Wilfredo Léon: The Bridge Builder
Sixth in our series in partnership with the Hispanic Alliance
By Lindsey Tabor
Photos by TJ Getz of GetzCreative Photography
“August 20th, 1985. That’s when I became ‘Latino,’” he claims. “Before that, I was just a regular guy.”
Wilfredo Léon had just committed to move himself, his wife, two kids and two dogs to South Carolina. When completing his human resources orientation for Digital Equipment Corporation in Greenville, he recalls being shown a box on his documents that said “Latino,” and was told that if he checked that box, it would help his company with their diversity numbers. He complied, and instantly assumed an identity that would define the rest of his life.
Wilfredo’s new category, a Latino businessman, marked him as a rare breed in Greenville in the 1980s. He had unwittingly settled in an area that would see not only 1,543 percent growth in its Hispanic population from 1990 - 2021, but would also become increasingly politicized around issues of immigration.
Yet demographic identifiers are not what made him an effective businessman and remarkable community leader. Wilfredo Léon succeeded by observing and serving the needs of the people around him, a way of life he brought with him from his Puerto Rican family.
His mother, Conchita Bonilla, was a businesswoman who owned a restaurant and several country inns in Puerto Rico. She never turned away anyone who was hungry or without shelter.
When a heavily pregnant mother was stranded by her husband at one of her inns, the family took her in. After disappearing in a taxi and returning after giving birth with no baby, she revealed that she had given her little girl away to the hospital janitor. The family searched for the infant and the janitor released the child to them willingly. “That baby is now my adopted sister,” Wilfredo explains. “That was the environment that molded me, and created my social conscience.”
In Greenville, Wilfredo turned his attention to instances of inequity and opportunity for his fellow minority businesspeople. Extending his company role as purchasing director, he founded and chaired the board of the Foothills Minority Supplier Development Council in 1988, which ensured that large corporations were purchasing at least 5 percent of their inventory from minority-owned companies.
Wilfredo got to know the Colombian community that had settled in Greenville in the 1970s, as part of the then-booming textile industry, and began to comprehend the condition of the average Latino worker. A Honduran friend also took the relatively affluent Léon on poverty tours of pockets of Hispanic families, who lived destitute and disconnected from community resources.
“She showed me places where Latinos lived that I could not believe. We talked to people about the issues affecting them,” he recalls.
From consulting with local leaders, he determined that awareness and information were top priorities for these neighborhoods. He would start a printed periodical in Spanish to provide knowledge on issues affecting the community, and strategies for a better life. The Latino Newspaper, the first in Spanish in South Carolina, began printing in February of 1996, opening an entirely new niche market born from empathy for others.
Latino Newspaper solidified Wilfredo’s role in the Hispanic community, and placed him at the center of advocacy on Hispanic issues. He served on Gov. Jim Hodges’ Latino Task Force in 1999, using his statewide visibility to moderate town hall meetings and making recommendations based on the pressing needs of Latinos. This eventually led to the S.C. Commission on Minority Affairs incorporating official representation for Latinos for the first time.
In 2005, Latino Newspaper reported on the birth of a small cross-cultural coalition called the ACCH (Alianza para la Colaboración en la Comunidad Hispana), which formed to connect the Hispanic community to resources and relationships in the broader community. He covered the ACCH response to the Columbia Farms immigration raid of 2008, which separated hundreds of families, and was personally instrumental in helping that organization grow into what is today Hispanic Alliance. In 2019, the Hispanic Alliance Legacy award was presented to Wilfredo to honor his decades of impact on the Hispanic community of South Carolina.
Wilfredo never wavered in his commitment to standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the underserved. His authentic care for the entire community allowed him to broker unlikely partnerships and form coalitions that continue to empower Hispanics today. After working tirelessly as anchor of trust and truth throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, Wilfredo Léon was named one of Greenville Business Magazines 50 Most Influential of 2020.
Wilfredo’s legacy is a prime model of building bridges of business, culture and influence between Hispanic and mainstream cultures. “There are different ways to go about helping people,” he says. “I really have a passion for what I call institutional methods to reach more people. Instead of creating a society within a society, it is a lot better for everyone to be in the same society.”
Now that he has laid the framework for a united future, it is up to a new generation of business and community leaders to make use of and expand the cross-cultural bridges constructed for our benefit.
“The vision and selfless work of Wilfredo built bridges of opportunity for my generation and modeled the future of leadership for the Hispanic community. It is our duty to continue this work to create new and unlimited pathways of possibility for the rising generation,” says Adela Mendoza, executive director of the Hispanic Alliance.
“You don’t know,” Wilfredo says, considering those coming after him, “the feeling of accomplishment that comes from knowing that the next generation is here, ready to take things to the next level...that makes me extremely happy.”