Article from the San Diego Union-Tribune
JAMUL — Erica M. Pinto didn’t get into the business world to win awards, but the chairwoman of the Jamul Indian Village has been racking up some honors over the years.
Less than three weeks ago, Pinto was named one of 18 “Power Women SD” at an awards ceremony presented by the San Diego International Film Festival and Discover Magazines. She has also won a Woman in Leadership award from the San Diego East County Chamber of Commerce and was given a Woman of Influence Award by San Diego Metro Magazine.
Most recently, Pinto was chosen as the “Warrior Award” winner by the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of California. The award is the highest honor the chamber bestows. It was given to Pinto on Nov. 6 at the group’s Native American Heritage Month Luncheon at Agua Caliente Resort Casino in Rancho Mirage.
Tracy Stanhoff, president of the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of California, said Pinto was recognized for her continuous work on behalf of tribal businesses and community growth for Native peoples.
“Erica has been talking to us about how things are going with her tribe and she given us some insight on tribal operations during these challenging times,” Stanhoff said. “She has shared with us the background of her tribe, and has given us suggestions and tips on how to approach folks. She knows a lot about economic self-sufficiency, enterprise and success.”
The chamber is a statewide organization with three chapters — Southern California, San Diego County and Northern California — with a mission to provide opportunities for networking and support of American Indian business people in California. Stanhoff said San Diego County has 18 of California’s 117 tribes.
The annual luncheon is one of the chamber’s signature events and an opportunity for members to network, celebrate, award scholarships for higher education to Native students and honor award winners.
Pinto went through a rigorous selection process as this year’s individual Warrior Award winner, Stanhoff said. Nominated by members of the chamber’s Tribal Advisory Council, including past Warrior Award winners Lynn Valbuena, Andrew Masiel and Rosemary Morillo, Pinto’s selection was finalized by the chamber board of directors.
“Erica is someone who has your back,” Stanhoff said. “And she is carrying a heavy load, like a lot of folks who also have a lot on their plate. Some people don’t have time to help, but in addition to her work with her own tribe, she has been able to help Indian tribes all over. Her support and presence has been so important.
“She makes people feel good just by caring enough to show up. Her leadership and support means a lot to us. We’ve also had a lot of fun with her. Erika has a great sense of humor, and in these trying times, that helps.”
Pinto, 45, was elected chairwoman of the Jamul Indian Village in 2015, but has been involved with the JIV Tribal Council since 1997. She has helped the tribe make significant economic progress on its path to self-reliance. Most notably, Pinto oversaw the October 2016 opening of the $430 million Jamul Casino, which created about 1,000 jobs.
“It’s been a long road to get us up and running, starting in the 1990s and finally opening our doors in 2016,” she said. “It’s a very unique business to be in and it is constantly evolving. We have to keep reinventing ourselves and progressing.”
Pinto, who serves on several boards, including the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association and the Southern Indian Health Council, continues working to expand the tribe’s land base and increase economic opportunities for Jamul Indian Village members. She is also co-founder of the Acorns to Oaks tribal program, which is focused on designing activities to prevent drug and alcohol abuse as well as teen pregnancy, and to promote education.
Pinto said, “keeping really busy is how I keep my mental health.”
She said she was not only humbled by the chamber’s honor, but was also taken aback by the beauty and style of kachina doll that the chamber of commerce gave her.
“It was truly an honor for me,” Pinto said. “When I got into this line of work, 23 years now, my uncle Kenny Meza told me this is a thankless job. ‘It’s a job you get a lot of heat for it,’ he said. So when awards and acknowledgements come, it makes me feel really good, and grateful. I try to be a hands-on tribal leader. I don’t have kids so this is like a child of mine, and it’s so important to me.”