North Bay Latine nonprofit embraces diversity

  • by Lois Pearlman
  • Wednesday June 26, 2024
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Lisa Carreno, left, has long been involved with Los Cien in Sonoma County, while Ramon Meraz now serves on the board Photos: Courtesy the subjects
Lisa Carreno, left, has long been involved with Los Cien in Sonoma County, while Ramon Meraz now serves on the board Photos: Courtesy the subjects

When Lisa Carreno attended her first meeting of the organization that was to become Los Cien, she knew that, as a Cuban American in an organization devoted to empowering Latines, she belonged.

"When I went to my first meeting, it felt like I was walking into a space where I was very much at home for the first time in a long time," she recalled.

Born and raised in the Ybor City neighborhood of Tampa, Florida, Carreno, 60, is not only Latina but also a lesbian, and has never felt the need to hide her identity at Los Cien, which in English means The Hundred.

Ramon Meraz, born in Chihuahua, Mexico, has been attending Los Cien events since he moved to Sonoma County, and two years ago joined the board of directors. He said that as a gay man, he has always felt welcome there. But in those early years he kept urging Los Cien to advocate for other LGBTQ+ Latinos, because they "had no voice."

"I used to be the trouble maker," Meraz, 54, said with a measure of pride. "I was angry that they wouldn't recognize that we are part of the Latino community."

Now, in the 16 years since Guerneville Realtor Herman J. Hernandez first called together a group of Latine friends to request inclusion in a Santa Rosa charter review, Los Cien is not only encouraging participation by Latine LGBTQ+ people but is also building bridges with all marginalized communities.

Of the four special events Los Cien organized this year — in addition to its monthly convenings — three were devoted to farmworkers, youth, and environmental justice, and the fourth to LGBTQIA+ trailblazers.

Held May 10, shortly before Sonoma County began to celebrate Pride Month, the LGBTQ+ forum included Angélica Garcia, president of Santa Rosa Junior College; Christopher Mahurin, the first openly gay Santa Rosa Police officer promoted to lieutenant; Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Kinna Patel Crocker; Sonoma County Office of Education Superintendent Amie Carter, Ph.D.; Sonoma County Pride Vice President Grace Villafuerte; and Rohnert Park Pride founder Rowan Gomez.

Garcia, who identifies as pansexual, is the first woman, first Latina, and first LGBTQ person to head up the junior college. She previously served as president of Berkeley City College, which is part of the Peralta Community College District in the East Bay, as the Bay Area Reporter previously reported.

Carter, a gay married mother, is the first LGBTQ person and first woman in 100 years to run the county's school system, and was unopposed when she was elected, as the B.A.R. noted. Crocker, a lesbian of East Indian ancestry, was appointed to the bench last year, as the B.A.R. reported, and won election to her judicial seat in the March primary.

In addition to the forum, Los Cien sponsored "Pride Fiesta Al Cien," a dance party and fundraiser that was held May 31, the evening before the Santa Rosa Pride Parade. Eighty percent of the proceeds went to the LGBTQIA+ therapy fund for non-English-speaking immigrants who are facing sexual orientation or gender identity issues.

"We raised even more money than last year," said Meraz, who suggested the first Pride Fiesta last year as a way to connect the two communities, and have fun doing it.

New era

It is definitely a new era for Los Cien, or more correctly, a big growth spurt, and much of the credit belongs to the organization's young, new director, Herman G. Hernandez, 38. He attributes some of this sensitivity to growing up in Guerneville. He is Herman J. Hernandez's son and identifies as a straight ally.

Los Cien's budget for this year is set at $500,000 to $800,000. And $125,000 of that pays for Herman G. Hernandez's salary.

"Living in a hate-free community like Guerneville inspires open-mindedness and a recognition of the interconnectedness of individuals and communities," the younger Hernandez said, also admitting that it was difficult to grow up as a Latino in what was at that time a mostly white town.

While Guerneville has declared itself a hate-free community, there have been anti-LGBTQ incidents in the past. The B.A.R. covered the theft of a Pride flag from the Guerneville Plaza flagpole several years ago. In that 2018 case, Vincent Joseph O'Sullivan was sentenced to 36 months probation and 100 hours of community service.

Stuart Wilkinson works at the Guerneville Library.

