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Renata Soto, the driving force behind Casa Azafrán, helps Nashville’s diverse communities converge

Nashvillian of the Year 2013

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As 2013 winds to a close, Nashville finds itself in the throes of a construction boom. And of all the new buildings that were once just a dream in somebody's head, one looms especially large. It holds the potential to transform not only the tract of land it occupies, but the very fabric of the city — or at least how the threads of that fabric are interwoven. It could spur unprecedented economic development. It has already started to draw new visitors to the city and showcase a side of Nashville that has rarely permeated the prevailing Music City lore.

We're speaking, of course, about Casa Azafrán, the community center on Nolensville Road that has become the unofficial gateway to Nashville's most diverse corridor — and a template for what is possible when a vision meets a tireless advocate.

"In one short year, Casa Azafrán has emerged as an important cultural and economic hub in Nashville," Mayor Karl Dean tells the Scene. "I see Casa Azafrán as a good model for how a community-led center can help revitalize a surrounding neighborhood, increase collaboration among nonprofits around a common goal, and provide much-needed services for those in our city."

And so, for her role in willing Casa Azafrán into existence, and for her leadership at its helm, we choose Renata Soto as the Scene's 2013 Nashvillian of the Year, an honor conferred annually since 1989. Situated between the fairgrounds and the diverse ethnic enclaves that begin to take shape below I-440, Casa Azafrán houses 10 nonprofits within its 28,000 brightly painted and exquisitely decorated square feet — from a clinic run by United Neighborhood Health Services to a performance studio run by the Global Education Center.

Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition is here. Justice for Our Neighbors Tennessee is here. YWCA of Nashville and Middle Tennessee is here. Kurdish-American Muslim advocate Remziya Suleyman's American Center for Outreach is here. And then there's Mesa Komal, the community kitchen that serves as a commissary for food trucks — including Riffs Fine Street Food, Hummus Chick, Music City Pies, Churro Queens and Que Delicias — as well as a laboratory, catering hub and classroom. The centrally located Flat Rock Hall, so named to honor the heritage of the area — "as opposed to 'Something-in-Spanish Hall,' " Soto says with a laugh — has hosted everything from corporate board meetings to a Tennessee Women's Theater Project production of Christine Mather and Sara Sharpe's play Voices of Nashville: Immigration and Community.

"The day I was pinching myself, it was maybe a month or two months after we had been here," Soto remembers. Nashville Public Television was hosting a film screening, the Global Education Center was "having a loud, awesome Zumba class for moms and kids," the kitchen was "very busy with entrepreneurs" preparing for weekend jobs, and Conexión Américas' small business class was convening in one of the classrooms.

"I was thinking the people who are here to watch the NPT film, they would not have come here for anything else," she says. "We created that space so that, oh, by the way, you see there are these other things going on here. And you ask, and in that small question, maybe just something opens up — like, 'Wow, I didn't realize the community of Nashville was so vibrant, and this existed in Nashville.' "

And without Soto, it might not.

Soto was born in Costa Rica and first came to the U.S. in 1993 on a student visa to study at Kenyon College in Ohio. She's a journalist by training, but got involved in nonprofit work after moving to Atlanta after college. She began working for United Way of Metropolitan Nashville soon after she and husband Pete Wooten, now an executive vice president at Avenue Bank, relocated here in 1996.

During her early days in Nashville, Soto also co-hosted a radio show on the local Spanish-language station Melodias called Café a la Siete, or "Coffee at 7." ("The most popular guest was always the immigration attorney," she recalls with a laugh.) Through her role as a grant maker at United Way, Soto became familiar with Nashville's nonprofit ecosystem, and what nonprofits were doing to "recognize the new community," as she puts it.

Recognizing an opportunity between those efforts, Soto left United Way in 2002 to start Conexión Américas along with co-founders Jose Gonzalez, who still serves as finance director, and Maria Clara Mejia, who has since retired. Last year, Conexión celebrated its 10th anniversary, with the construction of Casa Azafrán — and the hoisting of its 30-foot-wide, 12-foot-tall crowdfunded and volunteer-assembled tile mosaic "Migration," designed by artist Jairo Prado — serving as a crowning achievement on a decade's worth of advocacy and empowerment.

If you ask Renata Soto to tell you the story of Renata Soto, she will almost invariably turn to telling the story of Casa Azafrán. But others are quick to praise her.

"For many years Renata has helped lead efforts to keep Nashville a diverse and welcoming place — from helping defeat the English Only referendum to giving life to Casa Azafrán," Mayor Dean tells the Scene. "I can't thank Renata enough for having the vision to put a variety of immigrant services under one roof and the drive to create Casa Azafrán. It has rightfully become the epicenter of New American initiatives and events in our city."

"Renata is a person who has a great deal of determination and resiliency in pursuing her vision and what she wants to see happen," says Mary Bufwack, CEO of United Neighborhood Health Services, which operates a clinic at Casa Azafrán. "She's a person who can say thank you and recognize the effort of others."

Carlos Davis, a chef and co-founder of Riffs Fine Street Food, uses the Mesa Komal community kitchen for his business and helps coordinate catering efforts for events within the center. "I am very impressed with the way she gets involved," he says of Soto. "There's a lot of things that go on here, and she's in touch and in tune with all of them."

In 2008, Nashville collectively struck down the proposed "English Only" amendment to the city charter, thanks in no small measure to mobilized opposition by the city's Hispanic community. That year, the Scene recognized attorney Gregg Ramos as Nashvillian of the Year, in part for his work to defeat that insidious legislation.

