Jessica Cavazos’ dreams for her organization are much too big to fit on a single sticky note

In getting the job that changed her life, Jessica Cavazos gives partial credit to a sticky note.
Jessica Cavazos in front of a wall of stickie notes
Photo by Chris Hynes
Jessica Cavazos is the Madison-based president of the Wisconsin Latino Chamber of Commerce. Membership has grown to more than 400 businesses and the organization was one of three nationally to receive the 2020 Hispanic Chamber of the Year Award.

In getting the job that changed her life, Jessica Cavazos gives partial credit to a sticky note.

This was 2004, and Cavazos — today the Madison-based president of the Wisconsin Latino Chamber of Commerce — desperately wanted to work for Milwaukee congressional candidate Gwendolyn Moore, if Moore was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

When she saw Moore at numerous campaign events that fall, Moore would smile and call Cavazos “Jennifer.”

“I never wanted to correct her,” Cavazos says. “I had so much respect for her.”

When Moore won her race, a friend — Wisconsin state Rep. Pedro Colon — passed along Cavazos’ resume.

Cavazos attached a sticky note: “This is Jennifer.”

After a Christmas Eve meeting in a diner with Shirley Ellis, Moore’s chief of staff, Cavazos got the job.

“She was just the right person to work for if you’re passionate about changing the world,” says Cavazos, who worked as Moore’s constituent liaison for ethnic communities.

Overseeing Latino issues, Cavazos witnessed inequities in immigration and other areas. She says Moore “empowered everyone on the staff to have a voice and propel their issues. It built me into the person I am now.”

In her current role since September 2016, Cavazos has overseen the organization’s expansion (from Dane County to statewide); has worked to increase her chamber’s membership, in particular recruiting Latino businesses; and has shared a narrative about the beneficial impact of Latino businesses and workers on Wisconsin’s economy.

All this from a little girl who cried when she got her first taste of a Wisconsin winter.

Cavazos was born in south Texas, to which her mom had immigrated from Mexico. Her mom — who was working as a nanny — soon left for Milwaukee and the promise of a manufacturing job. Cavazos spent her first four years in Texas with her Spanish-speaking grandmother, at which point her mom returned and brought her to Wisconsin.

When the cold and snow arrived, there were tears. “I said, ‘Take me back to Grandma! I don’t want to live in Wisconsin.’ To this day I’m always running to a beach somewhere.”

She had to learn a new language, and a new community. School helped — especially a bilingual Milwaukee public school teacher named Diane Tedick.

Cavazos’ mom was working two jobs: nights at a plant cutting vegetables and days cleaning hotel rooms. Cavazos struggled in first and second grade, but then Tedick stepped in, helping with language, chaperoning field trips to “The Nutcracker” and inviting her across the city to her home to bake cookies.

“I always say it only takes one person to open the door for a child’s destiny,” Cavazos says. She and Tedick, now at the University of Minnesota, remain in touch.

“She made me believe I could fly — mentally,” Cavazos says. “She’d say, ‘Read a book. You can go there.’ ”

In eighth grade, Cavazos gave the class graduation speech.

After graduating from Milwaukee’s Riverside University High School, Cavazos, with a dream of working for the BBC, attended a broadcasting college in south Florida. She worked in radio there for a time, but in 1998, partly to escape a soured relationship, Cavazos returned to Wisconsin.

Soon after she landed, Colon — who was making his first run for the Assembly — asked her to help fundraise for the campaign. Cavazos knew little of politics, but she’d known Colon for years — his mom was her second grade teacher. She subsequently worked for Tom Barrett as a scheduler and, as noted, for Moore, with whom Cavazos stayed until 2013.

Presaging her current role, Cavazos next headed back to Florida to become the executive director of the Volusia County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

It proved a poor fit, but after returning to Milwaukee and doing some consulting, she heard from the Latino Chamber of Commerce of Dane County, which was looking to hire its first paid executive director.

Three phone interviews later, Cavazos was invited to Madison for a face-to-face meeting with the group’s board. She ran into traffic and had other issues that morning. Arriving at Centro Hispano, Cavazos noted from the clock on the wall that she was 23 minutes late. She recalled long-ago advice from her mom: “When you’re nervous, put your head up and act like you own the place.” Cavazos said, “I know I’m late and I might get fired before I get this job. But otherwise, let’s get started.”

She got the job.

The pandemic has stifled some of Cavazos’ ambitious hopes for the organization, yet membership has grown to more than 400 businesses. The name change, to Wisconsin Latino Chamber of Commerce, became official in April 2019, and that fall the Wisconsin chamber was one of three nationally to receive the 2020 Hispanic Chamber of the Year Award.

Cavazos has three children younger than 16 and “a phenomenal partner,” Temo Xopin, creative director for an ad agency in Mequon.

She also has big dreams. “I have a huge vision of where I want to take this organization,” she says.

They probably wouldn’t fit on a sticky note, but it couldn’t hurt.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” on madisonmagazine.com.