"I feel very grateful to be working for this library. Guerneville is one of the most accepting communities in the world," said Wilkinson, who's in his 20s.

Wilkinson came moved from New Jersey and lives in Rio Nido.

When the younger Hernandez applied for the executive director position at Los Cien, he told the interview committee that he "wanted to use the platform to uplift other marginalized communities," and they apparently thought that was a good idea.

Los Cien began, like many grassroots efforts, as a forum for empowering its own people, the growing Latine community that constitutes about one third of Sonoma County's population. After the elder Hernandez, known affectionately as Herman J., convened a group of Latine leaders and businesspeople to meet with Santa Rosa officials, they decided to continue getting together. When Carreno joined the group in 2008, it was still meeting in the backroom of the former Mary's Pizza Shack in downtown Santa Rosa.

The following year it became apparent that the organization needed to incorporate in order to further its work, which led Carreno to thinking about the organization 100 Black Men, and also the name of the Tampa Neighborhood where her mother grew up, Los Cien. In Tampa, Los Cien refers to the 100 homes built for Cuban cigar makers some 140 years ago. But for Carreno, it fostered the idea that if 100 people donated $100 each then the fledgling organization could pay for its incorporation.

As the new nonprofit evolved, it continued its mission of uplifting the Latine community by inviting influential county leaders, including non-Latinos, to attend events and become members, which now number over 350. As a result, Los Cien has become a force in the county, now employing three staff members and believing it has the capacity to expand its advocacy to other groups, including Asian Pacific Islanders and the LGBTQ+ community.

It is both this larger vision, and the strong foundation, that has attracted several non-Latinx new board members, four of them LGBTQ+. With Meraz and Carreno, they now comprise one-third of the Los Cien board.

"Having attended a lot of their events over the years, I was impressed with their success and strategies, and their evolving nature, with their ability to get people to the table," said Angie Dillon-Shore, who, at 60, is the oldest of the new LGBTQ+ board recruits and identifies as lesbian and queer.

Dillon-Shore lives in Guerneville with her wife and their three French bulldogs, and is the executive director of First 5, an organization that provides services for children from birth to kindergarten age.

As for her involvement with Los Cien, Dillon-Shore said, "What I want to see happen is not only to build bridges with community leaders, but to hold them accountable."

This sentiment was generally echoed by the three other new out board members, Chase Overholt, 25, who is the development director for Positive Images, a nonprofit that supports LGBTQ+ youth; Lindsey Rose Burcina, the youngest at 24; and Bay Jones, 54, a longtime teacher and university professor.

Overholt, who identifies as queer and nonbinary, was both hopeful and concerned about the possible growing pains Los Cien faces as it moves forward.

"I worry about getting caught in pleasing everyone and not ruffling any feathers," Overholt said. "I believe we are looking at a time of change and I hope Los Cien will be part of that change. Let's take the next step."

And Overholt added, "I am already seeing change in Los Cien, just based on the makeup of the board."

Burcina, who identifies as a lesbian, said she began attending Los Cien events with her mentor, John Mutz, who ran unsuccessfully for Sonoma County Sheriff in 2018 as a police reformer. When Mutz realized how much Burcina was aligned with Los Cien's goals, he encouraged her to apply for a board opening.

"It was similar to the work I was doing at school, bridging the gap between Elsie Allen High School and the community," said Burcina, who is of mixed Japanese and Croatian descent. She remarked that Elsie Allen was seen as a ghetto school because of its mostly Latine population.

Jones, who is the lone Black member of the board, said Los Cien asked her to apply for the diversity she brings, but, "They did not do me a favor by asking me to take a seat. They need me at the table." She identifies as a Black cisgender woman, gay parent, and spouse.

She and her Latina wife have two sons who they are raising to be bilingual and bicultural.

"I believe Los Cien has done a very good job of bringing awareness about the Latinx community," Jones concluded. "And there is potential to do deeper work about the oppressive conditions experienced by other communities, and take a stand."

Dillon-Shore noted, "This is going to require us to be courageous and bold, to have the difficult conversations."

To which Meraz responded, "It's up to the members where it goes. Los Cien is a membership-driven organization. It is up to the new generation to take us to a new level. And I hope somebody seeing this article will want to join us."

For more information about Los Cien, visit


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