Otto Merida remembers coming to Las Vegas in 1974 and thinking the city was small enough that he could make an impact. Forty-five years later, it’s clear Merida was able to do just that.
Born in Cuba, Merida, 73, came to the U.S. shortly after Fidel Castro ascended to power in 1959.
Along with the late Arturo Cambeiro, Merida later helped organize what is now known as the Latin Chamber of Commerce Nevada and served the organization’s executive director or its president for the next four decades before retiring in 2016.
“I remember thinking I would probably like Las Vegas when it was time to settle down,” Merida said. “I think I made a good decision.”
The idea for the Latin Chamber was born out of a group that Merida calls the “Cuban Circle,” which was a loosely organized Hispanic and Cuban-American group.
“It was a program that helped out people who came here from Cuba,” Merida said. “We would point people to work and things like that. The Latin Chamber of Commerce actually started in the Cuban Circle.”
While chamber of commerce organizations usually focus on business initiatives and opportunities, Merida and current Latin Chamber president Peter Guzman say it has always been important for the Latin Chamber to support social causes as well.
“A chamber does exist to help business, which is why they call it ‘commerce’,” Guzman said. “However, because this organization is as old as it is and has built such a trust with the community, yes, we are inevitably involved in social issues.”
Merida’s legacy includes a low-income housing development in the Valley, called Otto Merida Desert Villas, that consists of dozens of homes.
Merida said he’s proud of the social initiatives that have bubbled up from the Latin Chamber. In particular, he pointed to the adult day facility at the Arturo Cambeiro Senior Center, which sits just steps from the Latin Chamber building on North 13th Street.
“We wanted to have an impact on employment, economic matters and social and education matters,” Merida said. “That continues to be the mission today. Right now, we’re very involved in this community.”
The Latin Chamber has more than 1,500 members, according to Guzman. The organization also represents an active voice politically in Carson City.
“When we started the chamber, there were about 30,000 Hispanics in Southern Nevada,” Merida said. “We now have about 300,000.”
While Merida is technically retired, he maintains an office at the Latin Chamber headquarters and comes in roughly twice a week.
“Taking over for a legend, which is what Otto is, isn’t for everyone,” said Guzman, who became president in 2016. “Because he trained me well and I spent enough time with him, it was actually an easy process.”
Merida and Guzman both say they’re proud of what the Latin Chamber has become and how it continues to help Hispanic small businesses in Southern Nevada.
“We’re talking to small businesses every day and adding new businesses to our membership,” Guzman said. “When I stepped into this role, I set some goals for what I called the relevancy factor. I’m proud that my phone now blows off the ringer with legislators, political-types and CEOs all asking for our opinion before they make decisions.”
With every move he makes, Guzman knows he has a reliable and experienced person on whom to lean. He likes to call Merida his consigliere.
“I’ve known Otto since I was 15 years old, and he’s my most trusted adviser,” Guzman said. “I lean on Otto for advice, and I know he’s never going to steer me wrong. It’s nice to have him around.”