Stephen Chavez, recognized for his expertise in connecting with multicultural communities, is an award-winning public relations strategist with expertise in the Hispanic marketplace, media relations and influencer engagement. He is president and CEO of ChavezPR, based in Los Angeles, and leads as the president of the Public Relations Society of America, Los Angeles Chapter. He serves as a board member of the Latino Equality Alliance, an LGBTQ+ nonprofit, and is past national president of the Hispanic Public Relations Association.

Stephen Chavez, recognized for his expertise in connecting with multicultural communities, is an award-winning public relations strategist with expertise in the Hispanic marketplace, media relations and influencer engagement. He is president and CEO of ChavezPR, based in Los Angeles, and leads as the president of the Public Relations Society of America, Los Angeles Chapter. He serves as a board member of the Latino Equality Alliance, an LGBTQ+ nonprofit, and is past national president of the Hispanic Public Relations Association.

by Samira Felix
photography by Kim Toth

Stephen Chavez, a man with many hats—or in his case fedoras—has created a remarkable career as a public relations practitioner, organization leader, journalist and professor. These roles have led him to where he is today as president of the Public Relations Society of America, Los Angeles; board chair of the Latino Equality Alliance; and president of his own company ChavezPR.  

“People think I’m crazy; they ask me why I’m doing this while also having my own business and being involved in various organizations. And again, I blame my parents because that’s the active gene they put in me,” Stephen says while chuckling.

Perhaps he gained his taste for hard work while a student at the University of La Verne. First a drama major, then a journalism major, he was editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, the Campus Times, spring semester of 1989. He says he spent much time in the newsroom with other students who he felt were like-minded and took pride in the work that they did as journalists. Professors and counselors taught him and the other students about ethics in journalism, about being curious, and about asking questions to be able to bring to light the truth of various matters. He also learned how to look at different sides to a story. “I loved being able to feed my creative side with more of the feature writing, doing the columns, and from an editorial standpoint, I had a voice.”

After graduating from the University with a journalism degree in 1989, he became a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and then The Morning Call Daily newspaper in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where he sharpened his skills as a writer. During that time, he was writing two to three stories per day, so his life revolved around breaking news stories. “You either love it—you’re either a news junkie and you love it and you want more of it—or you don’t, and at that time I loved it.”

Stephen Chavez grew up in Pico Rivera, California with his parents and two older brothers, whom he describes as being incredibly supportive.

From an early age, he learned by watching his parents that it was important to be active in his community. His father was a schoolteacher and eventually a school principal. His mother was involved in the parent-teacher association at his school before being hired as a teacher’s aide. She later became involved in politics and ran successfully for the school board. She served on the El Rancho Unified School Board for about 16 years. When she died in 2001, she was the acting Board president.

Stephen says that his parents also involved him and his brothers in many activities, some of them being Cub Scouts, Little League, football and basketball. But his real interests lay in theater arts, so he was involved in his church choir and acted in many plays throughout his elementary and high school years. “That sense of activism came into me early on and also my other brothers, but they have their families and children, so they got involved with their kids,” Stephen says. “I’ve always remained more involved at the civic ladder level, getting involved with different organizations.”   

After high school, Stephen matriculated at the University of La Verne, which he describes as the perfect place for him. “La Verne turned out to be the best place for me to go for several reasons, from the small intimate feeling you had in the classrooms to the size of the campus from a physical standpoint.”

He went into the University as a drama major, “And if I have any regret, it’s the fact that I allowed my own fear to block me from pursuing it,” he says. In his freshman year, he was cast in a play, and people around him kept telling him that he had talent because he was the only freshman to be cast. “Everywhere I turned, people were white, and blonde and blue-eyed,” Stephen says. “I didn’t see many people who looked or sounded like me when I watched the movies. And I just thought to myself, ‘This is going to be hard, and I don’t know if I have the stamina, the strength to take the rejection.’” 

This led him to pursue journalism because he knew that he enjoyed his English classes and writing, so he took an introduction to journalism class and loved it. “I realized, OK, ‘I can do this, and I could be successful at it,’ and I saw more people like me in it,” Stephen says. “Even though back then—this was the ’80s—there weren’t a lot of Latino journalists. But there were a lot more Latino journalists than there were Latino actors. It seemed more attainable.” 

In 1992, Stephen created a nonprofit organization called the Pico Rivera Peace Project, which was centered around stopping gun violence. This organization was in honor of his 14-year-old goddaughter whom he lost due to gun violence after a couple of Latina gang members started fighting outside a party in East Los Angeles. This experience made him realize that his community, Pico Rivera, had its own gun violence issues, but nothing was being done about it, so he took it upon himself to do something. He says complaining about the gun violence in Pico Rivera was not going to do anything, so he decided to create partnerships between the city, schools, businesses and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The Project helped bring resources in like after-school programs for children to get involved with and to keep them away from gangs. The Project dissolved a few years later as it became hard to maintain the nonprofit organization with its fiscal responsibility. “I just got so busy with work and my career, and I couldn’t devote the time it needed.”

