Decades of SC heritage
The life of Mahler Nuñez has taken him on a journey through different cultural worlds. He was born in 1974, growing up in Santo Domingo on the island of the Dominican Republic. Now he is the well respected owner of an established State Farm Agency, and a dedicated community volunteer in Greenville, South Carolina. Though his surroundings have changed, the core of what drives Mahler has remained constant - a deep love for people and empowering families through information, teaching, and trust.
As a youth, Mahler was a self-described “social butterfly” enjoying an extended family of warm, affectionate and equally social friends. He also grew up with a strong faith tradition, and when he decided that he wanted to attend college in the US, his search for a Christian school led him to Bob Jones University in Greenville. He immigrated to the states alone in 1992 as a college freshman when he was only seventeen.
In contrast to his laidback island home, he was immediately struck by the deep conservatism and social restraint of the Southern people in the 1990’s. “It was a big culture shock!” he stated. “People weren’t very outgoing, especially strangers.” Through his travels to vibrant social centers such as Miami and New York, he realized that this wasn’t the case throughout the US. It dismayed him that, “Here at 6pm, everyone was sleeping.”
Hyperbole aside, Mahler says that his most substantial adjustment struggles were understanding the Southern accent on top of the English language, and feeling lonely.
"It was very lonely in this state… At Bob Jones alone, there were… I think four of us? The Hispanic community was very small. I didn’t see Hispanics out in the community. When you saw one you were like, ‘Wow! Where are you from?’… You wanted to be their friend for the rest of your life. We celebrated at school if we got another Latino to join us, it didn’t matter what country they were from."
Despite these feelings, Mahler dug deep and connected to the Greenville community. In addition to his education, it was the opportunities of America that he craved. Through his family he had the privilege of legal status and was able to get a green card. “I wanted to go back to the Dominican Republic, but fell in love with the US and stayed.” He graduated in 1996 with a marketing management degree and became engaged to his wife, who is from Puerto Rico. He saw Greenville as a place with all the potential he desired for starting a business and raising a family.
Through his optimism, success, and love for his US home, Mahler became a trailblazer for the Hispanic community in Greenville. Many of his family and friends followed him to Greenville from the Dominican Republic and from other parts of the US. His ability to persevere through his initial loneliness helped him in creating a welcoming community for new Hispanic immigrants. Yet rather than isolating in a Hispanic enclave of his own making, he became a bridge builder to the wider community. “I’m a big believer in being part of the community where I live…”
Mahler Nunez has owned his own State Farm agency in Greenville for more than 7 years. Insurance is more than a profession for him, it is a calling to care for the community, and especially the Hispanic community which is unfamiliar with many of the options to protect their family’s and futures. As a State Farm Agent, Mahler thrives on listening to the concerns and needs of the entire community – knowing what is most important to them. He won the Legion of Honor Agent Award five years in a row from 2012 to 2016 for exemplary front-lines engagement with clients and the Bronze Tablet award in 2017. “I think I did achieve my dreams," he stated. "This is a great country, a great land of opportunity. I think this is just one of the greatest nations.”
Mahler’s passion for a prosperous and protected community extends to all areas of financial health. For the last three years he has volunteer-taught a monthly First Time Homebuyers class at the Greenville County Human Relations Commission. As the past chair, and long-time board member and volunteer with the Hispanic Alliance, he understood the need to act to improve the financial stability and future wellbeing of the Hispanic community. He was instrumental in the formation of the Hispanic Alliance Financial Stability Community Team, as well as pioneering and teaching the team’s first Basic Financial Literacy Class in Spanish, a yearly tradition that has persevered.
In addition to his significant contributions to Hispanic Alliance, Mahler conceptualizes his personal legacy as a gift of opportunity for his family and children – that they achieve their dreams as he has in this land of opportunity. Regarding the heritage of the Hispanic community in the Upstate, he believes that our most important work is to continue to share our diverse cultural experiences with everyone, and to remain educated about our roots. He believes that we need to see Hispanic representation in South Carolina public offices, as a demonstration of the importance and growth of the Hispanic presence here. Most importantly, Mahler the man, and our Upstate Hispanic Heritage share an unfailing optimism and drive to empower ourselves and those around us.
