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VOL. 43 | NO. 36 | Friday, September 6, 2019

Spanish speakers turn to Paz to untangle IRS tax bill

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Amy Paz, owner of PazTax, helps immigrants and other Spanish speakers understand the IRS and pay their tax bill. 

-- Photo By Tim Ghianni |The Ledger

The memory of her brother, Carlos – murdered by one of the gangs that have made El Salvador a wellspring for the stream of refugees seeking asylum or illegal safety at our border – is never far from the surface of Amy Paz’s emotions … even as she builds a successful tax and accounting business whose aim is to help those immigrants.

“He was stabbed,” she says, directing her eyes away from me for a moment as I sit facing her in the PazTax office that specializes in helping Hispanic customers untangle the strange and mystic world of the Internal Revenue Service.

If you think our tax procedures are difficult in English and you are a citizen … consider how daunting they could be for a Spanish-speaking resident, illegal or legal.

I speak English fairly well, but I still have to hire a guy to help me figure out how much to pony up every April to fund the never-ending war in Afghanistan, Trump’s illusive spiked wall and presidential chum-fests with a former KGB operative (and putative assassin) and that little, fat guy in North Korea.

Amy’s company offers free advice in Spanish, deciphering taxes and other business matters, shooing away trepidation and earning the trust and, eventually, the business of fellow immigrants.

“We teach the community lessons about taxes,” says Amy, who has at least three elephants and a giraffe sculpture on the shelves of her office which otherwise is decorated with diplomas and certificates noting successes at Nashville State and as an undergrad and grad scholar at MTSU and professionally.

“I just like elephants,” she explains. “They say elephants are for good luck, but that’s not why I have them. More at home.”

She and her husband, Miguel, her top aide, show me where the free classes are offered in their 2,700-square-foot complex of office space and conference rooms inside the gray brick building at 1645 Murfreesboro Pike, just across the highway from the airport and one of its many satellite lots.

“This is where we teach them,” Amy says, showing off her company’s large seminar room.

On this day, the desks are crowned by computers, there to help clients learn online tax programs. “We charge for those, because once they learn how to do those, we won’t get any money for preparing their taxes,” adds Amy, offering a bright chuckle.

The rest of the classes, at least one per month, with 32 seats filled with Latinos (they’ve hosted as many as 50 guests), are free and in the language of choice and clarity.

“We teach them about taxes, business, good business practices. We do it free. They are offered in Spanish because that’s where the need is: in the Hispanic community.”

Up until she and Miguel moved to this building in June 2018, they were operating from a 10-by-12 office space, their third location this decade.

“I worked from home the first two years,” Amy, 42, says of the business she opened in 2010. “Then I started getting a little bit overwhelmed because of people in the house and lack of privacy.

“The third year, we rented out a space at an insurance office, then rented the 10-by-12 office suite on Perimeter Drive for about five years. That’s where my business started growing.”

It was during that growth phase in 2016 that Miguel, almost 34, joined the business founded by his wife. Before that he had been an IT vendor working for the state lottery.

“Miguel is from Honduras,” Amy says, brown eyes smiling. “So, we both are Central Americans. He also immigrated when he was 9 (I’ll talk about her trek to this country at that same age shortly). We met while we both were working at Sam’s Club in 2003. We married in 2004.”

“It was love at first sight. I knew she was the one,” says Miguel, who knows he hit the jackpot in the personal and professional coupling that has him bringing IT expertise to the family business.

While not fleeing killer gangs, his own family was bolting from corruption and hate when moving to what most, for now at least, still regard as the land of the free, home of the brave.

“It was politics,” he says of the reason his parents moved from Honduras. “My father supported the wrong candidate.”

His father’s top position at a bank and the family coffee farm were victims of what surely was a not-so-secret ballot in that Latin-American republic. “All of that (his dad’s success) started crumbling, so they (his parents) moved to Los Angeles and then to Amarillo, Texas, where we (five children) joined them and grew up.”

