Mauricio Calvo knows defeat. He endured three failed business ventures — one he founded himself – before his 35th birthday. Calvo also knows when and how to say “yes” when opportunity extends a hand.
When Calvo accepted an offer to become executive director of Latino Memphis in 2008 — on the same day his third child was born — it was merely the latest in a series of unexpected open doors through which the Mexican native has entered on his way to becoming what he calls a “connector” for a Memphis community that now numbers more than 81,000. Latino Memphis had exactly one full-time employee in 2008. Today, Calvo leads a staff of 20 in a mission to improve access to health care, education, and jobs for Memphians not just from Mexico, but from Honduras, Guatemala, Venezuela, and more than a dozen other Latin countries.
The youngest (by 10 years) of five siblings, Calvo left his home in Mexico City for a year as an exchange student in tiny Lima, Ohio. He was 15 and had just lost his father, who died of a heart attack at age 52. There was culture shock, as might be expected, particularly considering the couple that took Calvo into their home had no other children. He didn’t play team sports, spoke very little English, and wasn’t exactly accustomed to Midwest winters. But the year abroad served as Calvo’s first introduction to societal diversity: a different way of living and among people with varied tastes, interests, and priorities.
Back in Mexico City, as a high school senior, Calvo found himself recruited by a college with a new emphasis on diversifying its student body. Despite not being near the top of his class, Calvo received a “valedictorian scholarship” to Christian Brothers University in Memphis. (“I was the highest-ranked student who wanted to come,” says Calvo.) He arrived in 1993 and was immediately drawn to the city’s warmth, and it had nothing to do with summer temperatures. “I didn’t really know a thing about CBU,” says Calvo, “or Tennessee either. But I’ve always been attracted to things that are different. I’m curious. I’ve always felt welcome here. It took me years to find out that not every newcomer gets that [feeling].”
Calvo’s parents owned and managed a photo film-development business and they placed heavy emphasis on a college education for each of their children. Calvo’s father boasted of being an attorney. Only after his father’s death did Calvo learn he had actually never attended college. “It was a lie, and a part of me wishes I’d never had those conversations with him [about his status as an attorney],” says Calvo. “But he was an entrepreneur, for sure, and it was his way of motivating us.”
Calvo graduated from CBU with a business degree in 1997, but left with a greater reward, having met his future wife, Yancy (also Mexican), on campus. They married in 2001 and are now the parents of two daughters (Anna and Carolina) and a son (Santiago). The “yes” Calvo had given CBU had yielded not only the college degree his parents insisted he target, but a new home. And the transition felt perfectly natural.
“I wasn’t even aware of this whole immigration thing,” says Calvo. “I knew there were people from my country coming into the United States, but I didn’t realize to what extent and what it really meant. My four years [in college] were somewhat in a bubble. I hear heroic stories about how immigrants got here. My story’s kind of boring.”
There’s nothing boring about having to establish a career track, and this is where Calvo encountered roadblocks. He enjoyed a year — under his college visa — working for Sysco and thought the food-distribution business might be his calling. He founded his own wholesale business (selling food to Mexican restaurants), only to see profits stall. Then came stints with a packaging business (that failed) and real estate (selling to low-income families, making very little money). Calvo ultimately found himself working in fast food (Chick-fil-A) when the call came from Latino Memphis. Despite some self-doubt over his qualifications and the organization’s future, Calvo again said “yes.”
“I went to a couple of meetings,” reflects Calvo, “and then was on the board, and became the board chair. This is the story of immigrants. You don’t know what you’re going to be doing here. People think roofers here were roofers in Mexico. No, they weren’t. They came here and tried to find a job they were good at.”
Calvo says his top priority upon taking the job was simply raising awareness of the organization’s presence. “I wanted to start building relationships,” he says. “Going back to existing relationships and finding new relationships. I hired someone to work in the office, to help people coming to us. And I worked outside, to create an image. Branding, shaking hands, sharing the story of immigrants. Helping Latino families connect to resources.”
According to Calvo, more than 50 percent of Latinos in Memphis live in poverty. (This despite an employment rate of 92 percent.) And that has to change, not just for one segment of the Memphis population, but for the city as a whole. A thriving middle class — in the Latino community and greater Memphis — is a must for true, measurable growth, and this is Calvo’s chief priority today, with an ironic twist. “Once you’re in the middle class,” says Calvo, “you have better access to education and healthcare. To the point where ultimately you don’t need Latino Memphis. Right now, we’re dealing with first-generation immigrants. But for their kids? Unless we’re equipped to help them, it’s going to be a mess.”
Since President Donald Trump’s election last November, Calvo has witnessed a new element in those seeking direction from Latino Memphis: fear. And the anxiety isn’t strictly among Latinos. “I am extremely compassionate about the challenges of other communities,” says Calvo, who first engaged with African Americans when he worked in a kitchen during his college days at CBU. “We all have the same challenges; we want the same things. Regardless of the color of your skin, whether you are urban or rural, people have challenges. I feel bad for rural Tennessee: the opioid epidemic and lack of infrastructure. The jobs that were there are not coming back. They’ve been lost to automatization. How do you fix that?”
Calvo notes that the threat — the fear — of deportation does harm well beyond the Latino community. The owner of a local furniture business (not Latino) recently told Calvo his revenue has nosedived because Latinos are simply not buying sofas and dining sets. Why build a home if you’re afraid it can be taken away tomorrow?
Calvo most admires servant leaders, and those who display an ability to see what others might not. “Vision is an important component,” he says. “And you have to have the best interests of the community at heart. What might the future look like if we make the right kind of decisions and investments today? You have to be willing to take risks. It can’t be all about praise and high-fives.”
Now in his tenth year at the helm of an organization he’s helped transform, Calvo all but blushes at the suggestion that he’s one of those visionary leaders. “We’re working with the Latino community,” stresses Calvo, “but we’re working for Memphis.” Leaders can be found in every segment of the population and, as Calvo notes, almost literally on any street corner.
“There’s a man who sells newspapers every morning at Sam Cooper and Perkins,” says Calvo. “He is the happiest guy. Any of us can love our jobs. I’m sure he has a lot of challenges, but he also has a vision, or he wouldn’t get up so early in the morning. Doesn’t matter if it’s raining. He’s wishing everybody a great day. If he can be happy, all of us should be.”