During this time, Stephen made the switch from the Los Angeles Times and The Morning Call Daily newspapers to the American Red Cross where he performed public relations duties. Whenever there was any kind of disaster, the American Red Cross was there to provide shelter, food and clothing. His job during these times was to communicate with the media. He also worked to communicate all the relief efforts to potential donors and volunteers. This included newsletter writing and press releases. After a year and a half, he was picked by a public relations agency in Los Angeles that introduced him to the world of agency life. “I loved it. I loved being able to be part of different teams on different accounts, so every day was something different. Every hour felt like something different,” Stephen says with a big smile on his face. “Today is the same way, I look at my to-do list, and I’ve got six different companies that I’m doing PR for right now. Each of them has a different campaign going with different clients, and I’m still using those skills that I learned at La Verne: interviewing, writing, research, note taking and connecting with someone at a level where you build trust.” 

The switch from journalism to public relations was a natural transition for him because he had experience as a journalist, so he knew what made a story work for a journalist. He says he instinctively knew the kind of people they would need as spokespeople to allow journalists to interview them to get quotes. He also had many connections since he was involved in journalism organizations like the California News Media Association, National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the Los Angeles Press Club. “I was trying to facilitate conversations and nurture relationships between my clients and the journalists, knowing that the journalist would get a better story, and my client would be happier,” Stephen says. 

Valarie De La Garza, chief executive officer for Fenton, has known Stephen since 1994 when they both began working at the same company. She says Stephen is incredibly passionate and committed to everything he does, which she thinks are the biggest factors in communications. “Stephen puts his full self into everything that he does. He doesn’t go half in, he’s fully committed,” she says. “It isn’t just work, it’s personal.” 

Sometime in 2010, when he felt burnt out and frustrated working at a public relations organization that was not his, Stephen founded his own agency, ChavezPR. “I think back in 2010 I was ready to take that leap of faith, take the risk and go off on my own. It has been a rollercoaster of a ride. There’s a lot of ups and downs with being a small business owner,” he says. 

Much of his uncertainty came with being a business owner because projects ended, and he did not know when the next client would come along. In between the uncertainty, he still had bills to pay because he had a home, a car and credit card statements. “You’ve got to hunker down and either sort of dig in and say, ‘You know what, this is going to make me hungrier,’ or there are people who say, ‘You know what, this isn’t for me. I like getting paid every two weeks.’ I happened to be one of those people who said, ‘I’m not going to give up. I’m going to keep going,’” Stephen says with a chuckle. 

Through the years, Stephen has worked with nonprofits like Big Brothers, Big Sisters of America to help them recruit what they call “bigs” which are Latino mentors. He has worked with the National Court Appointed Special Advocates where he helped recruit volunteers to work with foster children. He has also worked with healthcare organizations, including Kaiser Permanente, the Department of Health Services and the National Institute of Health, which was a national media relations and blogger campaign where he worked with influencers. He says his specialty is food, which has led him to work with Dreyer’s Ice Cream, McDonalds and Nestle. Stephen says he mostly works with Hispanic populations, but not always. “I’m a PR person and being Latino is a plus,” he says. 

Today, he is working with the Museum of Latin American Art and with an immigration law firm that is working with immigrants to get their papers. He is also working with a national real estate company on a Latino empowerment project while also helping the California Latino Legislative Caucus with its 50th-anniversary event. The Northgate Market is one of his clients too.

His list of career roles does not end there; he is often an adjunct professor at the University of La Verne. He says he enjoys being able to allow students to explore the world of public relations outside of a textbook by sharing personal case studies and bringing past clients and colleagues to speak to his students about their experiences and journeys. “I had great students, people who are interested in the field of PR and gave it their all,” he says. 

Stephen was also able to turn that “fear” he faced during college into a strength that allows him to pursue leadership opportunities and to change the status quo for the better. Prior to being asked to be a leader of PRSA-LA, he devoted his time to the National Hispanic Public Relations Association where he felt comfortable because he was around Hispanic professionals. Stephen says he was not sure whether he could make a difference at PRSA-LA because of his ethnicity and because most of the professionals on the PRSA-LA board were white. He chose to leave his comfort zone to break out and be visible by leading in the PRSA-LA chapter.

Stephen was elected PRSA-LA president for 2023 and was recently re-elected for 2024, which he says is an honor because the position is usually a one-year term. During his time as president, he has seen a difference in the diversity on the Board. He says 65% of the Board members come from diverse backgrounds. Before him, the Board was made up of 15% people of color. But now minorities are the PRSA-LA Board’s majority. “I think we reflect L.A. County, so much better with that diversity than we had before,” Stephen says. “I’m getting feedback from members saying that it feels like a new day for PRSA—more welcoming, more inclusive.” 

At PRSA-LA, Stephen helps further its mission of providing professional development opportunities to people in the public relations industry by helping them make connections, learning about new jobs, gaining new skills with webinars and providing networking opportunities.