Miguel later ventured on his own to Nashville because of its opportunities and, I joke to him, “obviously to find a beautiful woman to marry.” He says that second opportunity wasn’t a motivation “but it worked out that way.”

Amy says Miguel “handles everything” and refers to him as the firm’s “manager.”

Miguel wisely deflects the praise, instead nodding toward his wife. “She’s the boss. She’s great to work with. She has so much knowledge to be able to know everything she knows.

“She’s a great boss. Picky, but that’s good: Our business entails a lot of numbers for our clients.”

At home are the couple’s two kids, Josue Murillo, 18, and Daniel Murillo, 15. While they are not a part of the business, they are important to this story because the two young men, who Amy and Miguel refer to as their “two children,” really are their nephews, the children of Carlos, whose defiance of the gangs sparked the blood-spattered retribution that orphaned his kids.

When Amy discusses how and why the two boys became a part of their lives in 2015, her eyes tear up, her voice breaks and she looks across the office for Miguel’s reassurance and reinforcement of her still-raw emotions.

The boys discovered “The American Dream” because their dad, Carlos, was murdered about five years after they lost their mother to cancer, Amy explains slowly.

Carlos was 40 and had a cyber-café in Santa Ana, El Salvador – the family’s hometown – when he started having trouble with the gangs that roam the streets, terrorizing and murdering, fueling an anarchic hopelessness among the citizens, many of whom see their only hope in the 2,000-mile parade bound for the U.S.A.

Amy, directing her eyes to the desk surface, addresses the bloodbath that turned her homeland into the world’s homicide capital: “In 2015, when my brother was murdered, there were 4,000 murders a year in El Salvador.” As an example of the bloody anarchy, “The Guardian” news source reported there was a murder an hour during August of that year in the country virtually run by gangs and their death squads.

“He had a small business, and when you have a small business, if you don’t pay up, they threaten you. They threaten your family,” she says of Carlos’ cyber-cafe, where customers “rented” time on his computers.

The rest of the business was devoted to selling pastries, Coke, other food for consumption not just by the computer users, but for general walk-in traffic.

“It was like a quick shop,” Amy adds, trying to describe the thriving business.

Basically, what the Salvadoran thugs were running was (and still are, I’m sure) the old-fashioned protection racket, honed to perfection by American organized crime going all the way back to the days depicted by DeNiro’s young Vito Corleone in “Godfather II.”

“In El Salvador, if you don’t pay up, they threaten to kill you, then they kill you, then they threaten and kill your family,” Amy recalls.

She expresses hope in a new Salvadoran president who has sworn to end the long-standing crime wave. Even when she was a kid, she notes, the street dangers sparked curfews as early as 6 p.m. The bad guys owned the night shift.

“They had asked Carlos for money that he wouldn’t give, and they killed him,” she says. “Then they went to his house to try to steal from it or harm the kids.

“Fortunately, Carlos lived in a gated community, so the two guards didn’t let them in….” She draws a silent breath. “Those guards were killed when they ended their shift.”

There likely would have been more attacks on the boys and the house, but after the murders, “a lot of guards” began manning the gates.

“The next day, my mother and I flew to El Salvador to take care of the kids,” Amy says.

The legal struggle to bring the two orphaned boys to Nashville took about a year, the exhaustion of that effort still playing on Amy’s face when detailing the diplomatic and legal blockades she and Miguel (with her mother’s help) had to either climb over or bust through to bring the youngsters home to Antioch.

The boys finally joined Aunt Amy and Uncle Miguel in 2016.

“We are their legal guardians,” says Miguel, explaining that they would adopt the boys except that would mean returning to El Salvador and establishing residency there for three years. None of them – the pseudo mom and pop nor the two teenagers – ever want to go back to El Salvador.

Amy just laughs when I ask her about the difficulties of being a driven career woman, pushing ideas and ideals to help her fellow Hispanic expats, suddenly becoming a “mother” at around age 40.

“He’s got the gray hair,” she says, pointing at her husband.

