Orlando’s HOLA Celebrates 10 Years
And Its Leader Alicia Ramírez

By Clarisel Gonzalez

Centro congratulates the Hispanic Office for Local Assistance (HOLA) of Orlando, Florida, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary serving the Puerto Ricans of this fast-growing community.

HOLA has provided valuable information and referral services to hundreds of residents and families in its multicultural community, connecting them with government and community organizations to find jobs, housing, healthcare services, educational opportunities and many other resources. And for 8 of its 10 years, this vital organization has been led by Alicia Ramírez, one of Centro’s 100 Puerto Ricans Preserving Our History.

As HOLA coordinator, Ramírez, who has served the City of Orlando since February 2001, remembers that when she first inherited HOLA she was given its mission statement, which said that the “City of Orlando HOLA office is to provide bilingual information and referral services to residents and newcomers to Orlando.” It is a mission that HOLA continues to live by.

The agency’s goal is to provide residents with enhanced services that will assist them in a resourceful and proficient manner. When visiting the HOLA outreach center, families and individuals meet with staff members who help them identify local resources based on the information provided. Visitors have access to in-house information, computers and bilingual personnel to help with their search.

To mark HOLA’s anniversary, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer has invited residents to an Open House on Thursday, April 3, at the HOLA office at the Primrose Community Center.

Mayor Dyer described Orlando as “the center of a metro area with 2.2 million residents. Our downtown is surrounded by eclectic neighborhoods and is alive with cultural and entertainment activities. Our economy is anchored by industries creating the careers of the future in life sciences, digital media and modeling, simulation and training.”

Ramírez said Orlando is open to newcomers, including the growing number of Puerto Ricans migrating from the island as well as from throughout the United States in search of new jobs and better quality of life. Exciting things are happening in Orlando and there are opportunities there, she said.

Despite the opportunities, Ramírez advised potential newcomers to do their research before making such a drastic move, because it isn’t easy. She estimated that it takes at least three years to adjust to Florida.

“One thing is coming here for vacation at Disney and the Epcot Center and another is to live and work here,” she said, recommending that anyone who is seriously considering a move to Orlando should set aside a few days to talk to the locals, visiting neighborhoods, community groups and business organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce. “Become a local for a few days,” she said.

The best way to relocate is with a plan, a job lined up and/or with family and a support network. Not everyone has that. Some people, including many Puerto Ricans, arrive to Orlando thinking they are going to get a job the next day, she said. Sometimes it takes time to land a good paying job even for those who are highly educated. She noted that some people end up having to work more than one job to make ends meet and need to be realistic.

But HOLA is there to help make the transition, assisting with such things as resources for those who need to improve their English skills.

Ramírez understands migration very well because she has lived it.

Born in the Bronx, she remembers her family moving around when she was growing up because her dad was in the military. They lived on Long Island and in Upstate New York, Florida and Europe. But most of her youth she spent in Puerto Rico, where her father was stationed. He retired from the military when she was a teenager and her family remained in Puerto Rico.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in art from the Inter American University of Puerto Rico, with a minor in business administration. She married and lived on the island with her husband and kids and ran her own business. She began searching for work in Puerto Rico after the business started having problems, so in 1982 the family relocated to Orlando from Aguadilla in search of new opportunities.

Initially, she recalled, it was her father-in-law who spoke to her and her husband about a family member who lived in Deltona, which is located approximately half way between Orlando and Daytona Beach, as a potential place to live. Her husband visited and fell in love with Florida. When he returned to Puerto Rico, he said he wanted to move, something that Ramírez was open to because the couple wanted to raise their kids to be fully bilingual.

Ironically, she was called for a job in Puerto Rico just before she moved to Orlando, but the job offer came too late because the decision to leave had been made.

Today Ramírez is highly respected in the Orlando community because of her commitment to public service. In 2012 she was selected as Employee of the Year by the City of Orlando, receiving the McNamara Employee of the Year Award, the highest and most notable recognition conferred by the city mayor to his employees. The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida also named her one of the 25 Influential Hispanics in 2012 in Central Florida.

As one of Centro’s 100 Puerto Ricans Ramírez has contributed her oral history and also plans to donate her papers to the Centro Archives. A large part of this history includes the work she has done as part of HOLA.

Of her contribution to Centro, Ramírez said: “Maybe it is because of who I am. I love to know the story of what happened before me. I want people to have access to this history.”