Wilfredo León arrived in Greenville in the 1980's and the city has never been the same. This is the story of how a Puerto Rican man became Latino, and grew to love and build a new community. Wilfredo was born in Ponce, but spent his childhood in the capital city of San Juan, Puerto Rico. When he was 14, he moved to live with his grandparents in San German. Wilfredo was drawn to the familial atmosphere of the entire community “everyone knew my family, and my family’s heritage. I have blue eyes so people could look at me and know I was a León.” Wilfredo then went to the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez for engineering, which he recalls was very similar to Clemson University.
In the early 1980’s, his career with Digital Equipment Corporation brought him from the island to the contiguous 48 states, where he worked in Phoenix and Boston. Among these large, diverse population, the future owner of the Latino Newspaper says that he really did not see himself as Latino - “I was just a regular guy.” When his company wanted to move him to South Carolina, however, he had some misgivings. During his childhood in the 1960’s Wilfredo remembers seeing broadcasts of the Civil Rights Movement in the South. “I was concerned. I didn’t want myself or my family exposed to racist anything, or to those emotions and ignorance.” He mentioned this to his corporate office, and they offered for him to visit South Carolina before deciding. In 1985, Wilfredo committed to move himself, his wife, two kids and two dogs to South Carolina. “August 20th, 1985. That’s when I became Latino,” he said.
What part of the moving process could suddenly adjust one’s cultural identity? When completing his HR orientation in Greenville, Wilfredo remembers that he was shown a box on his documents that said “Latino,” and was told that if he checked that box, it would help his company with their diversity numbers. He complied, and suddenly assumed an identity both real and artificially construed. That was when Wilfredo became concerned with seeking out and becoming a part of the Latino community.
Contrary to the violent and hateful TV images from his childhood, the culture and people of 1980s South Carolina actually reminded him of his home. “People were very friendly,” he recalled. “We lived in a nice neighborhood and people came over to give us gifts when we moved in, and it was very green like Puerto Rico. I enjoyed everything, but at the same time, I was looking for my connection to Latinos.”
For Wilfredo, the most painful thing to leave behind in Puerto Rico was the sense of closeness with his family and friends...and of course the beach. At Christmas, colder weather made traditional Puerto Rican and Hispanic rituals impossible, such as outside celebrations, pig roasts with all the neighbors, and going door to door for las posadas. His family had returned to P.R. one Christmas, and though he told them and himself that he would be fine, he found himself buying a plane ticket one day after work, to return to the island.
At first, he didn’t find many Hispanic community members in Greenville until he attended Spanish Mass at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. He connected with the congregation, which was dominated by Colombians at the time, and was able to make many friends. Now that Greenville was becoming home, Wilfredo’s career trajectory was about to take an unexpected turn. How did an engineer come to start a newspaper? He credits his family’s strong social conscience.
In Puerto Rico, Wilfredo’s mother was a business woman who owned a restaurant and several country inns. The family was well educated and prosperous, and his mother never turned anyone away who was in need. If people came to the restaurant but could not pay, they would still eat. If someone needed a place to stay, they could stay. When a heavily pregnant mother was stranded by her husband at one of her inns, the family took her in and cared for her. One day Wilfredo saw the woman leave in a taxi. Upon returning several days later, and no longer pregnant, she revealed that she had given her baby away to the hospital janitor. The family searched for the infant and the janitor released the child to them willingly. “That baby is now my adopted sister,” he said. “That was the environment that molded me, and created my social conscience” - one in which extreme generosity and attention to the needs of others comes full circle to recreate love and community.
Now that Wilfredo is the Greenville purchasing director at Digital Equipment Corporation, he was befriended by a Honduran woman named Sulema. She identified Wilfredo as a Latino with greater economic resources than the average member of the Hispanic community, and decided to take him on a personal tour of a side of Greenville that he had never seen.“She showed me places where Latinos lived that I could not believe. We talked to people about the issues affecting them.” Wilfredo intuited that effective help was a matter of awareness. He talked with American and Hispanic community leaders and settled on a printed periodical in Spanish to provide accurate information, strategies for a better life, and issues affecting their community. The Latino Newspaper began printing in February of 1996 - the first Spanish language paper in the state of South Carolina.
