Tony Tijerino is an impatient man. 

“I don’t ever want to be patient with the way migrants are being treated at the border. I don’t ever want to be patient with injustice. That notion of aguántate (tolerate, hold on) doesn’t work for me. What are we supposed to wait for? We’re being targeted with narratives that are positioning us as some kind of hostile takeover of this country. We have members of our own families who are being targeted for being LGBTQ+ or for being Black or a woman or Jewish or Muslim. There is no aguántate in us. This is the time to do everything we need to do,” he tells CALÓ NEWS.  

That concept of get up and do something right away is what keeps the President and CEO of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation busy and heavily involved in a slew of issues with a staff that tries to keep up. Based in Washington, D.C., HHF had been best known for its annual Hispanic Heritage Awards – which Tijerino himself produces – but that’s not all the group does, he stresses. It’s their signature yearly event, but the group’s work has expanded under Tijerino’s leadership. 

“It used to annoy me when people would say that [the awards is all we do] but I look at it as a compliment [now]. We teach kids how to code, work with teachers, work with companies to help get Latinos into the tech industry through a skills program or helping to get access to the internet from a policy standpoint to be a priority in order to have equity in education and workforce development and in access to information, including healthcare and everything else,” he says.

“What we do at the Kennedy Center [where the HHF Awards are held] is a launch of what we do year round. That program is important; it continues a legacy started by a whole lot of people. The Hispanic Heritage awards is important to continue because we want to make sure that we tell our stories which are American stories and the narrative is being told by us. By being (broadcast) on PBS it allows us to tell that story to people across America, not just in areas that have a strong Latino population, and we’re doing it on purpose on mainstream [television]. We want to make sure we’re reaching an audience that doesn’t usually get reached with this kind of Latino content. To have that platform with several thousand at the Kennedy Center and millions more on television, I’m very grateful to the Kennedy Center and PBS and our sponsors for giving us that platform.”

So who exactly is Tony Tijerino? José Antonio Tijerino is a native of Nicaragua and a graduate of the University of Maryland. Tijerino’s experience includes stints at the public relations giant Burson Marsteller, and at Nike and the Fannie Mae Foundation. He’s been showered with numerous honors and awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National PTA, and recognition from Hispanics in Philanthropy and the MALDEF Award for Human Rights. Tijerino is also a recipient of the Ohtli Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Mexican government to an individual. He’s also worked on immigration issues and was recognized by FWD.US for his work with migrant families on the border.

At HHF, some of the initiatives he’s help found include the Hispanic Leaders Alliance with the NFL, the #Mask4Farmworkers program that provided more than two million masks for farmworkers during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, and the LOFT (Latinas on Fast Track) Institute, a program that brings Latina professionals and college students together for leadership trainings, workforce development, networking, community outreach and mentoring. Additionally, HHF has worked with Justice For Migrant Women to support farmworkers and migrants from Latin America. There’s also Welcome Tech, the world’s first digital platform to provide immigrant communities with linguistically and culturally relevant resources, and the ESA LOFT Video Game Innovation Fellowship, a platform for game developers of color who create video games or mobile apps focusing on addressing local and global social issues.

“Also a leadership institute for 300 young people that are broken out into ten different sectors and each one of those cohorts of 30 are trained within their network to build social capital so they are able to support one another throughout their careers and lean on each other,” Tijerino says, adding, “We’re addressing issues in different sectors. We’re working with different companies to place people in different jobs – about 100 placed in engineering positions, working with teachers to create a teaching pipeline.”

Tijerino credits his staff for keeping the organization working on a number of issues at the same time. 

“I give my staff a lot of credit because it’s not easy to go in different directions at a moment’s notice. We follow our community, not the other way around. I can’t prioritize somebody else’s needs or pains or wants. My job is to do whatever I can to support that. For people around the world to see Latinos as problem solvers, that’s a good thing. I want to always be adaptable to whatever our community needs us to go or wants us to go.”

HHF also sponsors charlas or talks, on a number of issues, including some that have been difficult to discuss within the community, such as LGBTQ+ rights and racism among Latinos.

“I’ve had it with us feeling like we are often treated unfairly and then we turn around and we are just as racist, just as homophobic, just as sexist, just as Islamaphobic, just as anti-Semitic as everyone else. That is something that I want to address because sometimes we try to give ourselves a pass, that it’s culturally endearing, [the] nicknames that we give people … racism is racism and it is all over our community. We want to talk about the great promise of our community and the diversity within our community, especially treating everyone equally and fairly.”

While it may sound like HHF is all over the place, Tijerino says that exactly how he likes it because that’s the organization’s mission: Do as much to help all.  

“Our mission focuses on education, workforce, social impact, culture and leadership. A piece of that is the Hispanic Heritage awards, yes. And we’re teaching 100,000 kids how to computer code all over the country (including helping to create the first Latino-themed Minecraft game), to make sure we are represented in those jobs and that our community has economic mobility and having a trajectory for generations.”

Tijerino also hosts the Fritanga Podcast – fritanga is Spanish for deep-fried food in some Latin American countries and street barbecue in others – and in each podcast the HHF head takes a dive into the issues of the day in what HHF calls a “cultural convening” like a fritanga gathering in Latin America. 

“Inspiration is everywhere, you just have to be open to accepting it at any time, and that’s why we go in all these different directions. Someone can have an idea and we run with it. Half the things we’re doing are ideas from people in our own network. We need to count on ourselves and those around us.”

Tijerino tells CALÓ NEWS that he tries to hold on to what he considers is his own naiveté, and for a good reason.

“I’m naïve enough to think we can change something, [to] help. I want to be audacious, humble and extremely confident in what you can do especially when you have people around you. We’re as good as the call you get and the call you make. Collaboration is important. The call comes in, hey you want to be part of this, and you say yes every single time,” he says, adding, “I’m very proud to be able to get away with our approach to doing things. The reason we’re all over the place is that there is so much to be done. I’m not trying to stay in my own lane, I’m trying to carpool. I surround myself with friends in other organizations and corporations that allow us to do this work. That is an absolute privilege.”

As for that signature yearly event coming up in September, Tijerino says they plan to honor six Latino community luminaries, with the first names expected to be made public later this summer.  Last year they honored Los Lobos, Daddy Yankee and Ariana DeBose, among others.

Raised in Puerto Rico, Patricia Guadalupe is a bilingual multimedia journalist based in Washington, D.C., covering the capital for both English and Spanish-language media outlets. She is also an adjunct...