by Richard Oceguera
Subject: Mercedes Cano, Esq.
Name of Business: Law Offices of Mercedes Cano
Helping People Since: 2000
Number of Employees: 5
Location: 40-26 82nd Street, Jackson Heights, Queens 11373
How old were you when you first came to the United States?
I was 16 and I came from Colombia.
Out of all of the cities in the world, why did you pick NYC?
I think immigrants usually pick a place where there is someone who can receive you. I had an aunt here so it made sense at the time. The reason why I decided to stay here is more important than why I came. I came to escape the oppressive “straight” culture of Colombia at that time. Going back to my country at that time would mean being forced to get married. That’s what women were raised for at that time. And it’s like that to a great extent still. I knew I had to stay here.
What was it like for you when you first came?
There was no bilingual education. I lived in the Bronx and it was very hard. No friends, no contacts and no language. My aunt was not a wealthy woman so the opportunities were very limited. So I went to high school. But the difficulty at the time was that I couldn’t understand what was going on! Bilingual education hadn’t started at that time. When high school was over my family in Colombia wanted me to go back home. I knew I couldn’t that so I had to go out on my own. My aunt gave me a plane ticket back to Colombia and said I had to go. But good thing I was young! I took that ticket and cashed it in, packed my big army bag with my teddy bear and headed out into the world of New York City. I had no contacts, no documents and no place to go. So I slept on trains and tried to find work.
One day I ended up on the 7 train and I landed in Queens where I met this beautiful Spanish woman. I asked her if she knew where I could get work and she took me under her wing that day.
From sleeping on the subway to becoming a US Citizen to becoming an award winning attorney, there must have been something inside you that gave you the inspiration to strive for a better life. What was that?
It has been a journey! I think it’s basic; all humans have the desire to survive. But I had a passion to get an education and to make it. I just don’t give up. When I really think something is worth it, I really go all the way. I worked in factories, even a gay bar for one night and all kinds of places. Eventually I became stable. I drove a taxi for 10 years. The entire time I was determined to continue my education and eventually I was able to get into school. I graduated cum laude from Queens College with a degree in English Literature and that was one of my biggest victories. From there I went to CUNY School of Law. When I completed law school I knew I needed to go back to the immigrant community in Queens to help people. The call was to help other people avoid all of the pain that I had endured as I made my way in the US. Soon after, I founded the Centro Communitario to help immigrant families. We reached at least 1,700 families with free information and education on how to make it in the US.
What made you interested in the law?
Since I was very little I’ve had an incredible empathy for people who suffer. My family back home was middle class so we had what we needed and I was always trying to find ways to help the poor. It’s ingrained in me. How do I give a little bit to help? I think it was that that led me to the law.
What area of law do you specialize in?
Immigration. Every thing about immigration. Citizenship, professional visas, defending deportations, criminal defense. We also help small businesses in Queens to avoid litigation. I give workshops to educate these businesses on the I-9 form eVerify. It’s possible to open a business when you are not a citizen but you have to be careful; especially if it is a bar. We give them simple and helpful advice so they can start up the right way.
|Ms. Cano speaks after receiving her membership pin at the September 2012 M3: Members' Monthly Mixer hosted by New York Life.|
In 2011 you were awarded the Citation for Exemplary Service to the Community. How did this happen?
Mayor Bloomberg picked 31 women who are making a difference in New York City. A video was made of each woman and a different video was played in cabs for a full day. So here I am a former cabbie now with my own video playing the back! But the interesting thing is the Mayor picked one of us to speak at a special event at the MOMA in Manhattan and I was the one!
And more recently, I was elected Vice President of the Latino Lawyers Association of Queens County. I’ll hold this role for three years and it’s very important because we support issues that come up for Latino attorneys via writs of law; things such as gay marriage and the stop and frisk legislation to name a few.
Why did you join NGLCCNY and what do you hope to get from it?
I’ve been so busy with the immigrant community that I haven’t had the time to get involved with the gay community. But now, I think I’ve reached a level in my career that my office runs very smoothly and I don’t have to do everything on my own. So I can now get involved in the gay community with my people. Now I want to make time for me and for feeling at home. I want to meet people in my community who speak my language (gay), who understand my needs.
Who inspires you?
Hard working people. The business owner who works hard every day trying to make it. That is the person who inspires me.
Queens or Manhattan?
Queens now! Manhattan is on the horizon at some point.
Richard Oceguera is CEO of Merchant Mart USA and the founding President of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce New York. He’s an Entrepreneur, Business Coach and Visionary Community Leader. Follow him at www.RichardOceguera.com and @RichardOceguera on Twitter.