Virginia Nunes Gutierrez is what some might call a serial entrepreneur.
She’s a woman who places a discerning eye on efficiencies and thinks and re-thinks sustainable business models and looking at metrics around ROI as any seasoned business person would.
Yet, instead of pursuing profit, she invests in people.
And capital investment takes the form of thousands of eager crowd-funders donating what they can to help raise awareness of social causes that lie at the heart of Columbus’ current socio-economic landscape.
It started years ago with a hospitality business in Spain. And before then, a childhood split between Venezuela and the Midwest, but tied together with the common thread of community, industry, a relentless spirit to do more, and a deeply-rooted motivation to help people.
It’s tempting to distill Gutierrez’s story into two main ideas, two (very impressive) projects: a socially responsible coffee shop in Franklinton and a non-profit that fights deportation.
But in reality, her story goes deeper, is more nuanced and reflects a tender tenacity to bring humanity into the stark policies that affect Columbus’ undocumented populations and a desire to give voice to those hidden in the shadows.
And it begins with a declaration:
I was undocumented. Thankfully I’ve been able to adjust my status, but I wouldn’t be able to do anything that I’ve done if I hadn’t been able to. And it was only because of people who helped me do it. So what are we missing? What are we missing from our community when all these people are being deported and these families are going through all these terrible things?
While Ms. Gutierrez continues to fill community gaps, we purposefully left as much of our voice out of her story as possible. This is her journey, in her words:
I’m a first generation immigrant. I was born in Venezuela. My parents brought me here when I was two years old, in the late ’80s, immigrating to this country because of the political and economic environment of Venezuela, to give us a better life, as immigrants do. When I was 13 we moved back to Venezuela and it was a huge culture shock, moving back there from the little town in Pennsylvania, where we lived. When we returned to Venezuela, my parents got divorced. At the time, in 1999, a new government had come in with Hugo Chavez and people were really hopeful as to what that could look like. But the economic situation got worse and worse. Currently, there’s no food or medicine and Venezuela has the worst inflation in the world.
My mom couldn’t find a job. Even though she was a teacher, it was really hard for her to get a good paying job. We lived in pretty harsh poverty. Third-world poverty is really different than poverty here in the States. There are no food pantries, you don’t have thrift stores—we really depended on the grace and generosity of the people around us. There was a moment after my parents divorced where we didn’t have anywhere to stay, and for six years it was really really difficult. At the same time, I was living in two worlds, because I was able to get a scholarship to a private school, living and studying among people who had a lot of abundance. I feel like that gave me different expectations on what the future could look like because I didn’t come from generational poverty. We never lost hope that there was more than what we were living. My mom, as a single mom, worked hard to make sure we knew that there was more for us outside of the country.
Gutierrez did end up leaving Venezuela, six years after they moved back. Thanks to a Portuguese father, with E.U. citizenship in hand, she moved to Spain with her sister, went to college and started her first business in the tourism sector. But after six years, she missed her family, most of whom were living in Columbus. So for the second time, she came back …
Being an immigrant myself, knowing what extreme poverty looks like—knowing what you’d do to get out of that—of course I wanted to help people who were in that situation. The first job I had when I came to Columbus was as a medical interpreter on the near Westside. I fell in love with it. I had never worked in the nonprofit world before and I knew it was a new calling. I went on to become a community health worker and I worked in program development, serving underserved immigrant populations to leverage resources that alleviate disparities in health care. I worked for the Ohio Hispanic Coalition and Primary One at different federally qualified health centers around town and then, finally, at Mount Carmel Hospital. After that I started teaching a course with the OSU College of Nursing—which I still do. It’s a health worker training program. We train community members to become advocates for their communities as certified health workers to be part of an interdisciplinary health team. We understand that to address health disparities you need to come from the community you’re serving.
