone makes food with love, the people can feel it.”

Three restaurants later, she’s a widely recognized figure in the Hispanic population of the Truckee Meadows. She is grateful for her success, annually returning more than $20,000 in college scholarships for Latino youth to the community.

Cetina works with Miranda and others to create a support system within the Reno/Sparks Latino business community through the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

“The purpose for the Chamber of Commerce is networking,” Cetina says. He wants to interconnect the region’s 500 Latino businesses and promote new marketing tactics. He believes the largest threat to Hispanic business owners in Northern Nevada is the influx of people and new businesses from California. He says to survive, businesspeople must innovate and work together.

Although it’s been a slow movement, Cetina thinks Hispanic businesses are waking up to the opportunities within the Hispanic community and the larger Truckee Meadows community.

“I think a lot of business owners are changing,” Cetina says. “I think now they understand the message. We have to work together.”

Alone We Are Worthless
Inside the main office of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union Local 86, a few stacked boxes wait in the corner, and two red chairs sit in front of a small desk. The back wall is bare except for a clock, a small American flag, and a sign that reads “Alone We Are Worthless.” On the adjacent wall, a blue T-shirt droops crookedly, sagging under the weight of rally buttons. A large nametag hangs lower than any of the other pins. The name reads “Kiko.”

Kiko, also known as Federico Reyes, came to Reno in 1977 as a dishwasher and cook at the Circus Circus Casino. He’d never heard the word “union” until he came to the United States, but after facing discrimination in the work force, it was a word he learned well.

Mosatafa “Mo” Mandegary, president of the 98-percent-Hispanic Northern Nevada Soccer League, has helped turn league games into peaceful family-oriented events.

Photo By David Robert

In 1994, Kiko, along with co-founder Tahis Castro, organized the Local 86. The union represents workers of Circus Circus, the Reno Hilton and SkyChef, an airline food company. The union has helped improve health-care benefits, wages, job security, training, grievance resolution, and, most important, dignity for the workers.

“Two years ago, they were paying $120 a month in health insurance to cover themselves,” Kiko said. “Now it is $35 per month for family coverage and free for single workers. But we also fight for the people to have respect in their job. We believe in justice, respect and dignity. That’s why we believe we should do this. Because [employers] should treat us like human beings.”

Castro is a short woman with friendly eyes. When she came to Reno from Costa Rica 17 years ago, she was lucky to find a job as an office manager, complete with benefits and a good salary. But after regular harassment by employees and management, she left.

“It was a struggle because I have an accent, and I’m Hispanic,” Castro said. “They find a way to push you out.”

Now Castro commits herself to the cause of the union.

“If you don’t have a union, you don’t have rights,” Castro says strongly, a belief she tries to ingrain into underprivileged working families. “The first step is to build a strong community. Then we have to make people understand they have the right to organize. When you mention the union, you scare everybody. Now the Latino community is starting to understand this is the hope.”

Local 86, consisting of 900 members, has just merged with Las Vegas HERE Local 226, which has 50,000 members. Both Kiko and Castro think this will create more of a voice in the community and encourage more workers to join.

“We have a social conscience to turn this town around,” says Castro.

Roberto Nerey and Theresa Navarro both had troubled pasts that led them to become activists in the Hispanic community.

Photo By David Robert

Bringing together family and community
Mosatafa “Mo” Mandegary seems small sitting in his office/storage room filled with 30 fold-up chairs and two oversized soccer posters. Out of the four soccer leagues in Washoe County, the Northern Nevada Soccer League is the most Latino-oriented, with 98 percent of its 2,000 players being Hispanic. While Mandegary is Iranian, he’s also a valued member of the Hispanic community.

In the last five years as president, he has seen the league change from rioting and violence at the games to a peaceful and important community event.

“What we try to create is mainly a family event,” Mandegary says in his slow, serious way. “We realize our players work two to three jobs during the week and hardly see their own family members. But when it comes to Saturday and Sunday, they bring the whole family to watch them play. Soccer is something Hispanics enjoy, and this is one way to bring them all together as a family and as a community.”

Mandegary also views the league as an activity to keep Hispanic youth out of trouble. As a member of the Reno Youth Sports Association, he pushes the city to clean up the poorly maintained Neil Road Park, where the youth league is confined to play. One season, they were allowed to play at Mendive Middle School in Sparks, but after families in the neighborhoods complained, they were forced back to Neil Road.

“I think it’s a cultural misunderstanding,” Mandegary says. “It’s not knowing how the Hispanic culture works, how social the families are. At the game site, we do bring a lot of people, and that can be intimidating to the neighborhood.”

The league still faces bias. For example, on one occasion, the NNSL was the only soccer league not invited to a meeting to discuss renovation of fields. Mandegary says he stays involved because he wants to help fight discrimination and wants to provide an outlet for a favorite pastime.