“Yeah, I never had gray hair before we got them,” adds Miguel, rubbing a bit at his closely cropped hairstyle. “But it’s been a blessing. For the longest time it had been just Amy and myself and business.”

They had not ruled out children, but with the biological clock ticking for Amy, it obviously wasn’t a top priority.

Now, Miguel and Amy have two teenage sons “and we have to deal with adult things,” he says of the challenges faced in raising teenagers.

While the boys aren’t fruit of the couple’s loins, they give them extra purpose and pride. They also keep Amy and Miguel busy as sports parents. The boys play both types of football (soccer and the great American game). “Danny, the small one, also plays basketball,” Amy says.

“We try to go to their games,” Miguel adds. “We don’t get to them all.’’ And they are happy. They are just starting to date, and they are excited to go out.”

Helping these boys learn how to be All-American teenagers is one facet of their lives, a big one. And their business is a place to nurture All-American hope.

When she began the company as Paz Bookkeeping and Tax Service, Amy’s mission was to help Latino clients, individuals, businesses, companies, all comers – learn how to conduct business, including, of course, paying Uncle Sam’s annual April 15 user fees.

Up until the summer of 2018, when they opened their new offices and rebranded the company simply PazTax, “we would go to churches, wherever I was invited to speak, other offices’’ to help spread the word, says the boss.

The new space allows for more free dispensing of information and comfort to her target demographic. “We want to educate the community. Hispanics don’t know a lot of things,” she says. “A lot are illiterate when it comes to taxes.

“Eventually we hope to gain them as a new customer, that they’ll want to pay to use our services in the future.

“Some don’t come back right away, some come later. It may take a year or two before they come back, but they may tell somebody else about us,” she points out.

“We work with businesses and individuals. We do bookkeeping for small businesses and business representations and IRS representations. We assist with state audits. We do anything related to business and taxes.

“And I’m an enrolled agent, licensed by the U.S. government to represent taxpayers before the IRS.”

She’s currently studying to be a CPA, to add that to her satchel of qualifications.

And they also have become leaders in their profession. Miguel is the vice president of the Tennessee chapter of the National Association of Tax Professionals, of which Amy is a board member. She also is a board member of the state chapter of the National Association of Enrolled Agents and treasurer of Entrepreneur Latina Leaders of America.

Amy points out that both legal immigrants and those who do not have legal status – she has clients across the spectrum – must pay some sort of income tax if they hope to achieve their American Dreams.

It is intimidating to them, and—she says—too often they have reached out to the wrong people for help.

“In the Hispanic community there are fraudulent tax preparers who are not tax professionals. We, as Latinos, well, sometimes all you are looking for is the best deal, going wherever you get the highest refund, pay the less tax.

“So, they go to tax preparers who are not professionals.”

Perhaps those preparers do get the refunds, but they are not necessarily following the tax codes, which leaves clients vulnerable, even if they don’t know it.

Through free seminars, word-of-mouth and the growing number of satisfied and completely legal (as tax codes go, at least) customers, she is making progress on the bridge across the knowledge gap for citizens or those who have the ITIN (Individual Taxpayer Identification Number) which is issued to individuals who cannot obtain Social Security numbers. That, of course, does include what the government refers to as “unauthorized” residents.

“A lot of people who don’t have a legal status are buying homes, because they are paying taxes and building credit because of the ITIN,” Amy notes. “And they have businesses. I have clients who don’t have a legal status, and they have businesses that some are generating over a million dollars a year.”

Of course, the unauthorized/aka “illegals” could get away with not paying taxes. But, as Amy says, by doing so, paying their share “they are able to grow their business, apply for a loan, even a business loan or a mortgage when they buy their home.

“Or even when they adjust their immigration status: It shows they are not going to be a burden on the government.

“One of the things I do is take pride in the clients I have,” says Amy, her eyes trailing back toward the elephants. “I explain every step of the tax return. I get a lot of clients who tell me nobody has informed them of the tax return before. Working with me, they feel more at ease as to why they pay it.

