Home is where your family is.
That ideal resonates with Deyse Lopez, whose long and winding road to U.S. citizenship began more than 30 years ago. She was 3 years old when her family moved to northwest Georgia, but Lopez has never forgotten the journey nor the dream. That is why she is helping other Latinos by volunteering with ¡HICA!, the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama.
“My Dad says, ‘Family is everything,’” said Lopez, who is the Strategic Analytics team leader in Economic and Community Development at Alabama Power. “The staff of ¡HICA! is amazing and really has a heart for the community. They never stop moving forward, and I want to give back because someone did that for me and my family.”
Lopez was drawn to ¡HICA!’s mission of building and strengthening the Hispanic community. After co-worker Lauren Salas Lambiase joined Economic and Community Development in 2019, Lopez mentioned ¡HICA! when Lambiase shared that she missed her family and supporting the Hispanic community, as she had done in previous roles in Georgia.
It wasn’t long before Lambiase joined Lopez on ¡HICA!’s junior board, which has members from Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Immediately, Lambiase felt an affinity for the group’s projects.
“I was familiar with working with leadership in Hispanic business organizations,” she said. “Early in my career, I advocated for Hispanic business interests for the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. My Dad was a small business owner – you gravitate toward like-minded people and helping ¡HICA! appealed to me.”
During the pandemic, Lopez and Lambiase found respite lending their talents to ¡HICA!. Away from work, they assist the nonprofit in championing economic equality, civic engagement and social justice to empower the state’s Latinos. Many efforts come through vital decision-making and fund raisers. For instance, before the pandemic hit in March, junior board members planned “¡HICA! Night con Los Barons” and an authentic Birmingham Pig Roast as a fund raiser, which were postponed because of social distancing requirements.
“We wanted to do a pig roast, an event that brings together Alabama’s passion for good barbecue and bring awareness to ¡HICA!’ This is our version of a barbecue,” said Lopez, who recently became vice chair of the junior board. “I want to give back. All of us want to do this.”
Because of COVID-19, the junior board meets monthly in virtual Zoom calls.
The long road home
Lopez’s parents planted American roots in Rome, Georgia, doing all they could to earn citizenship. The family discovered the pathway to citizenship can be pitted with obstacles. Lopez was 17 when she finally received her permanent resident card, or green card. With excellent grades in school, she was awarded scholarships to study accounting at UAB.
During her senior year in college, Lopez interned in Internal Auditing at Southern Company Services (SCS), which served as the springboard to her successful 10-year career. Lopez worked for Southern Power, then moved to SCS, working in roles within Internal Controls and Compliance, Risk Control and Operations Compliance. She transferred to Marketing at Alabama Power, moving to her present job as Strategic Analytics team leader in Economic and Community Development.
While their Latino heritage unites Lopez and Lambiase, caring and compassion are the common denominator behind the desire to serve their community. During the pandemic, ¡HiCA! has presented video chats and webinars on finances, buying a home and mental health.
“¡HICA!’s programs touch every single aspect of a human being, from immigration services to healthcare, scholarships to classes on home ownership to empowering women,” said Lopez, whose mother-in-law used ¡HICA!’s naturalization classes to study for and obtain her U.S. citizenship. “They cover such a broad spectrum of services, from help with domestic violence to referring underserved people to food banks, small business and more.
Lambiase is excited about the opportunities to assist Latinos in Birmingham, which she likens to a “big small town.”
“Birmingham has lots of conveniences. It’s a very welcoming, friendly place,” said Lambiase, who served as Georgia Power’s Community Development manager for four years before moving to Birmingham to work at Alabama Power. “I also wanted the chance to connect with the Hispanic community here, so that’s why it’s been great to be on the ¡HICA! junior board. We work to get the ¡HICA! message out further to different communities about what they do.
“You want to solve things for people, so they know their rights and the law,” said Lambiase, who graduated from Auburn University with a degree in international business. “If you’re here from another country, you don’t know the law, policywise. It’s really helpful to have organizations that help with cultural assimilation and advocacy. There are so many nuances to the language – there’s lots of education around how process-oriented Americans are.”
Lopez agreed it’s important for Latinos to have advocates when they have difficulties communicating. “Having someone who speaks the language would have helped my parents a lot,” she said.
Lambiase’s parents met in the 1960s when her father, who was born in Colombia, came to Birmingham for treatment of an eye injury. Because Humberto Salas didn’t speak much English, staff at UAB Callahan Eye Hospital suggested that a Spanish-speaking student at Samford University might be able to help. That student invited Salas home for dinner, where he met her sister, Donna Stewart, who was in high school and taking Spanish classes.
“My parents met that night at dinner and hit it off,” Lambiase said. “My Dad went back to Colombia, but they wrote love letters back and forth for four years. After my mother graduated from high school, my Dad got a visa and stayed here six months. In 1974 they married and went to Atlanta.”
The Salas family owns a Colombian restaurant, Los Recuerdos – Spanish for “The Memories” – in Lawrenceville, Georgia. Lambiase misses their food.
“I took it for granted being able to find Colombian food in Atlanta,” said Lambiase, who has two daughters, Luciana, 11, and Michaela, 5. “Here, you can’t just go out and buy it. However, it has really given me an opportunity to further connect with my roots, and dig up family recipes and make them myself.”
The experience of planning HICA’s tamale sale has whetted the duo’s appetites for success in the Nov. 21-Dec. 8 event. Meals can be ordered on ¡HICA!’s website.
“I wanted to be tamale captain this year,” said Lambiase, with a chuckle. Lopez has helped with the event for about three years.
Sharing their culture is one more reason the duo find much satisfaction in giving back through ¡HICA!.
“I love the junior board because we get to work together to help people,” Lopez said. “Even with the fundraisers, it’s about the process of bringing people together. We love to share our culture and help bring understanding.”