By Victor Palomino
If you search for the word “cola” in the Royal Spanish Academy’s dictionary of the Spanish language, you’ll find more than 18 definitions. But in Western North Carolina, COLA is known as the Coalition of Latin American Organizations (COLA, for its acronym in Spanish), a nonprofit dedicated to connecting, strengthening and organizing communities to take action for immigrants’ rights in WNC since 2002.
COLA’s beginning focused on providing tools to groups already working with Latinos and new immigrants in WNC, including “Immigrant Reality” workshops, where residents of WNC could see the “face of the immigrant community,” says Bruno Hinojosa, co-director of COLA.
Hinojosa immigrated to Asheville from Mexico with his family in December 1999. He started as a volunteer with the organization, participating in workshops that COLA created to increase multilingual spaces.
From there, Hinojosa helped to organize marches and advocate for issues like opposing North Carolina House Bill 11 from the 2011 legislative session, which would limit access to higher education for undocumented students.
“We raised our voices locally and statewide,” Hinojosa says. “Some people have lived here 10 years, or most of their life, and for them not to be considered as residents, or able to attend college, was wrong.”
Ten years after COLA was founded, Hinojosa and Alex Villanueva were hired as co-directors of the organization. Under their leadership, the organization has changed its focus to serve the people in the immigrant community. “It’s still a new experience to explain what COLA is,” Hinojosa says of COLA’s outreach to the community. “When they see my face, they see someone who has gone through the same things they are going through. They can relate to the organization; they have a connection.”
Today, COLA focuses on helping people understand and navigate the presidential mandate on immigration, including the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents programs. The organization also helps to find solutions for people who don’t qualify. “Sometimes it feels like we are always fighting something, some anti-immigrant law,” Hinojosa says. “People are afraid to come out and speak of the reality they’re living. But, when they see others that are doing it, it empowers them.”
The future of COLA depends on the people of WNC ensuring that the immigrant community’s needs and voices continue to be part of the fabric of the country, Hinojosa notes.
Victor Palomino is a Latino community organizer and the creative director of CHIVA.