The story below is a preview of our March/April 2022 issue. For more stories like this, subscribe today. Thank you!
Launched a year ago, Latinas Network has grown to fill a void in Roanoke.
The Vinton War Memorial Ballroom is buzzing with excitement. There is a cash bar. The smell of refried beans and rice wafts through the air. Hardly anyone is seated at the large round tables that fill the space. They talk, laugh, hug and stomp to the salsa music playing in the background.
It’s a night to celebrate.
Kat Pascal, FarmBurguesa co-owner and Roanoke native, takes the mic. “Hello,” she addressed the crowd of some 200 supporters. She presents herself as the founder and leader of a new non-profit association. “Thank you so much for coming tonight…” her voice trailed off with emotion.
It’s the first anniversary of the spark of an idea that caught fire and began to glow.
Latinas Network exists, she continues, because throughout the disruption, uncertainty and stress of 2020, Pascal watched as women leave the workforce and Latina-owned businesses close. The pressure of children coming home from school and parents needing care and businesses losing money drove women away from their dreams.
“And so I thought to myself, there has to be a way that we can all connect…emotionally, mentally, professionally. This is how Latinas Network was born.
Beginning in an informal meeting in the fall of 2020, a dozen organized and well-connected Latina women committed to designing a space that would foster relationships, share information, and create community. Despite pandemic shutdowns and COVID spikes and supply chain disruptions, the group came together for monthly lunches and professional development trainings and organization-building meetings. They grew their membership from a handful to hundreds, started soliciting sponsors and building support from community organizations, filmed Facebook Lives and YouTube presentations.
And that evening, meant to applaud all that Latinas Network has accomplished so far and chart a course for the future, organizers shake Virginia Del’s hand. Roanoke City Council member Sam Rasoul and Joe Cobb. Among the evening’s presenters is Roanoke City Council member Vivian Sanchez-Jones.
“We have to stand tall as we go,” Sanchez-Jones told the crowd. ” This is a difficult work. It is exhausting work. But it’s good work.
Pascal’s need to connect in difficult times struck a chord.
Iliana Sepulveda moved from the Washington, DC area to Roanoke in 2017, after her husband landed a new job. Sepulveda was building her career as a project manager, working from home. He deeply missed his friends and neighbors in northern Virginia, especially the wealthy and well-established Latina community there.
She realized how isolated she had become when, in 2019, she was filling out paperwork to enroll her baby in daycare. One form asked for a contact who could be called if she or her husband were unavailable. She couldn’t think of a soul.
“We’ve been in this town for two years and I didn’t have a single relationship that I could entrust my son to,” she recalled wondering. “It’s finding myself with zero social capital. Out of 100,000 people, I had no relationship.
She swore to change. So, in addition to her job, her husband, and her new baby, she started joining professional groups, asking around for Hispanic resources. She had almost decided to start a Hispanic women’s organization herself when a friend told her that a similar group might form. She showed up at the first meeting of the Latinas Network. Before there was a name. Or a Facebook page. Or a board of directors. It was in October 2020.
Pascal remembers wanting to create a community without knowing exactly how. “I think all I really did was say, ‘Hey, here’s an idea,'” she recalled.
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