Besides being president of PRSA-LA, Stephen was recently appointed board chair of the Latino Equality Alliance. As a gay man, he felt it was important to be visible because he saw studies that many Latinos did not vote for the same-sex marriage proposition the first time it came up. He says that there were two reasons why people in his community, Pico Rivera, did not vote for the same-sex marriage proposition: religious reasons and because they did not know anyone who was gay. “I needed to be visible as a gay man with my own community, so when they think about it, ‘Oh, I know Stephen’s gay, and he’s got a partner, and they want to get married. I love his partner. They’re nice. Why are we not supporting this, right?’” 

Once the same-sex marriage proposition passed, Stephen stayed involved in LEA by helping in any way he could, whether that was volunteering at events, fundraisers, writing press releases or helping with the organization’s social media. He was asked to be on its Board in 2017. The LEA advocates for equality and safety for the LGBTQ+ community in Los Angeles. The organization provides educational programs, mental health opportunities and therapy for not only students who may be coming out, but for parents who have family members who are homophobic to learn how to communicate amongst themselves. Stephen adds that it is important for parents to stand up for their children because rejection can force children to stay in the closet, which hurts their expression and who they are. “Getting them to be at a point where they can have the skills in either English or Spanish to stand up for their kid with their friends and with their family members and say, ‘No, this is mi hijo. This is my daughter. We love them for whatever they are, and we need you to love them too or go on, we don’t need you.’”  

With tears in his eyes, Stephen recalls the phone call he received from his mom while he was at work when she learned from a friend that he was gay. “And [she was] crying not because I was gay, but crying because I didn’t trust her enough to tell her, and that she loved me no matter what,” he says. He adds that he never really talked to his father about being gay because his father was incredibly open, which Stephen believes comes from him being a school principal. “It wasn’t a big deal for him,” he says. “I remember with my first partner we moved to Whittier, and my dad bought us our bed. We’ve never talked about it, but when it came time to get the bed, he pulled out his credit card. He wanted to get that for us without saying anything about it.” Stephen says that it was his father’s way of telling him he loved him. 

Stephen and his husband Art Rodriguez have also opened their home to foster two children. “That has been the most strenuous experience because you’re dealing with a broken system,” Stephen says. “Foster care is a broken system, and you not only have the responsibility of the children, but there’s a lot of reporting. You’re meeting with social workers, case managers, their parents and their families dealing with that dysfunction because they’re still in their lives.” Although fostering has been a challenge, Stephen says with a smile it makes him happy. 

De La Garza has witnessed Stephen and Rodriguez be foster parents, and she says it is a gift to be in their care. “They’re so passionate and love children and love these children in particular. But I think to myself, ‘Oh, my gosh, they have no idea; one day, they will know that they have been touched by somebody so special, who gives everything and goes all in.’”

To unwind from his busy career, Stephen enjoys traveling, cooking, trying new food, going to the movie theaters and swimming in his new pool. He says that his family recently moved because he wanted a swimming pool, and now that they have the pool, he spends most of his warm weather time in between work outside taking a dip in the water. He also tries to relax as much as he can with family and friends to ease their minds regarding his busy schedule. “I’ve had family and friends both share their concerns that I’m stretching myself too far, too thin,” Stephen says. “And I hear them, but I don’t know how else to live and feel fulfilled that I’m doing everything I can do in this life that is going to make a difference and an impact. I know I would not be happy unless I was doing all this stuff.”

Celebrating Latinx Food Heritage

Driven by his passion of loving food, traveling and celebrating his Latinx heritage, Stephen Chavez and his husband Art Rodriguez created a food blog, LatinoFoodie, in 2011 to share their favorite Mexican food recipes. 

The idea of the food blog came to Stephen at a conference workshop with food bloggers, who talked about the places, taste festivals and restaurants they were being invited to. Because of their blogs, everything was comped. “I thought to myself, OK, with Art’s culinary background, my writing and marketing skills, we could have a blog,” Stephen says. “I came home and said, ‘We’re starting a food blog, and it’s going to be called LatinoFoodie.’” 

Stephen also has a passion for cooking, which he learned to do from his mom. Art has expertise in recipe testing and development, which was a motivating factor in starting their blog. Through LatinoFoodie, Stephen and Art aim to honor their mothers by using their recipes and adding their own twist to them. 

Stephen explains that blogging requires much work and constantly needs new content, which the blog has not received since February. “I don’t have a lot of time anymore. So, unfortunately, the food blog hasn’t been receiving as much love as it should be,” he says. 

Even so, on their LatinoFoodie website you can find detailed reviews for annual events and food, their travel blogs, and recipes for Mexican dishes like Chile con carne, menudo rojo, mole poblano, a Mexican breakfast collection and many more recipes.

 

Samira Felix is a senior journalism major at the University of La Verne and editor in chief of the Summer 2024 issue of La Verne Magazine.

Kim Toth is a senior photography major at the University of La Verne and photography editor of the Winter 2024 La Verne Magazine.