Family ties: Hispanic Chamber awards show how important ‘familia’ is in business community

It seems hard to believe now, but there was a time when Mandy Gonzalez — the Broadway star who has appeared in “Hamilton,” “In the Heights” and “Wicked” — wasn’t a big name.

In fact, she seemingly didn’t have a name at all.

She was just an 18-year-old kid getting ready to sign her first contract with an agent — an 18-year-old kid who was told she would need to change her last name if she ever wanted to go anywhere in the business.

Gonzalez, after pondering the idea, decided to become Mandy Carr — “with two R’s,” she said — simply because she knew of another Latina actress who was using that last name.

It was a moment that changed her life.

When she went back home and told her parents, she immediately saw the sadness in their eyes. They told her about the family history, how her grandparents came to this country as part of an agriculture worker program — one where they worked the fields to give their children and grandchildren a better life.

Gonzalez said she felt ashamed that someone made her feel as if she wasn’t enough.

She then told the overflow crowd at the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey awards gala Thursday night what she did.

“The next day, I went into that room, and I said, ‘I know I told you that Mandy Carr is spelled with two R’s, but it’s actually, Gonzalez with two Z’s — I’m Mandy Gonzalez.’”

The crowd roared.

The Hispanic Chamber’s annual gala is meant to recognize, appreciate and honor those who have made the Hispanic business community the fastest-growing in the state and the country.

But, it’s more than that. It’s an appreciation of culture and family. It’s also a time to show that the chamber’s frequently used “familia” phrase is not just about the current generation of leaders.

Gonzalez showed that while accepting the Latina Trailblazer award.

So did Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, the chief of staff to Gov. Phil Murphy and the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Transportation.

Gutierrez-Scaccetti accepted the Lifetime Achievement award by paying tribute to her father — Daniel Jose Gutierrez — who she honors through the use of a hyphenated last name.

Her father immigrated from Spain, grew up in Newark and served in the Navy during the Korean War. He then served as an example for his daughters.

“I watched my dad, thorough his life, meet many challenges, because he was Spanish,” she told the crowd. “And I watched him succeed in business, only to be pushed down by people who truly didn’t believe he should succeed.

“But, what I also watched was a man who never stopped trying — who raised a family, who worked six days a week. My sister and I both were married on Sundays, because he worked on Saturday, and so did his friends.

“He taught me the meaning of hard work, of integrity, of embracing your culture and your family.”

Family was the theme of the night. When Hilda Mera accepted one of the Business of the Year awards as the founder of S&A Auto Center, she brought her husband, Jose Masache, and children on stage.

Mera came to the U.S. from Ecuador in 1999 at the age of 19. And, even though she left her family behind, she said her journey has not been undertaken alone.

“I really feel blessed to be here tonight, because this award is not for me,” she said. “This award is for my community, for my family, for people that are behind us.

“We have to be a leader. It was not easy for me to be a leader in this industry. Every time that I was knocking on door, they were telling me ‘no.’ But, I said to myself, one day, I will never let anybody put me down because I am a Latina.”

Gladys Vonglahn, who was honored for her business, Gladys’ Cleaning Service, said she has worked to help her community since coming to the U.S. from Chile in 2001.

“I feel so honored to be here and recognized with this award,” she said. “But it is not just for me.

“I want to create job opportunities for my community. I want everybody feel proud to be a cleaning queen.”

Carlos Medina, the CEO of the chamber, said family is everything at the chamber — and in the community.

“Family is everything,” he said. “The Hispanic business community cares and supports one another as if we are all family. The chamber provides a family structure — one with care and empathy — to help our members. And our future members.

“For us, ‘familia’ is more than a phrase, it’s a way of life and a way of living.”