August 2020

Eric Esquivel: Breaking cultural barriers

Author: Cheryl Alexander | Photographer: M.KAT Photography

Eric Esquivel, owner/publisher of La Isla magazine, the premier Latino publication in the Lowcountry, is not only living the American Dream, but is also a product and proponent of that dream. The idea and promise of America served as the foundation of success the Esquivel family cultivated for themselves after moving here in 1983.

Esquivel’s father, a doctor and immigrant from Columbia, and his mother, of German descent from New Jersey, instilled in their children the values that he credits for much of his success. “I learned about the American Dream from my dad,” Esquivel said. “He taught me the value of hard work, ethics, and innovation.”

Esquivel’s dad came to the United States from South America on a medical scholarship. “My dad was an old-school doctor who made house calls whenever necessary, and sometimes he would bring home okra or watermelons or some other compensation as payment,” Esquivel said. “Because of his values, people loved and respected my dad at a time when there were literally no other Latinos in the area.”

In 1994, when Esquivel graduated from Hilton Head Island High School, he was one of only a few Hispanics. In fact, his dad was the first Spanish-speaking doctor in the Lowcountry, and his older brother was the first Spanish-speaking lawyer on the island.

“We really didn’t know Latino families growing up here,” he explained. “I was taught early on how to be innovative and make a difference.” In fact, one of Esquivel’s mantras is “Adapt or die.”

From his mom, Esquivel learned to be open-minded. When his mom fell in love with his dad, she also fell in love with the Latin culture, he shared. “She was a cheerleader from New Jersey and my grandfather was a renowned coach and referee in baseball, basketball, and football. We were pretty Americanized, but every summer, my mom made sure went to Columbia so we could learn about the culture. She loved it there as much as my dad.”
They spent summers with aunts, uncles, and cousins in South America who taught Esquivel what it meant to be a Latino—who they are, how they live and structure their lives. From them, also, Esquivel learned to speak the Spanish language.

In college, Esquivel learned the value of communication. He attended Hampden-Sydney College in Farmville, Virginia, the third oldest school in the U.S. and the country’s last remaining all-male school, where he graduated with a double major in Spanish and history with a focus on Latin American studies. He chose a small university because he knew he’d get personal attention and be held accountable in ways that might be diminished at a larger venue. “The school’s motto,” Esquivel said, “is ‘Enter boys, leave men.’”

One of the methods the university employed to mature their graduates was honing their communication skills: four years of rhetoric and communications were required to graduate. So, not only was he bilingual, he was able to refine the skills he would need to communicate the concepts, ideas, and examples of his Hispanic history that he learned in his travels abroad and the business models that he would learn in his future corporate job.

During college, he also took advantage of a couple of semesters abroad to immerse himself in the Hispanic language and culture—both in the Yucatan of Mexico, where he studied the indigenous cultures of Central and South America, then, in Granada, Spain, where he studied Spanish history. “It was during these travels,” Esquivel said, “that I gained perspective on how lucky we are to be Americans.”

After graduation, Esquivel took a gap year to decide his future. On a trip to Austin, Texas to visit his best friend, he bumped into one of his roommates from Spain. “I believe in serendipity,” Esquivel said, “and I always listen to divine voices.”

His friend was now working for Dell Computers in Austin and, on the spot, presented Esquivel with an opportunity to work in sales. Esquivel interviewed, was hired, and within three months had established himself as a top salesman. He was promoted and moved to Dell’s Nashville offices to help start up the business there. In Nashville, Esquivel met his wife, they married, and he stayed with Dell for four years, cultivating a new operation and gaining business savvy—both of which would soon prove priceless.

Meanwhile, back on Hilton Head Island, Esquivel’s brother, the lawyer, was busy uncovering a Lowcountry community that was about to explode. Because he was the only Spanish-speaking attorney on the island, Latinos were flooding his office with questions about legal, business, and general life issues. He was inspired to start a magazine targeted toward the Lowcountry Latin culture, where they could find resources pertinent to them, their families, and their businesses.

The entire family agreed to collaborate, and in November of 1999, the first issue of La Isla magazine was out in print. Esquivel moved back home in 2003 and immediately began to put all the experience garnered at college, in his travels and cultural studies, and at Dell to work on Hilton Head Island for the magazine.

La Isla is now a bilingual (English/Spanish) multimedia company that includes free regional monthly publications, social media, digital media, marketing, advertising, consulting, and events. Since 1999, La Isla has worked to bridge cultural gaps and create new economic growth on behalf of the entire community.

Esquivel believes that every business should be looking at the Hispanic demographic as a potential customer, as the demo continues growing, both intellectually and financially. “Every major company in the world is doing business with the Hispanic popu- lation,” he said. “There are 56 million Hispanics in the U.S. with a purchasing power of $1.7 trillion. The median age of the population in the U.S. is 27 years old, which means they effectively have 56.6 years of buying power ahead of them. That is a powerful market.”

The facts also support Esquivel’s claim that the Hispanics are the most loyal consumers any business can tap into as well as the most referral-driven and multi-generational market. “Doing business with Latinos is not as hard as everybody thinks,” Esquivel said. “Especially when you partner with La Isla, because we provide all of the infrastructure required to achieve success.”

La Isla works with their clients to help them understand the demographic and the consumer habits, and to make sure they have the proper tools to harness the new clients they get. The staff at La Isla will assist with cultural nuances, translate documents, and even help create scripts.

“Making a cultural leap within your business and adapting your business to a new demographic can be one of the most gratifying decisions any business owner can make that will inevitably lead to more successes and opportunities,” Esquivel said.

The nonprofit branch of the Esquivel’s business is the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition. It was founded in 2010 with a mission to advocate on behalf of immigrants’ rights, to provide educational opportunities to immigrants, to educate local residents about why immigrants come to the U.S. and why their presence is beneficial, and to push for overall national immigration reform. “In 2012 we challenged our state’s anti-immigrant law SB 20 and Governor Niki Haley,” Esquivel said, “and we won the case to stop the most egregious parts of the proposed law. We lobby at both the state and national level.”

In partnership with The Lowcountry Immigration Coalition, La Isla produces two festivals a year to highlight and share the Hispanic culture: Taco Fest in May and the Latin Music Festival in October. Both events take place at Shelter Cove Community Park and attract thousands of attendees. 

For more information, visit laislamagazine.com and/or latinxtoday.com, or call (843) 681-2393.

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