“I have taken the challenge to protect the Hispanic community because I’m a coach, player and longtime friend,” Mandegary says. “I consider myself belonging to the whole community, and I stand up against injustices when I feel it is happening. This is for the game of soccer, for the betterment of the community and because of the passion I have for the game I’ve played all my life.”

From the inside
Theresa Navarro and Roberto Nerey were each surrounded by pain and violence when they began their careers as social workers and leaders in the Hispanic community.

Emma Sepulveda feels that the Reno community has given her great opportunities for success, and that people who achieve such privileged positions should remember where they came from and give back to the community.

Photo By David Robert

Theresa Navarro remembers sobbing in the dark closet she had locked herself in as her drunken boyfriend smashed his fists against the other side, screaming at her. After the death of her mother, she spiraled into depression, and the only support she had was on the other side of the door. It was then she decided her life had to change, so she opened the closet, walked past her boyfriend and ended her life as a victim.

Nerey’s revelation came attached to the sound of gunfire piercing metal as the 13-year-old boy in the backseat of his car unloaded a full banana clip of a .22 caliber automatic rifle into the side of the adjacent car.

Today, Navarro and Nerey each help fight social problems within the Hispanic community. Navarro helps abused teenagers and women, specifically Latina. Nerey is part of the grassroots organization, Unlimited Intervention, working with young people who are at risk of joining gangs.

Navarro vividly remembers one of the first court cases she attended with an abused client. The defendant’s husband lunged away from the guards and onto his wife and Navarro. She recalls thrusting her wrists between the neck of the women and the man’s shackles. She most vividly remembers the aftermath of hair, blood and flailing limbs.

“He pulled the ponytail right out of her head,” Navarro says. “Eight men were trying to get him off. As he was being led out of the room, his last words to her were he was going to kill her. I’ll never forget that.”

She feels Latina women have a harder time leaving abusive relationships because of the mentality brought from other countries.

“It’s a very powerful structure when you’re raised with that domineering, controlling culture. It’s more acceptable so it’s harder to break.”

Navarro has also fought abuse and discrimination against and within the Latino community in the areas of politics and real estate with other social programs like Unlimited Intervention.

In 1994, Tahis Castro and Kiko (aka Frederico Reyes) co-founded the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union Local 86 that represents workers of Circus Circus, the Reno Hilton and SkyChef.

Photo By David Robert

“I have a right to be here, and if something needs to be changed, I’m going to do something about it,” Navarro says as she slaps the table. “They ask me if I’m going to diversify the community. You’re damn right I am.”

After a two-year prison sentence for participating in the drive-by shooting, Nerey emerged from the prison gates a different man with a new purpose.

“It was in prison that I realized where young and talented Latinos were heading,” Nerey says. “Not just Latinos, but the less fortunate of all races and colors. That’s when I realized I was determined to represent them, to walk my talk and to create change.”

Today Nerey is two classes away from receiving a degree in criminal justice from the University of Nevada, Reno, and is a proud father of three. His own experiences have allowed him to form a bond of trust with troubled youth, especially Latinos, who make up 55-60 percent of gang involvement in Reno.

“Because I’ve been there, I have that respect. But it’s my job now to change the realities of this city’s neighborhoods so others won’t fall into the trap that I did,” he says.

Diversity within the culture
In the 30 years Emma Sepulveda has lived in Reno, she has become a respected professor of Hispanic studies at UNR as well as in many other aspects of the community. Although her stylish suits show she is not the same girl who came fleeing fascism, the Chilean necklaces she wears remind her of who she is and where she came from.

“I feel that the community has given me a tremendous opportunity to succeed, and I feel I’m in a privileged position. Everybody in this privileged position needs to remember where they came from and give back. I think I’ve been involved in almost every Latino group in this community, and I have been part of many founding groups. I really consider myself a community activist. I think it is so pompous to consider yourself a leader.”

Through her community involvement, it’s no stretch to say she has had an impact on almost every aspect of the community. She has been the founder and board member of various groups in education, the arts, politics, the media and service-help programs.

Her newest project is pushing for Spanish-speaking translators in all Washoe County schools. She has been connected with Unlimited Intervention, the Nevada Museum of Art, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Nevada Hispanic Services. She was the first Latina to run for Nevada Senate on the Democratic ballot in 1994 and has written for the Spanish/English newspaper Ahora and the Reno Gazette-Journal in addition to her 17 published books.

“When I got here, only about 2-3 percent of the population was Latinos, and now we are over 20 percent, so the numbers will tell you how the face of this state is changing," Sepulveda says. "But we are as diverse as the 20 countries we come from. There is not one culture nor one political view."