New organization seeks to educate and empower the Hispanic community in Southeastern Michigan

The Blue Water Area was once a hub that provided services and resources for the Hispanic and Spanish-speaking community. Over time, organizations such as Our Lady of Guadalupe Hispanic Mission and the Hispanic Council of St. Clair County closed their doors permanently, creating a void for those individuals who no longer had a place to celebrate and learn about their culture and heritage.

The newly formed Hispanic Alliance of Southeast Michigan (HASM) is set on filling that void by providing the Hispanic community with educational services and more.

Jessica Totty, Port Huron resident and President of the organization, seeks to give a voice to those who may not often be heard.

Jessica Totty, President of the Hispanic Alliance of Southeast Michigan.“When discussing the Hispanic community there is a misconception or tendency to label Hispanic or Spanish-speaking individuals only as Mexican,” she says. “The Hispanic community consists of not only Mexicans, but also other groups including, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Dominican. So that’s just a small example of being a voice, as those types of labels take away from the identities and cultures of other Hispanic groups.”

In December of 2022, Totty along with a group of community leaders and St. Clair County residents decided that it was time to restore that which once was and to get the Hispanic community in touch with their heritage and culture. That group would become what is now known as HASM.

HASM currently has 14 members along with four board members consisting of, Totty/President, Maggie Toole as Vice President, Steve Fernandez as Secretary, and Carlos Quiroga as Treasurer.

“We came together and started meeting in the lower level of Country Style Market (owned by Fernandez). We’d meet once a month or every other month just to discuss our ideas about what we could do to restore some of the programs and resources that were lost when Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission and the Hispanic Council of St. Clair County were dissolved back in 2017 and 2019 respectively,” Totty says. “We sought the help and guidance of Jesus and Eunice Castillo, who were both former chairpersons of the Hispanic Council of St. Clair County. Their knowledge and expertise in what it takes to make this a reality has been invaluable. We became an official 501(c)(3) organization in August of 2023.”

Irene Michels (right) poses for a photo with her youngest sister, Maggie Toole.HASM’s goal is not only to educate Southeastern Michigan about Hispanic culture and traditions, but to also empower individuals by creating opportunities for leadership development and providing the youth, as well as adults, with scholarships to enter college or other higher education pursuits.

“Often in our culture we still have a lot of older people who have never attended college or even graduated from high school due to circumstances where they may have had to choose work over pursuing their education, or due to language barriers that may have prevented them from a proper education,” Totty explains. “Oftentimes Hispanics and other minorities still face discrimination in certain places of employment or other spaces.”

Along with the educational aspect, HASM was created to help connect individuals with community resources to help them advance and propel them to success.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel or anything, but with the amount of diversity in the careers of our board and members, we have access to a variety of connections and resource opportunities within the local community that we can pool together to help others,” Totty says. “From child care to applying for grants, we have a pretty solid network to build with. Although we have a solid foundation, we are not opposed, and would actually love to collaborate with other organizations that have a similar vision in the future. We would also like to implement services to help migrants obtain citizenship, housing, and jobs so they can integrate and become productive members of society. Issues such as healthcare are also big in the Hispanic community due to mistrust of doctors as well as language barriers, so that’s another aspect we are looking to address in the future.”

Iris Santillano (left) and Irma Lopez, mother and daughter and members of the Hispanic Alliance of Southeast Michigan.

Two of HASM’s members, mother and daughter, Iris Santillano and Irma Lopez, play key roles in helping HASM achieve its goals within the community. They have been a part of the organization since January of 2023 with each of them performing whatever roles need to be filled to further the mission. With Iris having a background as a bilingual translator, that is currently her main role in the organization.

“I’ve done volunteer work for SONS Outreach, I’m currently part of the Scholarship Committee with the Community Foundation of St. Clair County, and I also serve as a translator in the Oakland County area, but we are all flexible and take on any task we are able to. There is a major need for translators in schools, courtrooms, and social services,” Santillano says.

Lopez is the youngest current member and fulfills the role of HASM’s marketing and fundraising expert, helping share information online in regard to specific resources and other activities available to those in need. Lopez also speaks fluent Spanish. 

With all of the moving parts of an organization, someone has to keep track of information, finances, etc. and that is where Fernandez comes into play. As the owner of Country Style Market and Secretary of HASM, Fernandez has a big responsibility and he embraces it wholeheartedly.

Steve Fernandez, Secretary of the Hispanic Alliance of Southeast Michigan.“As secretary I’m kind of the gatekeeper,” he says. “I keep track of the meeting times and dates, notes, and of course I help oversee the finances of our organization. I also have the unique task of keeping momentum going with our meetings, as we still meet in the lower level of Country Style Market to conduct our affairs.”

One of the obstacles that many nonprofit organizations face is in the area of finances, but last year HASM was granted a generous financial reward at the 2023 Multicultural Celebration held in Port Huron. Attendees of the event had the opportunity to cast their vote for three nonprofit organizations in which HASM walked away the winner, taking home a grant of $3,500. The funds will be used to further the organization by investing it into launching its website along with other advertising and marketing needs to help spread the word. Future funding will come in the form of grants and fundraisers.

One of the first things on HASM’s agenda is obtaining a space to operate and conduct business, for as of now they are still utilizing the lower level of Country Style Market.

“We have been trying to find a building or space where we can formally conduct business,” Totty says. “Steve has been wonderful in allowing us to use their space, but our goal is to be a hub for resources and services so that people know and can identify exactly where we are and what we do.”

As a new organization, HASM is still in the growing stages and they are looking for volunteers to help carry out their vision and goals working for the betterment of the Hispanic community in Southeast Michigan.
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Read more articles by Harold Powell.

Harold Powell is the Community Correspondent for The Keel and owner of Phantom Pen Media offering multimedia services to individuals and organizations across the Blue Water Area. He is a current board member for the Blue Water Area Chamber of Commerce and the most recent Chamber Choice recipient at the Eddy Awards. Harold is an avid volunteer for the YMCA of the Blue Water Area as well as Bridge Builders Counseling & Mentoring and in his spare time, enjoys spending time with his son, writing and listening to music, playing video games, and not folding laundry.