A New Voice: Interview with Centro Hispano Director Karen Menendez

Have you ever watched a DFAD makeover video? If not, it’s one of the greatest ways to experience the movement, as it highlights the design process along with the most heart-felt moments of our projects. Only in our videos do you get a sense of how overwhelmed with happiness our recipients become when walking in to their new space, and how much a makeover really means for the future of their work.

One of our favorites, now famed for being the largest makeover in DFAD history, is that of Centro Hispano (CH), a cultural center that serves the Hispanic community of Madison, Wisconsin. IDG member Bob Tobe and his massive team of 38 interior designers and over 100 businesses left no eye dry during their reveal, one of our favorites being that of CH director Karen Menendez.

Prompted by her sweet and very emotional video interview, we decided to catch up with Karen in hopes of hearing more of her story and discovering how their makeover has impacted them since the reveal.




HG: How did you come to Centro Hispano?


KM: I moved here from Los Angeles with my husband and our two little girls about five years ago. My husband is from Madison, so it made sense to settle closer to family, but our main reason was that we wanted to raise our girls in a place that would give them the opportunity to thrive above what they could in LA.

As for my background, I have degrees in public health, so I’ve worked in the health and well-being of mothers and kids for about 20 years. With that, I’ve always had a roll in city and local government, my last stint being in academia, where I taught at UCLA. When I came here I felt like I wanted to be closer to the work.

Originally, I was going to take a job at the University of Wisconsin, but then I met the person who was president of our board at the time, and she and I completely hit it off. So I’ve been the director here from day one and I’m really proud of the work that we do; it’s good work and the experience has been absolutely unbelievable.


HG: Did you grow up in Los Angeles?


KM: Yes, I had my high-school experience there but I am an immigrant from El Salvador. My dad always loved America and his dream was to move our family here. So from the time I was five until I was thirteen, we kept coming to California to find work but it never panned out. We tried everything; we’d try different cities, always with the hope of finding something to live on, but our time would run out and we’d have to go back to El Salvador.

Finally, on our last trip, my mom found work in LA, which was ironic because she was the one who would have been content to stay in El Salvador, but she took the job, my dad moved back, and they made the decision to live apart even though they were still together for most of my life so we could establish ourselves here.

So from then on, we grew up only seeing my dad about twice a year. It was difficult for all of us, but he was always proud that we were here and that he was making a sacrifice for us so we could have more opportunity for the next generation to have better. And that’s how my husband and I feel about our community at CH.


HG: What are the challenges for the Latino community in LA?


KM: Oh, I love LA- I think it’s the best city ever. The problem is that it is not straight-forward for the Latino community; it has a lot of layers, which is also one of the things I love about it, but unfortunately it can be the reason some families fall into a category of risk. There are not enough established programs like what we have here in Madison, which makes it complicated to thrive. I’ve seen it first hand, and have worked with a lot of kids who were struggling, and that really hit home for me when I became a mom.

This is why my hope is for my kids to have a better community here. And while I think there’s a ton of work to get done, I’ve always felt this pull that maybe we can do it, whereas sometimes back in California I felt like it was too late and also too hard.


HG: Why is Centro Hispano important to you?


KM: We’ve always been a quiet little organization, which I think has put the Latino community very much in the shadows. So over the last five years, we’ve worked really hard to become more vocal as an organization and also in our presence with our building.

In doing this, it’s important that the nature of our programming reaches out and encourages our families to have a voice; not be shy about telling their stories-especially in times when they’re carrying the brunt of lies and misrepresentations of what our community is and what it is not.

In telling their stories, kids who may struggle with speaking up will gain the confidence needed to know that what they have to say matters. And with our adult programs, we want to capture the voice of the families we serve by matching their needs with partners who are willing to listen and think about ways they are doing business to make sure things improve.

At CH, we are all about providing wrap-around support in everything we do, so our families will feel more grounded here in Madison. Our work is not about us, it’s about how we can impact those in need.


HG: How did the makeover impact CH?


KM: Oh, well it was amazing! It was incredible… we were just overwhelmed by the whole thing and how the flow of our building has completely changed. And there was so much care [from start to finish] put into this place, you know? The design team really listened to what we wanted for every space they were working on and that was the piece that I think was so striking to me…

For instance, we have a room for our kids in youth programming called The Dream Room, where basically anything in there stays private. They talk about their hopes and dreams and their challenges- and they wanted a certain couch, a certain layout, a certain bookshelf… and the designers took all of that into account for the makeover. They made it all happen. In all 10,000+ square feet of our space.

Now, there’s a real sense of happiness and joy that goes with coming into Centro where I think five years ago, I always felt this sense of urgency- like people were coming here for needs and now there’s just joy. To this day, you can see the families coming in, and you see it in their faces and you see it with the moms when they are trying to leave their stroller before they get into the room in the back where we have programming for little ones… they are feeling a sense of home here, and that is our goal.


HG: What’s your favorite space and why?


KM: I love it all, but I would have to say it’s the kitchen. In the Latino community, the cooking and talking over food is really critical for our culture and a fully functional kitchen was something that I know was way beyond our reach; the fact that they made it happen is incredible.

Enjoying this new space plays right into our mission of empowering youth, strengthening families and engaging community. If we don’t engage community the right way, the other two pillars fall down. And everything that happens in the kitchen is engagement. I mean, women are cooking, classes are going on, there’s prepping for events, and people are always gathered in that space; we are engaging all three pillars of this mission, which is a dream come true. We are all so happy.


HG: Did you ever think, when Bob Tobe and his team selected CH, that your makeover would make DFAD history?


KM: Oh no, never! I don’t think that the way the remodel happened would have happened in the past because directives would have come from so many places. With Design For A Difference and Bob’s team, that wasn’t the case at all; they made it all about our staff, our board, and OUR families when making the decisions. So this makeover was entirely about what WE wanted for CH. And in the end, our community’s voice was LOUD. We finally feel like we have a place that is ours, and one that we can call home, and we couldn’t be more proud.


HG: What is your vision for the future of CH?


KM: It’s funny, because we talk about how this piece has propelled us just by having a building that’s what we wanted it to be. This place… I can’t tell you how much history it represents for our community; we’ve been here for a long time and people knew about Centro, but they didn’t see the possibilities- and I think with the makeover they are dreaming big.

In the end, this has really enabled us think about expanding; we’ve already added satellite sites to other areas of Dane county, and now we’re talking about what we could do if we utilize a back portion of our building as well. Everything I’ve ever dreamed for the Latino community is coming true in Madison- we now have an established voice and a place to call home.


HG: And isn’t that what we all want? A place to call home? Karen, thank you for the difference you are making along with everyone at Centro Hispano. Your story, your passion, and your mission are inspirational to us all. We wish you all the best for the future of your family and the voice of the Latino community in Madison and beyond. To learn more about Centro Hispano, please visit www.MICentro.org.


To watch the full DFAD makeover of Centro Hispano, please visit www.designforadifference.com/#makeovers.