“I have all kinds of clients: Construction, restaurants, hairdressers, consulting, auto dealers, mechanics, house cleaners, a variety of different clients.

“I have American as well as Asian clients, too, but the majority are Latino, because Latinos feel more comfortable coming to someone who is more professional and speaks their language.

“And my master’s in accounting gives me credibility.”

That degree, as noted earlier, is from MTSU, the school where she achieved much after beginning her life in America decades ago.

“I immigrated when I was 9. I went to school in California,” she says. “I lived with relatives.”

Her parents wanted their daughter to achieve the dream that has drawn the huddled masses since at least the Mayflower days. So, they sent her to live with an uncle and his wife in Los Angeles.

“I wanted to learn English, and it was only supposed to be a temporary thing, but I ended up staying. I didn’t go back until after I finished my junior year in high school.”

When the uncle and his wife divorced, Amy went to live with a cousin, and they lived all around Los Angeles County. “We moved around a lot. I think in a period of two years, I went to three different schools,” she says.

Finally, though, it was time to go back to El Salvador.

“My cousin, she’s only 10 years older than me. I was 16 and she was 26.

“I was going to high school during the day and then working at a yogurt shop, with ice cream and some hot sandwiches, in Brentwood, California. A lot of celebrities came in there. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone. I was in Brentwood when all the O.J. stuff was happening,” she says of that city’s most-infamous former resident.

“I would take the bus home sometimes at 11 p.m. or midnight, and she was afraid of the big responsibility, and I had to go back home.”

(That cousin, Ruth Marroquin, by the way, now works for the Department of Homeland Security, with the task of helping immigrants obtain legal status. “I’m so proud of her,” Amy says.)

Amy understood Ruth’s fears, and she went back home to Santa Ana and real life. “When I was in El Salvador, I got married when I was 19. He was a U.S. citizen who lived in El Salvador.”

The couple moved to Antioch in 1998, but that marriage dissolved in 2002, because, she says, “I didn’t find support in him” for her decision to study for the G.E.D. to qualify for going to Nashville State. “He didn’t want me to advance.”

She originally thought she’d study to be an architect, but her passion changed, thanks to one of her Nashville State profs – “he’s an accountant, and I really enjoyed his class” – and her dad, who has been a tax preparer for 30-plus years.

She went on to get a bachelor’s in accounting in 2011 from MTSU and her master’s in 2013.

Amy began what has become PazTax in 2010, while she was “pretty much focusing on my studies, working part-time and assisting my dad. I used to see his clients coming in with problems, and I used to see him help them, and I wanted to do that.”

While she is All-American and proud of it, she can’t help but look southward, toward her native land, to the dangers of those mean streets, to the risks taken by those who try to escape to what remains the land of opportunity, despite despicable tweets implying Reagan’s shining city upon a hill has dimmed its welcoming, loving beacon.

“There are all the gangs in El Salvador, and they’ve spread to Honduras as well. A lot of Hondurans are coming (to the U.S.) now.

“Down there, they got no jobs, no food, their families can’t eat. So why not come here?” says this woman, passion lighting her welcoming face.

“Here (in the U.S.), they know they can do something. Cleaning. Construction. Farms.”

She steers clear of discussing the political fireball that is the immigration crisis and The Great Wall of Trump.

But she identifies with the struggle.

“It’s sad to see how the kids are isolated from their parents (at the detention facilities).

“I know people come here with hopes to do better for themselves and help their families back home, however I think they should reconsider the consequences.

“Some people could get killed. Die on the way here, not just in the detention center, but from the coyotes (worthless human scum who prey on their own people and make money transporting them here, occasionally even leaving them to roast and suffocate in sunbaked semi-trailers).

“It’s dangerous. People are risking their lives and their kids’ lives for a better future,” says this proud citizen.

Her passion is to help those new Americans, legal or illegal, in the pursuit of success, to find at least some degree of financial peace.

“The U.S. has so many opportunities.”

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