Soto also played an important role as executive director of Conexión Américas. And as it happened, 2008 was also the year that the first pieces started falling into place for Casa Azafrán. It began with small commitments from other local nonprofits, then some backing from the Bank of America Foundation. Then came the first big infusion of cash for what would become a $5 million project.

"Remember, 2008 is when the economy is tanking," Soto says, "and we were actually thinking, 'Ooh, maybe this is too ambitious; certainly this is not the time to embark fully on a capital campaign.' But when we got the check from the Joe C. Davis Foundation — it was in September of 2008 — it was such a vote of confidence in the vision. ... And what the gift meant to us was permission to keep dreaming."

Sometimes the dream felt impossible. Advisers told Soto she needed a site and drawings to help investors imagine the finished product. "We were like, 'We don't even know what we can afford!' " she remembers with a laugh. "We know that it's important, and it's our aspiration that we're planting a seed for economic development, and really investing in this asset of being an international district for Nashville. Other than that — and the idea that we want a community center that would have space not only for Conexión Américas but for partners that would bring expertise and resources and experience that we don't have but are needed — that's all we had."

The first partner Soto approached was United Neighborhood Health Services. "When Renata brought up the idea, I was immediately there," CEO Bufwack says. "I believed in the concept." UNHS was already offering bilingual services at other clinics, but Bufwack says, "It's just always struck me as ideal to be with those ethnic community groups doing the outreach to their own communities, and let me do what we do best, which is the actual health care."

With the clinic on board, Soto says, "funders got excited." Bufwack helped scout locations. (Clinics have regulatory requirements that other kinds of agencies don't.) Before long, the project had raised about $1 million. Then came what Soto calls "the most important milestone": $1.3 million from the federal Economic Development Administration that would pay for the build-out.

The scale was daunting at times — and Bufwack remembers helping plan a similar project years earlier that ultimately failed — but after the EDA infusion, the project took on an air of inevitability as the remaining funds flowed in. The site they had chosen, a $3.2 million strip on Nolensville, met all of Conexión's most important criteria, Soto says: "It's on a bus line; it's only three-and-a-half miles from downtown; it's exactly at the core connecting this [gestures toward downtown] with this [gestures southward]; it's the gateway that we've been talking about."

Conexión Américas is known for its work in Nashville's Latino communities, but since Casa Azafrán opened in December, it has come to contain multitudes, fostering an attitude that not only values diversity but sees it as a boon to all involved.

"A couple weeks ago we had seven businesses working in here on a Friday," Davis says. "It was really cool to see. No competition for the stove or the grill. We see where one another's at, and if one person is super busy and needs to get something done, we'll jump over and give them a hand, or they'll give us a hand."

Davis recalls seeing Elvira Vasquez doing prep work to make patacones, a dish that uses green plantains — which take a long time to peel. Davis suggested placing them briefly in boiling water to rupture the skin. Just like that, Vasquez's prep time was cut in half. Chefs learn from each other. Community members learn from chefs. And people and agencies that might not otherwise interact learn from each other.

"I don't think there is any other place," Davis says, that encourages collaboration in the kitchen the way Casa Azafrán does. "There are other places that allow you to rent kitchen space, but they are very closed off." He likens those spaces to office cubicles, where "it's not geared toward building up the community within the kitchen."

Bufwack backs up that assertion. "Oftentimes you can co-locate people, but they just build silos," she says. "But [Renata] has been much more creative about not just co-locating, but how can we have the kind of cross-fertilization and intercooperation. ... Being with others enriches our services and how we provide them." The situation at Casa Azafrán has led Bufwack to ask how her clinic might work with the kitchen to do diabetes training about nutrition, or how it might use dance to promote exercise.

"There are more obvious connections with the mental health people and financial counselors," she says, but the overlaps provide all manner of opportunities. And Soto is the straw that stirs the drink, to coin a phrase. "She is really a driving force behind that," Bufwack says, "and keeps that in the front of her mind, when sometimes we can't."

Moreover, she says, "Being part of an effort like that multiplies the effectiveness of your services."

In typical fashion, Soto sees Casa Azafrán's successes in the first year as a collective win.

"It's an important milestone for me personally not because it speaks about what a great thing I did," she demurs. "I was a facilitator, maybe in the conversations that needed to happen for this to be here today."

Still, she admits her excitement at helping others participate in the new "sharing economy" — think Airbnb, Lyft and other services that distribute use across many users — in which access is more important than ownership.

"That's exactly what the kitchen is about," she says, her eyes lighting up. "For these food entrepreneurs, what propels them to the next level of what their business can become is not them owning that fancy and expensive commercial stove and oven. It is the access that makes it possible."

Mesa Komal has done so well, in fact, that it has already outgrown its space. And that bodes well for the overall project, which, while it has had its growing pains — scheduling and maintenance have taken more time and resources than originally planned — has made its mark as the anchor and beacon of Nashville's de facto international district.

Soto sees that swath of South Nashville not only as a key to Nashville's future, but also as a brand worth strengthening. To that end, Conexión Américas is applying for a grant that would further their arts-related programming, including more opportunities for artists.

"We would love for at least the bus stop that is in front of us, but maybe two more on Nolensville Road, to be amazing pieces of public art that continue to build on that character of an international district," Soto says. Part of the idea, she adds, is to "make sure that our space, even beyond the walls of Casa Azafrán, [is] uplifting aesthetically and otherwise in this important corridor."

While they get their application together, Soto and her team are simultaneously investigating the best way to grow — performance space? Banquet hall? Larger kitchen? — as one of the commercial tenants in their building prepares to leave. But Soto has plenty to look back on after a busy first year at Casa Azafrán.

"It just makes me very proud to be a Nashvillian," she says.

The feeling is mutual.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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