UnidosNow Begins with “U”: Interviewing Attorney CJ Czaia

By Sandy Chase

The first letter of UnidosNow—“U”—is critical to the organization’s success.  Although the name is pronounced as “oo nee dohs,” in the English alphabet U is pronounced like the word “You.”

Ten years ago, Christopher John Czaia Centeno (CJ) Czaia—a co-founder/funder—realized that promoting the Latino community began with “You”:  

  • You,” the Latino Sarasota-Manatee residents and businesses, foundations, volunteers, and other donors.
  • You,” the “Youth.” 

CJ’s mantra has always been “oración con acción” which translates to prayer with action:  Latinos must make their voices heard—participate in their community and in the political process by voting and educating themselves, for example.  

Latino parents must also encourage their children to strive for academic and career success.  In fact, CJ is passionate about empowering Latino youth because they are the core of positive change—improving their community here in Sarasota-Manatee, and the U.S. 

It is not only parents who must instill the value of education, but the entire organization and its mentors must promote this most important catalyst for change.

Believing that leadership will excel if he keeps a low profile, CJ continues to donate his time as a board member and helps fund UnidosNow—ensuring the continued existence and direction of the organization.

Saying that it’s more rewarding to give than to receive, CJ wants to leave this world feeling that he’s helped others achieve something great.

If history repeats itself, UnidosNow won’t let him down.

What prompted you to assemble the organization that founded UnidosNow?

I attended a church service where congregants were praying for immigration reform.  It was clear that people were willing to pray for change but weren’t willing to take the initiative to make the change themselves.  

I was disturbed that Latinos didn’t and—unfortunately—don’t participate in the political system—allowing others to control their lives.  The Latino community had to get involved in this great American machine—demanding they have a seat at the political table.

Jolted out of sleep, I realized that something had to be done.  Without action, prayer won’t achieve immigration reform.  If you’re a person of faith, ask G-d to give you the strength to make the change you want to see.  It’s up to you.

To make a difference, we also had to empower youth, although originally, UnidosNow was an activist group—fighting for immigration reform.  

What role did you play in the beginning?

I didn’t want to repeat mistakes of failed Latino organizations because of infighting amongst board members.  In fact, I inspired the writing of and financed the song, “Pa’lante,” encouraging Latinos to come together for the better.  For me, a small board—whose members could be the checks and balances on leadership—was ideal.

I was impressed by Sarasota Mayor Kelly Kirschner and his staunch support of disenfranchised Latinos.  His Peace Corps experience, intelligence, and exceptional ability to articulate convinced me that I needed to recruit and pay him to be the first executive director.  I saw him as a catalyst. 

How has your background contributed to the success of UnidosNow?

Born in Ceylon (known today as Sri Lanka) to a Nicaraguan mother and an American father, who was a State Department officer, I spent many of my early years living in Africa and Latin America.  Traveling around the world, I was brought up to appreciate diverse cultures—especially Latino, with its food, history, and music.    

Closer to home, I was an advocate for immigration reform as the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) chairman of the Democratic Party of Manatee County during the Obama-Biden years.  

I dealt with such political and legal issues like fighting injustice.  I’ve also been honored to be a guest at the White House and attend the Democratic convention of Florida as an invited speaker.

I’ve always had a large Latino clientele at my law practice, and I’ve been successful in recruiting many Latinos to my firm who have flourished in their own light—rewarding me personally.

As part of the UnidosNow triumvirate, with Kelly Kirschner and Luis Eduardo Baron, what challenges did you face?

Our biggest challenge was trying to get people to understand that when one group doesn’t succeed, then the whole group fails.

From Latinos, we had to deal with apathy towards political involvement.  Perhaps, more important, most parents expected that their children would find a job after graduating from high school.  College wasn’t a goal.

We had to convince Anglos that we’re all in this together.  We had to get buy-in from Sarasota-Manatee that student success lays the foundation for the community and our nation.

My personal challenge was—and still is—keeping a low profile at UnidosNow:  I didn’t want to negatively affect the organization or drive away people who didn’t share my political ideologies.

What have been the rewards?

Rewards have been personal and professional—many are intangible—but, nonetheless, invaluable.  

Meeting students and hearing how they’ve been inspired to become something great.  Listening to their stories of how each individual has been positively affected by the organization.  It’s rewarding seeing the members/staff—unselfishly giving their time and effort—bringing the UnidosNow vision into fruition. 

Over the years, we’ve been successful in recruiting outstanding executive directors. 

As a board member and past board chairman, what are some of your goals for UnidosNow?

A crucial goal is to continue promoting UnidosNow as a community organization—ensuring its viability through donations and exceptional executive directors like Luz Corcuera.  We want to continue programs that empower our youth and their families so their voices are heard.  

Another objective is to raise money so we can continue seeking out the brightest, most dedicated, influential staff, and surround ourselves with staunch advocates like executive directors and volunteers.  We envision partnerships that will allow the organization to grow so it can aid the needs of its people and the Sarasota-Manatee community at large.

A more immediate goal is to celebrate—with the Sarasota Orchestra at the Van Wezel—our 10 years.  We want to mix the cultures of both the symphony and mariachi—brainstorming ways to create a virtual event in 2021.

How do you see UnidosNow evolving?

We didn’t foresee COVID.  But we’re resolute in coming to the aid of those less fortunate.   UnidosNow has had to step in to help those who don’t have many resources, such as those who are most vulnerable.  Our summer mentoring program and our COVID resources posted on our website are just a few examples of how we’re there for our people NOW.