Chicago Latino List 2009: Ten Who Are Making a Big Difference For us All

07/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Esther J. Cepeda Opinion journalist and an expert on the issues of U.S. Hispanics/Latinos

Long story short: nearly every time there's any sort of Who's Who/Mover-Shaker/One-to-Watch list in "mainstream" publications there are few, if any, Hispanics on it despite there being a ton of awesome Latinos doing truly amazing things here in Chicago.

So, in order to help blunt this perceived shortage of Latino superstars, I decided to start one.

I asked for nominations, got about 120, threw out the "usual suspects" - like elected officials and already well-publicized business and community leaders - narrowed the field to get a diverse group of immigrants, U.S.-born, younger, older, community, and business types, then did one-on-one interviews.

At the conclusion, I found five men and five women all dedicating their personal and professional excellence to making Chicago, Illinois, the U.S. - and sometimes the world - a better place.

Let me say it again: these people are not merely engaged in the noble task of empowering the Hispanic community, they have their sights set on making life better for blacks, whites, multi-ethnics, rurals, suburbans, urbans, immigrants, U.S.-born, and everyone in between.

And, yeah, these rock stars just happen to be Hispanic.

Please join me in getting your inspiration on as you read the stories of the ten incredible people who comprise the first annual Chicago Latino List.

Concepcion Rodriguez, 45 - Scare-you-straight Caretaker of the Dead
A bilingual Funeral Director and embalmer, reformed gang member and volunteer gang intervention specialist, Rodriguez shows children and teens the grisly ravages of drugs, alcohol and the gang culture. She also talks to communities, affluent and needy alike, about how to reach out to kids they might not even think are at risk. Through her work, she has single-handedly saved the lives of hundreds of Chicago children.

Cynthia La Boy, 37 - Conqueror of All Obstacles
A single mother and professional living with a traumatic brain injury after a brutally violent crime, La Boy was told by her doctors she'd never be able to care for herself - much less go to college or have a career. Today she works at the Lake County Housing Authority as a bilingual assistant property manager connecting families to clean, safe living conditions and teaching them how to be responsible homeowners. A living miracle, she's an award winning advocate and authentic voice for people living with disabilities.

Antonio Martinez Jr., 36 - Charmer of Benefactors
Martinez walked away from a lucrative dream career in sports marketing to become one of a very few Latinos in the field of professional fundraising. As Assistant Director of Development with the Chicago Community Trust, Martinez raises money to serve the basic human needs of the entire Chicago metropolitan region by supporting vital community-based non-profit organizations.

John Viramontes, 57 - Voice to the Voiceless
An accountant by trade and lifelong community activist by heart, Viramontes dedicates his time to major issues including predatory lending, housing parity, rights for visual artists, and immigration. On an eternal quest for social justice, he's devoted to improving the quality of life in Chicago neighborhoods and empowering struggling artists nationally by being a community presence and passionate spokesperson.

Dr. Ana Gil-Garcia, 54 - Leveler of Educational Inequalities
A tenured University Professor at Northeastern Illinois University, author, esteemed community leader, and forerunning advocate for Latino educational leaders, Gil-Garcia is a three time Fulbright scholar and an internationally acclaimed professional. Gil-Garcia, a published author, works tirelessly for a variety of community organizations and devotes most of her passion to ensuring the Chicago Public School system is a nationally-recognized leader in employing school administration leaders who accurately represent the diversity of their student communities.

Jose Oliva, 36 - Restaurant Worker Sentinel
A Policy Coordinator with Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, Oliva is a driving force behind the legislative push to earn restaurant workers such common benefits as paid time off and job opportunity training. As the voice of both affluent teens working summer food service jobs and adults who support families with their back-of-house restaurant jobs, Oliva labors to fight poverty, racism and sexism while mobilizing local worker organizations. He not only teaches these groups how to become active and engaged in the federal political process, but he represents them in Washington, DC, as well.

Veronica Arreola, 34 - Professional Feminist
As Assistant Director for the UIC Center for Research on Women and Gender and the Director of Women in Science and Engineering Program, Arreola is a dedicated advocate for women's rights, helping them maneuver professions that even today are still dominated by men. As a mother, accomplished blogger, and activist for women's reproductive rights, she has won numerous awards for her work and is dedicated to helping women and girls advocate for themselves in Chicago and around the country.

Roberto Cornelio, 51 - Large Business Incubator
The Chief Operating Officer of the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Cornelio - a former high-level executive at Fortune 500 companies - works to raise the funds, nurture the relationships and promote the programs that drive Hispanic business growth and foster the next generation of Hispanic business and business leaders. His work makes it possible for the Latino community's instinct for entrepreneurship to thrive and, in turn, deliver jobs and opportunities to contribute to the overall economic development and job creation in Chicago and across Illinois communities.

Nelly Aguilar, 33 - Esquire to the Special
Attorney and dedicated special education advocate, Aguilar - mother to a son with autism - works to protect the educational rights of children with disabilities. One of only approximately 15 lawyers specializing in the rights of students with special education needs, she campaigns for state and federal law reform to help families' secure medical, educational and recreational opportunities for their special needs children. Better still, she trains the next generation of attorneys who will serve the hundreds of thousands of Illinois children with disabilities.

Matthew Montez, 22 - De-myth-ifier of the Path to College
A former Pilsen/Little Village caseworker, recent college graduate and eternal optimist, Montez has just committed the next two years of his life to the Illinois Student Assistance Corps. After a seven-week training camp, he's moving to Rockford to teach high school students how to prepare for, apply to and pay for college. Inspired most by those who avoid controversy and succeed despite adversity, his mission is to connect with high school students who will be the first in their family to go beyond a HS diploma, and teach them how to build enough social capital to get themselves into and through the rigors of college.

Chicago Latino List 2009 was generously sponsored by the Chicago Sinfonietta, the Chicago White Sox, and Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Restaurants. All nominees were independently nominated for this recognition; their rejection and/or selection to Chicago Latino List 2009 was not, in any way, influenced by any disclosed or undisclosed personal or professional proximity to Esther J. Cepeda or to any sponsor of Chicago Latino List 2009.

Esther J. Cepeda makes lists and writes about all kinds of other stuff on