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One-on-One with Andrea Plaza

Andrea Plaza, founder of Encuentro. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Andrea Plaza calls herself a “maquila baby.”

Her Colombian mother was pregnant when the family moved to the U.S., but Plaza wasn’t born until they reached South Carolina.

“So – manufactured there, to the market here,” Plaza says.

Plaza is founder and executive director of Encuentro, a non-profit that provides services to immigrants. It started with English tutoring but has since expanded into job-related services – everything from financial literacy to small-business development training.

“If you asked anybody who walked through the door what their biggest need was, it was work,” she said. “People really needed jobs.”

Although many of the participants have an entrepreneurial streak, “They don’t see what they’re doing as a business. It’s just survival. So this (program) has really been helpful in getting people to think about their work on a bigger scale,” she said.

Plaza says it was her family’s good fortune as immigrants that propelled her to help those not so fortunate.

An aunt paid for her father to come to the U.S. and get an education. An employer sponsored the rest of the family’s arrival, including seven kids. The siblings who were born in Colombia “all had green cards the moment they set foot in this country.”

“There’s something about that experience that has made me look at the other side of things,” Plaza said. “It’s in our faces that that is not the typical immigrant experience, and so … I want to be part of a movement that is really trying to address that. We (Encuentro) do it through adult education and career development.”

One of the most rewarding parts, Plaza said, is seeing Encuentro participants bloom and become leaders in various other local organizations.

“They are visible, actively engaged people,” she said. “There’s a lot who would otherwise say, ‘Stay home. Be invisible. Don’t have a voice; you don’t have rights here.’

“So it’s just really exciting to push against the system that way and to do it as part of a bigger group,” Plaza said.

What was it like growing up Latina in the South?

“You know, growing up in the ’70s in the Carolinas, we were definitely odd ducks. There were no Latinos. We definitely grew up speaking Spanish at home, eating Colombian food. But I also in my teen years … went through that period when I didn’t want to be different. I didn’t want to be Latina. I studied French for six years, and it was crazy. At one of my high school reunions, I ran into this other kid who approached and said, ‘You know, I don’t know if you know I’m Cuban.’ We never talked to each other. We never identified ourselves. In a small high school, it was not something celebrated. It was something, you know, as a teenager, a possible source of shame.”

When did that change?

When I went to college, I traveled and lived in Spain for a while. When I came back, I kind of just owned who I was and just dove in 100 percent to the point where I decided after I graduated from college that I wanted to go to graduate school, I wanted to study Latin American studies. When I looked at where to go, New Mexico – I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll be able to just finally live in more of a Latino environment and just be in touch with that.’ ”

What do you do in your free time?

“I run, and I garden. I’m not an expert at either, but I enjoy them. I love to go to the movies. I like to read a lot.”

Favorite books?

“I just read an amazing book called ‘Washington Black.’ I think because of what’s forever been going on in our country around race-related issues, I’ve really taken an interest in understanding more deeply black history in this country and around the world.”

Do you have any regrets?

“I think, you know, I’ve been here 26 years, and it’s far from North Carolina, and my parents are there. So my daughters didn’t get to grow up with my parents. That’s why it’s so amazing to me that they have preserved so much of their Colombian pride. It’s wonderful.”

Do you have any hidden talents?

“I love to sing. In the car, in the shower. Around people who really know me, I’ll sing. I don’t know if it sounds pretty, but I feel like I can hear a pitch and match it. With language, too. I’ve recently befriended a group of Turkish women here in town … and when they teach me words, I feel like I can pronounce them well. It’s like I have an ear for replicating sound. And I really enjoy singing just for the heck of it. Just because it feels good.”

Any quirks or superstitions?

“Yeah. My daughters always laugh at me. They say I’m so tragic-minded. Like I’m going to Colombia and I’m thinking, ‘My plane’s probably going to fall.’ It’s just, ‘When’s the other shoe going to drop? Because this is too good.’ And I was brought up Catholic, so there’s all kinds of … You do ‘X’ and this is the consequence, right? I knock on wood.”

What are your favorite places in the world?

“My backyard. I live kind of near the university, kind of near the airport. We call it ‘Fringecrest.’ It’s on the fringes of Ridgecrest. I have a view of the mountains, which is really sweet, and over time, my dog chewed up the sprinkler system, so I don’t have grass any more. But I’ve just xeriscaped, and there’s a lot of sitting places and trying to make more little nooks where I can sit outside. I think New Mexico is beautiful. I love the beach on the Atlantic Coast. I’m able to see beauty in a lot of places and none of it becomes a favorite. It’s just what I’m experiencing at the moment.”

What’s a favorite compliment you’ve received?

“Certainly, I get accolades for the hard work here at Encuentro. You know, that we’ve built a good, important organization and space. I don’t think I was raised to be gracious about receiving many compliments, so it’s a learned thing for me.”

What makes you laugh?

“Sarcastic, dark humor. Witty humor. Not slapstick or cheap humor. I like smart humor.”

Favorite dessert?

“I had a really interesting dessert this weekend: spinach cake from the Turkish women, and it sounds like it would be horrible, but it was just lightly sweetened. They squeeze all the water out of the spinach, and they create a cake out of it, and then they put a layer of pudding on it. It was delicious.”

What do you most want to teach your daughters?

“I try to engage in a lot of meditative reflection. … I have come to this whole understanding of what love is in a deep, deep sense, and how that can inspire the way you walk in the world. And so when I think of my daughters, when I’m doing my reflections in the morning, I think, you know, ‘I hope that they’re inspired by love today.'”

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