This resource for the Hispanic community was well-timed. The warm and carefree attitude towards cultures that had welcomed Wilfredo in the 1980s was shifting in a disturbing direction. “In the late 1990s and 2000’s,” he recalls, “the tide started changing.” In Hilton Head, people began pushing for ordinances to block business licenses and apartment rentals for those without a social security number. In the late 2000’s bills enacted stricter laws for potential employers of undocumented immigrants, and there was even debate about whether transporting such aliens in one’s personal vehicle was allowable. The entire country became far more conservative towards immigrants, and Wilfredo followed this public current into fighting for Latino rights on a state level.
His numerous areas of impact center around a Hispanic community that is integrated with local resources, vocal about its rights, and empowered to succeed.As the founder and board chair of Foothills Minority Supplier Development Council, he ensured that large corporations were purchasing at least 5% of their inventory from minority owned companies. He and other advocates successfully campaigned against a bill that would have made English the official language of South Carolina. He was a member of the governors Latino Task Force in 1999, assessing the pressing needs of Latinos by moderating town hall meetings across the state. Though the report and recommendations of the task force led directly to the diversification of the state’s Commission on Minority Affairs, giving it power to affect policy for all minorities and ensuring equal minority representation on the board. He assisted the Department of Education in purchasing software that translated important documents for parents and students into 27 different languages to better serve all international students. The Greenville council of Hispanic faith leaders which he initiated, still meets monthly, and empowers pastors to care for the comprehensive needs of their congregants through resource awareness. Wilfredo’s footprint in South Carolina will continue to benefit the Latino community into the future, not to mention the Hispanic Alliance, where he has served several years as a board member.
When reflecting on Hispanic heritage, Wilfredo takes a historical perspective. “The entire country,” he emphasizes, “needs to be mindful that the nation is made of people that came from many different places - recognizing the contribution of all groups, including Latinos.”
Wilfredo could write a captivating history of South Carolina, emphasizing little known facts about the Hispanic contributions to our state. He told the story of the first European settlement in South Carolina, which failed after the settlers died in conflicts with Native Americans. They were Spanish, founding the community of Santa Elena, the capital of Spanish Florida, on modern day Parris Island. He also pointed out that The State one of the premier newspapers in South Carolina was founded by two hispanic brothers by the name of Dominguez. A monument still stands to them just outside our state capitol building.
Possessing a strong sense of the origins of Hispanic peoples in the area also provides Wilfredo with uncommon wisdom for how to form and preserve this heritage for the future. He believes that the answer to building and honoring our own local heritage rests within our school system by educating and modeling a positive Hispanic image for our young people. He would like to see Hispanic Heritage Month emphasized in our school system, allowing children of all backgrounds to grow up in a community where everyone celebrates diversity.
“The best thing that can happen is for someone else to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month beside Hispanic Alliance.” Wilfred explains that it is expected to celebrate one’s own culture, but that when the majority group in a community is the one leading the celebration of Hispanics, this is proof that everyone recognizes their value to the local community. Wilfredo is impressed with the Greenville Library System’s leadership in honoring Hispanic Heritage and providing hands on learning for young people. He envisions Hispanic organizations in a new role of Hispanic heritage consultants and teachers for the celebrations of community wide institutions, but not as the foremost “master of ceremony” for Hispanic Heritage Month.
His desire for young people to see their heritage broadly celebrated is personal. When asked about the pressure on Hispanics to assimilate to the dominant culture, he responded that, “assimilation is a personal choice,” but that integration simply happens on its own over time. “My father is Wilfredo Sr., I am Wilfredo, my son is Wilfredo, and my grandson, who was raised in a household that does not speak Spanish...is Logan.” With a grandfather who has literally documented the triumphs and tragedies of Hispanics in South Carolina for the past three decades, there should be no anxiety that Logan can become a man with a strong and positive understanding of his Hispanic Heritage. It is the hope for all our young people.
Rocío Gutiérrez made her home in Greenville when it was a small rural town, with cows grazing the pastures along Woodruff Road. Her community legacy is the investment of over forty years of diligent and dedicated work in the textile industry, along with fostering a strong marriage and children who are already transforming lives on a state level. In her career, she progressed from an entry-level battery hand to a machine operator, and retired as a quality control worker. Her pride in her work garnered her many awards and sets an example of how, for decades, the Hispanic community has helped to build Greenville into the thriving city it has become.
