Maria Monreal-Cameron '63
SJA graduate Maria Monreal-Cameron, '63, moves her community forward
Published November 2016
Maria Monreal-Cameron, '63, is filled with passion, perseverance, and an enduring drive to elevate the lives of others. Her take on life can be summarized by her mantra, which she coined for the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin (HCCW) during her tenure there: “Adelante Juntos,” meaning “Forward Together.”
Monreal-Cameron is the ninth of thirteen children born to Mexican immigrants. Her parents first lived in Texas, then became some of the earliest Mexican settlers in Milwaukee after hearing of opportunities for success for them and their children. Monreal-Cameron had a strict upbringing that instilled a strong work ethic and a determination to succeed. Her parents valued a Catholic education and felt that St. Joan Antida High School (SJA) would be a positive environment in which to further her upbringing. She was the first girl in her family to attend SJA and led the way for her three younger sisters to also attend: Isabel, ’64, Guadalupe, ’66, and Mary Helen, ’68.
Monreal-Cameron’s time at SJA was formative; she learned how to embrace her core values and make them part of her everyday life and persona.
“SJA gave me a well-rounded education, and the environment there made it possible for me to thrive,” Monreal-Cameron recalled.
The Sisters who taught at SJA nurtured the traits of companionship and discipline – traits which helped direct the future career of Monreal-Cameron.
“We found that we had lifelong friends in the Sisters. We can still go to them. And Sister Mary Giovanna saw in me potential, and guided me in a sweet and compassionate way,” she said.
SJA’s emphasis on togetherness and growth is a thread that runs through Monreal-Cameron’s impressive 24-year career with the HCCW. After high school, Monreal-Cameron was accepted to the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, but at the time her parents needed her to work instead and support her younger siblings. Since then, she’s built an impressive career and has been awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Cardinal Stritch University.
“I’m a champion of higher education because it’s necessary now. And education is mobile wealth – no one can ever take that away from you,” she said on the subject of college.
Monreal-Cameron’s years post-high school were spent being a mother to her children and finding ways to stay involved in the Hispanic community. She helped grow Mexican Fiesta, the annual cultural appreciation event that raises money for scholarship awards to advance the education of Hispanic students; she also served on the board of Catholic Social Services, the first of more than 40 board and committee positions she has held throughout her lifetime.
Monreal-Cameron’s involvement with the HCCW began in 1989 as her youngest child was preparing to start high-school, leaving Monreal-Cameron with more flexibility in serving her community. At the time, the HCCW was up-and-coming, and relatively unknown, even to Monreal-Cameron.
“I went to meet the president to learn more, and I agreed to a limited contract [as President & CEO]. But after one week with the HCCW, I knew that was what I wanted to do,” Monreal-Cameron said of her initiation into the HCCW.
She knew about businesses and how to budget, having assisted in her family-owned restaurant that had been open for more than 25 years. This experience and her involvement in the Hispanic community made her a good fit for the HCCW, whose mission is to create, nurture, and grow Hispanic-owned businesses.
“It was exhausting and demanding, but opening doors to opportunities is rewarding. It was truly a labor of love,” said Monreal-Cameron.
Monreal-Cameron’s persistence, enthusiasm, and dedication to helping others formed the HCCW into the impactful organization it is today. Her leadership reflected her ideals and that “Forward Together” mantra.
“I believe in paying it forward; when I took a step forward, I would grab the hand of another woman to come along,” she stated. Her work at the HCCW followed the same ideal, fostering healthy competition among Hispanic-owned businesses alongside their counterparts.
“I didn’t want our businesses to be segregated; I wanted them to work in conjunction with other Chambers of Commerce in the area, for us to all grow together. I wanted to level the playing field,” she said.
Another way in which Monreal-Cameron’s work leveled the playing field was through her creation of HCCW’s Education Fund/Philip Arreola Scholarship Program, named after Milwaukee’s first Latino Police Chief and vocal supporter of the fund. She introduced the idea to the board after only a few years with HCCW, when their resources were still extremely limited. However, she saw the connection between growing Hispanic businesses now and educating the Hispanic youth who would one day go on to own such businesses. Since its inception, this scholarship program has awarded more than $650,000 in scholarships to Hispanic students in need.
When Monreal-Cameron reflects on her 24 years at the HCCW, she is proud of all that she and her staff accomplished and the impact they’ve had on the Hispanic community.
“The difficult I tried to do right away; the impossible took a little bit longer,” she said only partly in jest.
Monreal-Cameron’s career with the HCCW has changed the landscape for the Hispanic community across the state and the country. The HCCW now represents the interests of more than 10,000 Hispanic-owned companies in Wisconsin and drives legislature at federal, state, and local levels. Monreal-Cameron is now retired from the HCCW, but she’s far from idle. She’s actively involved in 12 different boards and committees, and is still a strong voice in her community.
“It’s important to let people know there are other people like me – we can all share our strengths,” she said on the importance of being active in her community.
She is particularly glad to serve on the Board and the Communications Committee of the Alzheimer’s Association of Southeastern Wisconsin. This involvement is deeply personal to her, as her husband Ed Cameron suffered from the onset of dementia due to Alzheimer’s.
“Alzheimer’s takes so much and leaves so little. It’s devastating. I’m glad to be able to make the plight public – it merits every funding dollar,” she said. Ed passed away in in 2011 with Monreal-Cameron at his side.
Monreal-Cameron also remains involved in other community projects.
“I’m really excited about the ‘Many Faces One Humanity’ project – it will open some eyes,” she gushed.
The project is, in part, a collaboration with local photographer Sherry Lemke, whom Monreal-Cameron met via the HCCW. Monreal-Cameron is the President of the Board of Directors for Many Faces One Humanity™, which has grown from Lemke’s art exhibit into a non-profit organization with a full awareness campaign.
“When you look under the skin, we’re all the same, and I’d like people to be kind and accepting of one another,” Monreal-Cameron said of the project’s importance.
Monreal-Cameron has impacted the lives of many in her community and across the state, all while living by her own ideal of adelante juntos. Her deep spiritual and moral beliefs have carried her from high school to parenthood to a successful career, all based on her dedication to helping those around her to be successful. We can’t wait to see what project Monreal-Cameron brings to life next.
Maria Monreal-Cameron, ’63, has received honors and awards too numerous to mention. Highlights include: