What is the one degree of separation that divides a city father or a Belle Meade socialite from an immigrant laborer at an Antioch pupuseria? More than likely, it's Yuri Cunza, president of the Nashville Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. In little more than a decade, Cunza has become as ubiquitous as chardonnay at the occasions where Nashville's business elite keep score—without becoming a human cheese tray.
Whether working the VIP tent at the Nashville Film Festival, or jazz night at a Murfreesboro Road soul-food kitchen, Cunza constantly presses the flesh and his agenda. He has to. The Hispanic Chamber, founded in 2000 by a group of Nolensville Road business owners, is run primarily these days from Yuri's iPhone, powered by equal parts personality and his ability to make Nashville power brokers believe in him.
"We want to reach out to the whole community," Cunza says. "Fostering integration is good for business."
Proof lies in the rainbow coalition that gives the chamber its muscle. You're just as likely to see Mayor Karl Dean at a Hispanic Chamber event as you are the Rev. Tex Thomas, the influential pastor of Jefferson Street Baptist Church, or Cerrito, the bilingual country artist. Now the organization boasts around 250 members, and when the time comes to mobilize—as in last month's bludgeoning of the English Only proposal—its punch leaves marks.
How did an out-of-towner forge such connections? Friends credit his dedication and seemingly effortless social skill. They describe Cunza's ability to walk into a room full of players, barely knowing a soul, and yet an hour later introduce two near-total strangers to each other on some common basis. They say he advances his causes through old-fashioned diplomatic arts: subtlety, genuine interest in others, and good listening.
Cunza came to Nashville from Peru in 1996 to study medicine at Vanderbilt, where his uncle is a professor. But he soon became enamored with helping Nashville's immigrant community. "It was a time where there was a need for a muscular, unified voice for Hispanics in Nashville," says Cunza. "The community was really flourishing for the first time and I wanted to play a role in that."
Recently, Cunza has made a point of improving relations with the national Hispanic Chamber, giving his organization a broader reach. "There is a very well thought-out legislative agenda that will affect all Latinos throughout the U.S.," says Cunza, who received his U.S. citizenship in 2006. "We have a voice in that discussion about economic development, housing and of course, immigration."
In addition to his chamber duties, Cunza is a writer and publisher of La Noticias, one of Nashville's most widely circulated Spanish-language newspapers. He also acts, occasionally appearing in commercials and independent films. But the chamber remains his primary focus.
"We are not a social club," says Cunza, seasoned warrior of the schmooze circuit. "We're planting a seed for the future, and that's very serious business."
Photographed at the Bicentennial Mall by Eric England