¡HICA! is lifting Latino families in and around Birmingham, helping them make the metro area their home by arming them with resources and encouraging them to turn aspirations into reality.
Every year around the holidays, families all over Birmingham unwrap presents from the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (¡HICA!) that won’t last more than a few minutes after they’re opened. Once the cornhusks are peeled away and the aroma of sweet masa and poblano peppers or spicy shredded pork or chicken flood noses, the tamales, purchased at ¡HICA!’s annual tamale fundraiser, are quickly devoured. Selling these Latin American delights began in 2003 to support vital ¡HICA! projects. The community development and advocacy organization champions economic equality, civic engagement and social justice for Latino families in Alabama.
The sale also allows ¡HICA! to share a bit of Latin culture with every bite. It has proved a triumph on both fronts, said Isabel Rubio, ¡HICA!’s founder and CEO.
“It warms my heart to no end to see so many people buying our tamales every year, and the majority are not Latino,” she said. “Tamales have now become a part of their holiday tradition.”
In many Hispanic countries, grandmothers, mothers, siblings and kids gather in the kitchen each Christmas and make tamales before enjoying them together. Knowing how well food can bridge divides, Rubio believes the tamales are a perfect (and palatable) vehicle to drive home ¡HICA!’s dual goals.
The togetherness and sense of community the tamales represent are core principles of ¡HICA!, evident in the opportunities the organization creates for Latinos.
“Food is a very effective way to bring people to the table to learn from each other and about each other,” she said.
“We exist to serve and empower Latinos,” Rubio noted. Fulfilling this mission has payoffs for those who receive help but also for everyone in Birmingham, something Rubio consistently stresses.
“Alone, we will never be as strong as we can be collectively,” she said. “So we want everyone to flourish.”
¡HICA! offers a wide range of assistance through four intersecting programs.
Many first come to ¡HICA! through its Strong Families Program, where they can find aid for immediate needs as well as referrals to other agencies and organizations.
Providing education test preparations, scholarships and more, its Empowering Communities Program puts a focus on keeping kids in school, helping them prosper while contributing to a strong, equipped workforce. “We help them graduate high school and then go on to technical or community college or a university,” Rubio said.
¡HICA!’s Citizenship and Immigration program provides legal and naturalization information and coordination with government agencies for those seeking to become U.S. citizens. And its Community Economic Development Program provides a range of support to help Latino and immigrant families build financial stability for a better future.
During its two decades, ¡HICA! has elevated and inspired thousands of people (more than 3,000 families have been assisted in the past five years), and recently ¡HICA! has broadened its scope, offering services to non-Spanish-speaking immigrants from more than 30 countries.
It all began when, as a social worker, Rubio witnessed the challenges confronted by Birmingham’s growing Latino population. While the struggles tugged at her heart, they also stirred up old questions and sparked an idea. “I’ve thought a lot about privilege and opportunity, how that gets decided,” she said, “and how being born in one place versus another has a lot to do with that. Where you come from can impact so much about your life, and I really saw how so many of our systems didn’t always provide equal opportunity.”
Add the hurdles of language and cultural barriers faced by immigrants, and the challenges can be difficult to overcome.
“I searched for the best way, the best platform, to help people achieve their dreams, and as I remembered Birmingham’s role in the civil rights movement, I knew this was the place to do it. Forming ¡HICA! here has given the city the chance to do things right this time, to lift up the Latino community.” In 1999, Rubio formed ¡HICA! to do just that.
A second-generation Mexican American, Rubio was motivated by an affection for her mother’s home country. “I grew up in Mississippi, but my mom is from Mexico City, and we traveled there every summer,” she said. “I developed a real fondness for Mexico, so this work is very personal to me.”
Families might come to ¡HICA! for one particular need, but once the initial problem is solved, the organization strives to keep them climbing the ladder, encouraging them to take advantage of its Community Economic Development Program, in which ¡HICA! helps them pave a path to prosperity. Through the program, they can learn to do taxes; get advice and assistance to become homeowners; and, thanks to ¡HICA!’s new microlending program, they can access capital to help start their own businesses. “These loans help them with startup costs while also building their credit, which increases their ability to get additional financing and larger loans,” Rubio said.
¡HICA! has had to make adjustments during the pandemic, pouring resources into basics like food and utilities assistance and remote learning support. “Last year was hard,” Rubio said. “We raised a lot of money to meet COVID-specific needs.”
Meanwhile, ¡HICA! continues moving forward with its loan program. The agency continues to make microloans and has not had a single default. So far, ¡HICA! has lent approximately $100,000.
With this money and other forms of support from ¡HICA!, 15 new businesses have opened as of mid-2021. These entrepreneurial efforts encompass ¡HICA!’s philosophy, and the ripple effect thrills Rubio. “Owning a business allows Latino families to realize a dream, to take control of their futures, while also creating jobs and opportunities for others,” she said.
Rubio praises the Alabama Power Foundation for its “great and generous” gift in 2020, which went directly to the loan fund. “That meant we could open more businesses, help maintain existing businesses and aid in their recovery from COVID,” Rubio said. “¡HICA! wouldn’t exist without the foundation.
“Our first local grant came from the Alabama Power Foundation and they have stayed with us. As we are evolving into this next phase, with community and economic development at our center, I just love how that dovetails with the foundation’s mission. This is how we help families build assets and become financially secure.”
The transformational effect of helping more people build stability and wealth isn’t isolated to individual families, as Rubio explained. “They are then contributing members of the community,” she said. “Helping people find their place; helping kids with education; helping people become U.S. citizens, informed voters and leaders – that’s the positive change that affects the whole community and that keeps going and growing.”
“Growing” is the word Esteban Solis-Alvarez uses to describe Exclusive Auto Film Solutions, the car detailing and window tinting company he opened in 2018. Since it started, it has seen a 40% increase in business, and Solis-Alvarez is looking for a bigger location to keep up with demand. ¡HICA! has been beside him every step of the way.
“I first got ¡HICA!’s help with tax returns, and then I took advantage of other aspects, like management classes and assistance with my marketing plan,” he said. “They helped me with paperwork and anything else I needed, including a microloan last year. The organization has been a real important part of me getting the business going, giving me so much guidance and support.”
Originally from Honduras, Solis-Alvarez and his wife have four children, and he said the example he is setting for his family is the most fulfilling part of owning his business.
“It helps me grow as a person in the community. It helps provide stability for my family. But it really lets me teach lessons to my kids about what it takes to succeed, and I love that part.
“Things just keep getting better and better,” he said, expressing the same optimism Rubio feels for ¡HICA!. Yet she knows there’s more to be done.
“We’ve made so much progress in 22 years; we have created a more inclusive community, and we’ve helped the greater community learn who Latinos are. That is important,” Rubio said. “But last year showed us we all have some work to do around equality.”
Still, the strong local backing ¡HICA! receives grounds Rubio in hope.
“I love to see how the wider Birmingham community supports what we do, and it is because we all recognize that if we are to thrive, if we are to create a place where we all want to live, everyone needs the tools and resources to achieve their dreams,” she said. “And that’s why ¡HICA! was founded, and why we remain committed to what we do.”
This story is part of a series about nonprofits aided by the Alabama Power Foundation, based on the foundation’s 2020 Annual Report, “At the Point of Change.” Read stories about The King’s Canvas, Red Door Kitchen and CORE.