Doña Rocío was born Ester Rocío Vallejo Perez in city of Medellín, Colombia in 1953. Sadly, her mother passed away when she was only nine. At that time, it was expected for Latina women to marry and have a large family, so her father was skeptical of her desire for a higher education. Nevertheless, it was Rocío’s persistent dream to study odontology in Colombia. To do this, she would have to find a shortcut to saving a large sum of money. As a young office worker in the Almancenes-Ley Company (similar to Walmart), she befriended an American customer who assisted her in moving to the United States so she could earn money for school. Her family met together to bid her farewell as she boarded the bus to the airport, ready to fly to the United States entirely on her own… for what turned out to be much longer than she had planned.
Like many other immigrants, the best place to be in a new country was with family, and she was happy to settle with her family in-laws in Greenville, South Carolina. Though she was with family, Rocio had no transportation and no way to communicate with her family in Colombia. She saw Greenville as small and rural compared to Medellín, and remembers meeting only about ten Hispanic families in the area in 1975. There was one Hispanic store in the area owned by Sr. Garcia located in the Los Garcia Center. “The weather was the hardest thing to get used to. I was enjoying the sunny weather, but eventually felt the cold weather, and needed to cover up!” She was also thankful that she experienced no discrimination against Latinos from the community in Greenville – she received aid, support, and work. Still, it was impossible to avoid feeling the sudden loss of her home, even if she was intending to return. “The hardest thing to let go of from Colombia is everything. One still feels very connected to one’s country even if we don’t live there anymore."
She found her first job as a battery hand at Brandon textile mill through her Greenville family. There was a good reason for industrial employers to welcome immigrant workers in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Mills were getting old and the young American workers that kept them running were now able to find better paying jobs elsewhere. In fact, there were many Colombians who were recruited to work in the US directly by manufacturing and textile companies. There was no doubt that this was hard work. Rocío walked to work every day. She did not get to eat during work because it was a fast-paced job, and her performance relied on speed and numbers. “I would arrive home with swollen, cut, and bloody hands, and swollen feet,” she recalls. Work life was spartan for a while as she tried to earn enough money to return to Colombia and continue her education. She would save some but would also send some back to her family. After buying groceries her one luxury was relaxing with a plate of food at Waffle House and practicing a bit of the English she had learned in school. She didn’t go out or have friends because there was no public transportation in Greenville. “There were months where I didn’t not go out and enjoy a park or anything because I didn’t have the time,” she said.
Brandon Mill would only survive another 2 years before it closed its doors in 1977. Rocío was part of the last wave of immigrant workers to bolster the Brandon Mill and a failing industry in its final days. The loss of jobs, opportunity, and economic downturn was a blow to Greenville for generations to come. After Brandon, Rocío jumped quickly to the next area mill that was still operating, leap frogging her way through her career, and working her way upward to better positions. Even as Western Textile Products was closing its doors, they made sure that Rocío had a glowing letter of recommendation for future employment, praising her versatility, independence, and positive attitude towards everyone. “I felt myself at home, even when I entered new work places,” she stated. “I treated everyone equally - anyone and everyone.”
Though there was understanding among the hardworking mill employees, equality was something that mill workers of the South fought for diligently during these decades – especially women. They made a far lower wage than workers in Northern mills and were often fired on the rumor of any labor organization. On top of this, the 70’s and 80’s saw the rise of anti-Latino sentiments in immigration policy, resulting in increases in immigration raids on large employers in the area. Immigration agents would perform random checks at work places, sometimes finding large groups of workers paid next to nothing and forced to work in dangerous conditions.
Despite the instability of the textile industry, and suspicion towards immigrants, Rocío decided to start a family, something that would permanently root her in South Carolina. When she met Jamie Gutiérrez in Greenville they discovered that both of their families were from Medellín, though they had never met before. Jaime and his father had come to New York City when he was 14, and finding each other after many twists and turns, must have felt like coming home to Colombia. They were married and had two daughters, both of them continuing to work hard to give their children the best opportunities available in America. Rocío says, “I would work and work, paycheck to paycheck to accomplish what I needed to do. I would borrow money and meet my deadlines and get gas for work, one way or another. I had to leave my daughters at times to [send] them in private school, but it did not matter for me to not have any money as long as my girls had the best.”
