RALEIGH — Mila Strayer said she doesn’t have time for pity, which is why she took a wheelchair to Saturday’s LatinaCon at the Hilton North Raleigh on Wake Forest Road.
The owner of Bacan’s Coffee Shop in Morrisville is the mother of three children and a native of Venezuela. She opened the shop in October and plans to add a drive-thru window next – after undergoing surgery to repair her broken foot and three months of bedrest.
“It’s important to be here. It’s not just about me, but to let people know that no matter what, you can do more,” Strayer said.
That was the message of Raleigh’s first Latino-American Women’s Conference, sponsored by the Spanish-language newspaper La Noticia. The event, which attracted several hundred people, is already held in Charlotte. La Noticia Publisher Hilda Gurdian said they saw a need in Raleigh, too, because of its fast-growing Latino population.
Reports show Charlotte and the Raleigh areas are the country’s top two areas for Latino population growth, with 168 percent and 138.9 percent growth, respectively, from 2000 to 2013.
In 2010, Census Bureau reports found Latinos made up roughly 11.4 percent of Raleigh’s population, 14.2 percent in Durham and 13 percent in Charlotte.
Javier Diaz, Raleigh’s consul general of Mexico, urged the women to think of themselves as community leaders and organizers. Don’t let fear hold you back, said keynote speaker Deborah Aguiar-Velez, the founder and chief executive officer of Sistemos Corp.
“It’s extremely important that we set our own path,” she said. “It’s the excuses we create that limit us.”
Saturday’s LatinaCon focused on personal growth, nutrition, fashion and how to use social media for networking and business success. A few dozen area businesses, nonprofit groups and professional organizations came out to share ideas and resources.
Latinos face a growing epidemic of obesity, diabetes and related diseases, Raleigh doctor Stephanie Foley said. Genetically, Latinos have a harder time metabolizing carbohydrates, which isn’t a problem in their native lands because food is limited, she said. However, in the United States, Latino families are adopting a diet of fast food, white grains and sugary drinks.
Studies show more Mexican-American women are obese than non-Latino white women, she said. Overall, Latinos are 1.2 times more likely than whites to be obese, while Latino children are at least 1.6 times more likely to be obese than their peers, she said.
Better health is possible by eating more fruits and vegetables and by encouraging each other to be active, even if it’s just taking a walk, she said.
Latinos, especially women and children, also lack access to qualified legal help, said Raleigh immigration attorney Jenny Doyle. Human trafficking, domestic violence and immigration issues are just some of the threats they face, she said.
Legal advice also can be expensive, which is why Latinos sometimes seek help from storefront “notario publicos,” she said. In Latin America, a notary public can refer to a trained attorney, but in this country, the job does not require legal training, she said.
A notary can be charged with the unauthorized practice of law if something goes wrong, but the client can face deportation and broken family ties, Doyle said.
Other speakers addressed the difficulty of adapting to another culture but said the United States offers Latino women many more opportunities. You must stand tall, demand respect and follow your dreams, said Maudia Melendez, executive director of Charlotte-based Jesus Ministry Inc.
The Nicaraguan native and motivational speaker immigrated 41 years ago. She has lobbied Congress for immigration reform and the state to reform laws that prevent immigrants from getting driver’s licenses.
“So many people have died with so many dreams, because they were afraid,” Melendez said.