When you see first generation immigrants—specifically those with low english proficiency, undocumented, coming from countries that are practically war-torn—what you see is that they’re doing everything. They come here, work crazy hours, take difficult jobs, and are underpaid, so they can provide a better future for their families. That’s it.
In 2016, Gutierrez and her sister Victoria opened up their first social enterprise. Bottoms Up, located in Franklinton, is a coffee shop that serves the neighborhood while also addressing infant mortality. With some of the worst rates in the country, the sisters were eager to bring awareness to one of the the city’s less visible public epidemics. But after the 2016 election, Gutierrez found herself at the center of another major citywide issue.
We created a coffee shop that has social impact at its core in our neighborhood but when this new administration came in, I started receiving calls about the work that I had done as a community health worker with our immigrant community. I remember the first few calls were “Hey listen, I’m really scared, I’m not sure what’s going to happen. We’re undocumented—what should we do to protect ourselves?” And then I got one call that was “Hey, my husband is in a detention center. I have a baby and a seven-year-old and I don’t know what to do.
My sister and I organized a Go-Fund-Me to tell people what was going on and to raised money for the woman’s rent because her husband was the sole breadwinner. We were able to not only pay her rent, but fundraise enough to get passports for both of her kids. She is also undocumented and if she were to be deported then her kids, who are citizens, would have to go into the system and she wouldn’t be able to take them with her [back to her home country] until she figured that out. We scanned all of her legal documents into a Dropbox so she could have easy access to them, we took her to a lawyer, and we were with her the moment she found out her husband was being deported from the detention center. And we could be her support people.
We weren’t able to change the outcome, but we were able to bring back a little bit of humanity into an extremely inhuman process. We took diapers, we took food, we paid her rent, all of these little things – and then we started receiving more phone calls like hers.
This served as the impetus for Gutierrez to start her third business, Avanza Together—her second with her sister. They saw a need to take the important advocacy and support that she and her sister had provided the woman and her small children—advocacy that has been casually happening all over the country by countless others—and to give it a more formalized model. Currently Avanza Together has crowdsourced enough funds to hire a part-time Community Deportation Advocate, hoping to make that position full-time as soon as possible. They hope to eventually share the model, one of the first of its kind, nationally.
We work specifically with families that don’t have criminal records and have minor children. Through social media and the generosity of amazing people, we were able to fundraise enough money to hire our first Community Deportation Advocate, Maria Ramos. She’s reached over 300 people, taken people to Cleveland to their master hearings in immigration court over eight times and regularly goes to ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) check-ins. Just last week our first client got her ankle monitor taken off because we were able to help her file the paperwork to apply for asylum (Editor’s note: GPS ankle monitors are becoming standard equipment for immigrations officials. According to the LA Times, use of ankle monitors by ICE increased by 40 percent in July, 2017). We’re also using funds to hire immigration lawyers.
There is no line to get your papers. I was lucky to have people help me, but if people that come in through the border, even if they get married, there’s no legal recourse they can take to obtain their papers. They can just stay here, hope for the best and work their asses off. For so many people there is no way, and if there is a way, it costs thousands of dollars. So either there is no way, or there is a way and they simply can’t afford it because they’re the working poor.
If you’re crossing the border, research shows that young women have an extremely high chance of being raped crossing the border. So much so that [some] 12 and 13-year-olds take birth control before they cross the border as a precaution. So if you’re willing to risk that, what’s going on at home? You’re willing to go to a country where you won’t have luxury, but you’ll have stability in your life. So that really just shows what people are escaping from.
For Gutierrez, and her family, this is intensely personal. Their desire to help community is rooted in their own story, in their heritage and cultural traditions, and in a deep understanding of what it means to fight for family.
How we react to situations like this defines who we are. We can talk all day and get into fights on social media when we see people saying racist and unjust things, but what defines us is what we do—what do we stand up and do for people. And if enough of us stand up, that will make a difference.
For more, visit bottomsupcoffee.com and facebook.com/AvanzaTogether.