Rocío never returned to Colombia to study odontology - “I didn’t accomplish my initial dream,” she admits, “but I did continue with new dreams.” She is incredibly proud of the achievements of her children: both daughters have good careers, and have given the family “smart grandchildren.” Her youngest daughter, Paola, volunteered to Chair the Hispanic Alliance Community Health Team for three years, while maintaining a demanding career working at PASOS, Clemson University, and now as the Lead Strategist at the SC Office of Rural Health. Rocío’s greatest desire is for her daughters to be accomplished, and for her grandchildren to follow their mother’s examples, taking advantages of the opportunities that this country offers. “What I was not able to accomplish in Colombia, my girls were able to accomplish it in the US. Now as the time has gone by, I am able to see the result of the hard work that I had to put in, and it was all more than worth it.”
In 2016, this hard-working Latina retired after 40 years in the textile industry. She completed her career at Southern Weaving Company where she earned an Employee of the Month, and a Primer Turno Award. She now has more time to enjoy her family – she and Jaime celebrated their 42nd wedding anniversary in 2018. She gets together with friends now to celebrate holidays, and in contrast to the solitude of her early working days she says, “now there are so many of us that I don’t know who’s who!”
Hispanic Heritage to her, as a Latina, is “pride.” She is proud to now be a US Citizen, and proud of her Colombian heritage, proud to have given many years of hard work to this country, and proud of her family. She is proud to know the names of oldest Colombian families in the Greenville area. Over the years, Rocío has watched Brandon Mill become a boarded-up relic, and then gain new life as it was transformed into luxury loft apartments. Now, she can shop on Woodruff Road, where the only “cow” in sight is a cow print hand-bag. Though Greenville will continue to change, her contributions will never be forgotten, remaining as valuable insights into the state’s Hispanic Heritage at its wellspring.
For mid-century Cubans, settling in the US was a type of salvation, but not a choice they wanted to make. Leaving almost an entire life behind him, Miguel Alfredo Navarro Morales took a circuitous route to the US as part of the last wave of exiles in the mid 1960s, fleeing the communist regime of Fidel Castro. In Greenville, he did what was necessary for the survival of his family, while carefully maintaining his national and personal identity in a foreign land. His strength and perseverance are now grafted into the tree of our local Hispanic Heritage, where they continue to thrive and enrich our community.
Miguel was born in 1937 in Camagüey, the third largest city in Cuba, full of a rainbow of buildings, red roofs, and sunny plazas. By the 1950s Cuba was one of the three wealthiest countries in the Western Hemisphere. It was advancing in every industry, possessed a wealth in its sugar cane exports, and was extremely popular as a tropical island destination. Miguel’s family owned a milk company and he himself worked as a quality control specialist at a Tabaquerea in Cuba’s internationally renowned cigar industry. However, this prosperous and cosmopolitan image belied decades of political unrest in Cuba that had resulted in the rise of a populist resistance led by Fidel Castro. Through his charismatic leadership and guerrilla tactics, Castro’s revolutionary forces entered Havana victorious in 1959.
Castro cancelled elections, persecuted political dissidents, and moved quickly towards communism. During this time, he seized and redistributed the property of businesses and land-owners. Miguel’s parents fled to Miami in the US, which, along with many other countries, was welcoming Cubans with open arms. The regime often targeted or jailed men, forcing many to leave their families behind to flee to safety, only to reunite much later. But, despite the increasing oppression, Miguel chose to stay, because he refused to be separated from his wife, who was waiting for permission to travel.
The next three years were a tense time for him and his family. The Castro government enforced many rules dictating the most basic choices of Cubans such as what they chose to eat and wear. “Things were getting very strict…,” Miguel remembers, “…forcing people to do things they did not want to do. If you wanted to drink one cup of water, they would make you drink two.” The government took an inventory of the value of all the family’s possessions, ensuring that every item remained in Cuba as government property when they departed. As the Navarro family waited, friendly countries became overwhelmed with Cuban refugees. By the time the family was ready to leave in August of 1964, Miguel’s wife was pregnant, and they and their two sons left with only the clothes on their backs.
