When Jane Gonzales was offered a secretary position at the Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in 1975, she thought she would just be answering phones and doing other office work. Instead, as the first employee of the organization, she was door-knocking, making newsletters, meeting with new members and learning how to do business with the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport and the city of Fort Worth.
It was hard work, she said. Gonzales, 25 and a single mother of two children at the time, often had to find babysitters or have her children fold newsletters. Now, at 73, Gonzales still tells people it was the best job she ever had. She keeps relics of the organization’s past, like the first newsletter, in a folder. The organization’s founders, such as the chamber’s president-elect Pete Zepeda, kept her inspired.
“He had a way of letting people get into his head, get into his heart, get into his dreams,” Gonzales said. “And it was like, wow, you know, this is not only challenging, but it’s exciting.”
Today, the Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary on Sept. 16 at a sold out event. Along with the “gilded gala,” the chamber is publishing a magazine featuring Latino leaders and videos to commemorate its past. The Fort Worth Report spoke with a handful of people who have history with the chamber — people who built, led and benefited from its legacy.
Though she left her position in 1976, Gonzales kept in touch with the chamber and is now a member. She thinks remembering and documenting the organization’s history is important.
“From the time a baby’s born, that’s history,” Gonzales said. “I think it’s very important that it’s documented well.”
First known as the Fort Worth Mexican-American Chamber of Commerce, the Hispanic chamber was created Aug. 3, 1973, by Dick Salinas, Pete Zepeda, Ron Fernandez and Manual Jara. The goal, according to the chamber’s first newsletter, was to “contribute to the growth of the Mexican-American Business Community in Tarrant County.” The organization’s office was located in downtown Fort Worth’s Sinclair Building, and it had about 30 members, according to the chamber records. In 1985, the name was changed to the Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Gonzales’ job, she said, was following the dreams of the founders. As she got more and more phone calls, she saw how much the community needed the organization.
“We wanted to be a source of communication for the people, but still be a business-oriented organization to help Hispanic businesses and encourage other Hispanics to become business owners or look into the professional field,” she said.
Family connections to the chamber run deep, too. John J. Hernandez, father of Teresa Montes and Philip Hernandez, was chairman of the board in the early ’90s. He started the family’s print shop, and later became involved with the Hispanic chamber.
The Hispanic chamber was important to him, and his involvement there opened doors to other board appointments: Red Cross, MedStar, John Peter Smith Hospital, Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo. He later helped found the North Texas Area Community Health Center.
“Dad saw it as a gateway for other Hispanic-owned businesses to help them get started,” Philip Hernandez said.
Montes and Hernandez said their father, who is now in ill health, set the standard for getting involved in their community. The siblings also served on the chamber’s board and continue to help there whenever needed.
The siblings are involved in other organizations, too. Montes works as a community leader at the Frost Bank in the Stockyards and works with small businesses. She also is on the board for Cristo Rey Fort Worth College Prep and is involved with her local church. Hernandez is now the owner of JohnSons Press and is involved with the finance council for the Fort Worth Catholic Diocese.
“(Dad) had an emphasis on education, emphasis on service,” Montes said. “And so it kind of guided us then. Our kids are doing the same thing.”
Present day leaders at the chamber are carrying forward its founders’ dream of growing the Hispanic business community.
Rosa Navejar, president and CEO of the chamber from 2001-2012, said a highlight of her time at the chamber was creating bilingual business development sessions. In 2002, she said there were 1,437 people who traveled to Fort Worth from all over North Texas, looking to start a business. Her leadership focused on engaging businesses. She made chamber members aware of contracting opportunities. A leadership program aimed to diversify who served on boards and commissions.
Navejar, who is now on the board of directors for the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, hopes the city continues to grow Hispanic, minority-owned and women-owned businesses in the city. The chamber plays a role in doing that.
“I think the chamber has been a long-standing backbone here based on what our founding fathers did for Hispanic businesses,” Navejar said. “And I think it’ll continue to grow with the population growth of the Hispanic market. Hispanic businesses are going to grow as well.”
Those involved with the organization over the years have seen its ups and downs. Former employees, including Gonzalez, said it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Sometimes, Gonzalez says, when she visited the chamber, they didn’t have a new leader, but the office was always open.
When then-president and CEO John Hernandez took his position in 2015, membership was at a low — he estimates under 200. He recalls multiple people describing the chamber as a “mom and pop” store that didn’t help their business. He decided to take the organization back to the basics — and rebrand it — to figure out how to best support businesses in the area, Hispanic or not.
“It was like, come one, come all,” Hernandez said. “And the mantra was, if we’re going to be asking everybody else to be inclusive, we have to practice what we preach.”
For Hernandez, that meant taking every opportunity to meet with a business owner and partnering with J.O. Agency to help with the rebranding and a marketing campaign. They added events like Coffee with the Chamber and membership breakfasts. The membership grew to more than 500 members, he said.
“We knew if we concentrated on business, concentrated on our relationships and concentrated on inclusion our membership would come,” Hernandez said.
Today, the Hispanic chamber has 760 members.
Recently, the chamber’s current president and CEO, Anette Landeros, and her team have been going through boxes of photos, floppy disks, slides and cassette tapes full of the chamber’s history. As she looks through big binders of photographs, Landeros said she’s seeing history repeat itself.
“It’s kind of awesome to think through how many different people and how many different teams have come together to exercise … a lot of the same events each year,” Landeros said.
When she opens a binder from 1995, for example, she sees the first big event of the year is the rodeo – the same event they start with today. She said there have also been funny moments of realizing the ideas she thought were brand new had been done decades before, such as turning one of the chamber’s center rooms into a computer lab.
Landeros said enduring the COVID-19 pandemic will be the defining moment for the chamber’s history under her leadership.
“Businesses were shut down,” she said. “And so we came together and rallied around that. We actually experienced a tremendous increase in membership, primarily because I believe that COVID made us a greater asset.”
As the chamber continues to grow its membership, Landeros said, one challenge is making sure there’s still an ability to know its membership and meet their needs. Going forward, the chamber will oversee revitalization efforts of the Historic Northside through the Main Street America program. They are also planning to renovate the building they’ve been in since 1999, located at 1327 N. Main St. Landeros also wants to continue growing its membership.
“We want to continue to grow our membership in a way that our folks are staying engaged,” Landeros said. “That they’re working together, that they’re supporting each other, that they are using each other’s businesses when they can, and creating a really supportive network of businesses.”
Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter at @sbodine120.
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