At Atlanta City Hall, Javier Diaz de Leon honors America Gruner of CLILA with the Mexican government's Ohtli award, which celebrates community trailblazers. She received a certificate and a medal. for the honor. Photo: Trevor Williams

Before Javier Diaz de Leon strained his vocal cords for the traditional grito — or shout — on the eve of Mexican Independence Day Sept. 15, he spent the better part of the evening yelling from the proverbial rooftops about the achievements of his constituents in metro Atlanta and beyond. 

Along with praising his hosts at the Atlanta City Hall atrium for the city’s welcoming nature and increasing diversity, he honored trailblazing Mexican-Americans for their role in changing perceptions and empowering the community. 

After some cultural performances and the presentation of both countries’ national anthems, Mr. Diaz handed out this year’s Ohtli award to America Gruner of Dalton, Ga. 

The “Ohtli,” which comes from the Nahuatl word meaning “path” — is offered by the Mexican government to those who have smoothed the way toward a better life for their compatriots in the U.S. 

Ms. Gruner was undocumented when she entered the U.S. but gradually gained citizenship, and for the last 16 years she has been fighting for the rights and dignity of Mexican workers in northwest Georgia through her nonprofit, the Coalition of Latino Leaders — known by its Spanish acronym CLILA, or the Coalición de Lideres Latinos.  

When COVID-19 arose, CLILA met the new challenge, helping organize 5,000 vaccinations and 6,600 food pantry distributions, Mr. Diaz told a packed crowd of community leaders and stakeholders gathered in the seat of Atlanta’s government. 

But this was just the latest manifestation of a sense of urgency that Ms. Gruner has exhibited for decades when it comes to assisting those in need. In an acceptance speech, she recalled how locals were unwilling to welcome immigrants, worrying that they would become a drain on resources and services. 

“They were defining us as breaking down the economy and bringing the hospitals to bankruptcy and the schools, but we were saying no, we are going to define who we are.” 

Now, about half of Dalton’s population is Hispanic, and a large chunk of that group is Mexican, with the growing Latino community providing much of the labor force that fuels the region’s manufacturing economy. The city and Whitfield County have come around; CLILA enjoys amicable relationships with government leaders, who now realize how hardworking Latinos have contributed, Ms. Gruner said. 

Though it was not mentioned, the speech took place before a national backdrop in which state officials in Texas and Florida have made waves by sending buses of migrants northward in an effort to confront the Biden administration for its border policies, actions advocates have criticized as weaponizing vulnerable populations who have the right to seek asylum in the U.S.

CLILA is training female entrepreneurs, offering classes to help immigrants gain citizenship, empowering political engagement for those who can vote and providing services to those who are detained by immigration authorities — services that were not available when Ms. Gruner first arrived. Instead of forming a nonprofit or waiting for a grant, she and others just decided to help. 

For Ms. Gruner, this is not something done for the community, but with it, and there is much more to be accomplished, despite the significant progress.  

“It’s too little when you compare it to the great need,” she said, later adding about her unrelenting impulse to serve: “We cannot stay quiet or still when we see the suffering of our community.” 

Last year’s Ohtli award, given out during the annual celebration in Gwinnett County last September, went to the Latino Community Fund for its community health work during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Mexico’s Independence Day is celebrated each year on Sept. 16, with communities all over the country to gathering on the preceding evening to re-enact through call-and-response the 1810 speech by friar Miguel Hidalgo on the church steps of Dolores, setting off the rebellion that would lead to Mexico’s independence from Spain. This year was celebrated as the 212th anniversary of independence. 

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...