They finally made it to Miami (with a detour to Mexico) through the assistance of the good will of many American faith communities. In Miami, Miguel worked as a dishwasher. It was thanks to the sponsorship of White Oak Baptist Church that his family was able to move and settle in Greenville, where jobs were more plentiful. “Everything was different because I did not have transportation or a license. Church members were my transportation.” Miguel also found the colder temperatures a difficult adjustment, having never before seen snow. Miguel reflects on the humble state of Greenville in the 1960s: “There was no Hispanic population. I met two Cuban families, and another lady married to a white man, but a lot of them have passed away already. There were very basic things downtown and there was no McAlister Square, no mall, and no Hispanic stores or restaurants.” It was quite an adjustment from the colorful, well-developed cities of Cuba.
He was able to get a job at JP Stevens, which at the time had bought all of the major textiles mills in the area. He worked in manufacturing car mats and equipment to support the textile industry, long before other large companies like BMW and Michelin hit the scene. A few years into his time in the US, he and his first wife divorced, but it was still important for Miguel to be a consistent presence for his children. He stayed in the same house, and continued to work to create a stable life and retain some of his precious Cuban culture. When textile work in the 1970s helped bring an influx of Colombians to South Carolina, it was an opportunity for Miguel to reconnect with shared cultural interests – his love for tango. He loved to collect the vinyl albums of “The King of Tango,” Carlos Gardel. “I used to collaborate on the radio with a Colombian partner with the music…and commentary.” Through the years, Miguel has also curated a treasure trove of historically significant items, technological gadgets, and newspaper stories (as is evident from the photographs he has shared).
Time marched on, and Miguel eventually married a Greenville native, Lucy, who played the organ at church. He changed jobs to work in the hospitality industry. He focused on being present for his family. His grandson, Camilo Franco, remembers, “He would come by my house on his way home from work every day to see us. That meant a lot to me.” He cultivated relationships at a Spanish conversation group, and pampered his two 1960s green Chevy Impalas, an homage to a happier time. He grows a vegetable garden every year in his backyard, and indulges his love for animals by taking in stray cats.
Above all, Miguel’s legacy is in the life he built for his now sizeable family. He has 13 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren, for whom he is the patriarch. When asked if he was still able to achieve his dreams in America, Miguel’s thoughts are bittersweet. “It hurt me to leave a lot of my family in Cuba; grandparents, aunts, uncles…. In the 54 years since I left Cuba maybe a lot of them have passed away… and I have not reconnected.” But he says, “No hay mal que por bien no venga,” (every cloud has a silver lining). “I have a great family and they have been educated. They are growing and they are productive citizens in South Carolina. My family looks happy.”
His grandson, Camilo, is one of these happy family members that was curious about his grandfather’s past and the fate of Cuba since his departure. With his brothers, he visited Cuba after more than 50 years of being closed to American tourists. His Spanish helped Camilo connect with his tour guide during the brief glimpse of a lost land. There was a Cuban and American flag in the taxi, and the guide pointed at the American flag and said, “That’s the only hope we have.” When Camilo returned, he slowly convinced Miguel to open up about the trauma of this time. “Cubans,” he says, “will talk to you all day over six or seven cups of Cuban espresso, but will never get personal with the subject matter.” Grandfather and grandson recently talked for the first time about their lost island home.
Miguel’s story possesses two distinct sides that coexist: loss and rebirth. Unlike other Hispanic immigrants, Miguel will never see himself as anything other than 100 percent Cuban. Yet he is passionate about American politics and proud to be a civically involved citizen of the US. Though America was not his initial dream, he is grateful for the welcoming communities that gave him a new start and supported his family when they had nothing. The past continues to recede, taking memories of family in Cuba and old friends in S.outh Carolina, but a family thriving with young life keeps him living in the present. Both loss and rebirth must be acknowledged and exist in balance.
Miguel doesn’t think much about whether he is one of the first Hispanic people to have settled in this area – “I met a lot of other people that have lived in SC that are Hispanic, but many have passed away.” Camilo feels that “presence” is his grandfather’s greatest gift to his family and to Hispanic Heritage. He may not be the first Hispanic settler in South Carolina, but he has given his presence and perseverance to half a century of life – so he may be one of the strongest remaining connections to our roots – roots that run deep and are bravely helping the whole community to grow.