Dr. Abie Benitez
“I remember the beginning of PLF, when things started we didn't know enough about our potential as a community. I think what PLF has done is informed us and shown us that.”
Director of Instruction, New Haven Public Schools
Hometown: San Juan, Puerto Rico
Abie Benitez’s parents really wanted their children to understand and value their Puerto Rican heritage.
Her New York native father specifically wanted his children to get a first-hand cultural experience, something he felt he did not get in its entirety growing up in the Bronx.
“[My father] made sure that we grew up in Puerto Rico, went to school and learned both languages, and he wanted us to really understand what it was to be Puerto Rican,” Benitez says. “In his case, he grew up in a Jewish neighborhood. He is a converted Jew, but he always felt that he needed to know more about his Latino heritage and so he wanted us to grow up like that.”
On the island, Benitez completed her schooling and enrolled in university. She attended the University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras where both the English and Spanish languages were prevalent.
“We were required to take English every day,” Benitez explains. “Besides that all the instruction and the academics were in Spanish and in university, all the books were in English except for the Spanish literature. But, our classes were in Spanish. I had a couple of professors who only knew how to speak English, but most of my professors taught in Spanish.”
Off to the Mainland
Despite receiving an education in both languages, Benitez still wanted to come to the mainland to improve her English and continue her studies. After completing her undergraduate studies, she left the island to attend the University of Pittsburgh to start working on her master’s degree. The program allowed her to work directly with people with disabilities. She says a lot of her coursework centered on breaking barriers for people to enter the mainstream, whether they were children or adults.
Upon completion, Benitez moved to Connecticut taking the lessons she learned in the program with her. “That training was very valuable because when I came to Connecticut, they didn't have that.”
In Connecticut, Benitez began her job search at the Community Action Agency of New Haven.
“I went to the Community Action Agency and said ‘I'm here and I learned in college that you are the ones who tell us about where to find employment and opportunities,’” Benitez remembers. “And to this day, Marcial Cuevas, who was the director back then, is my friend. He said, ‘these are the places you're going to go, you're going to meet these people’ and Goodwill Industries was looking for a bilingual person. So I got my first job there.”
At Goodwill, Benitez did vocational assessments. She administered different tests to determine the skill level of individuals to help with their job placement.
Jumpstart into Education
While at Goodwill, another opportunity arose. She met Dr. John Dow who was the superintendent of schools in New Haven. Who told her “I need you. You need to come and work for me.”
In time, she would start her career in education. Despite having a master’s degree she says she was not necessarily qualified at the time because her degree was not in education. However, she and Dow were able to come to an agreement that if she completed her certification he would have a job for her.
Dow kept his promise. Benitez began working at Fair Haven Middle School in the guidance office after she completed her certification.
“I worked with the special education students and with the bilingual students and helped teachers and administration figure out what barriers the kids had entering the mainstream,” Benitez says.
Special education and bilingual students were more integrated into the mainstream population at the school as a result of her work.
“I really like that I was able to stay there after I became certified and be part of the faculty and do a lot of work with them,” Benitez says. “I saw my peers growing and really changing. So it was a good experience that I had at Fair Haven.”
Crafting a Legacy
“I wasn't doing anything that was not already researched and written,” Benitez says. “But it was hard for people because at that time we still had counselors telling the Latino kids to go for clerical stuff and things that were not necessarily bad, but if the kid could do more they should.”
Benitez acknowledges that the New Haven Public School system has come a long way.
“The challenges we have now is that jobs require much more expertise in reading and writing; and a stronger academic background,” Benitez says. “Even though we have improved what we are doing for kids, it's a moving target. Our kids are trying. If you look at Promise, how many kids are going to college, staying in college and graduating? We have improved the graduation rate.”
Benitez now organizes other Latino Educators. She became the founding president of the Connecticut Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, promoting the Latino educator pipeline.
Benitez spent part of her career helping Latino students and others reach their full potential. Nonetheless, she too had more to learn about Latino community’s full potential – which she learned through the Progreso Latino Fund.
“I remember the beginning of PLF, when things started we didn't know enough about our potential as a community. I think what PLF has done is informed us and shown us that,” Benitez says. “So in my case, I've gone to their forums because of that, because I feel that I'm going to go there and somebody is going to challenge whatever schemata I have about Latinos and I might like it or not, but this will stretch my thinking.”
Abie Benitez is the newest Progreso Latino Fund Advisory Committee member as of December 2018. The PLF Advisory Committee develops Latino leadership and builds an equitable community for Latinos in Greater New Haven. Additionally, the advisory committee engages Latinos in local philanthropy and encourages giving to the Fund to accelerate Latino influence in the region’s civic life. The Fund hopes to recruit more members in 2019. If you are interested in joining the Progreso Latino Fund Advisory Committee, please email Caprice Taylor Mendez.
Daniel (Danny) Diaz
"No matter your background, no matter your ethnicity, no matter the obstacles that you find in life — if you work very, very hard and give back, you will be rewarded."
Coordinator of Parent Engagement, New Haven Public Schools
Hometown: Cayey, Puerto Rico
Danny Diaz and his family left Puerto Rico to head to the mainland, arriving in New Haven in 1979 just after Diaz completed eighth grade. He would start school at Richard C. Lee High School.
“My mother and my father worked very hard and instilled a strong work ethic in me,” Diaz remembers. “They helped me adapt and pushed me to study and get my education. I owe everything to my parents. They sacrificed so much for us, they are the reason for my success.“
Driven by hard work and a desire to do well, Diaz received a scholarship to attend the Yale Language Institute. Diaz went on to complete high school with a 4.0 GPA and to receive a full four-year scholarship to Southern Connecticut State University from Southern Connecticut Gas Company (SCG).
Hitting the Gas
The gas company continued to support Diaz throughout college, providing him with books and employment opportunities. When he graduated they offered him a job and the support did not end there. As Diaz worked as a full-time employee, SCG also paid for him to complete his master’s degree. He went to Sacred Heart University where he earned his degree in business administration.
“I had several positions with them — customer service, corporate investigations and several management positions,” Diaz explains. “While I was working, I became very involved in the community and worked on various community projects. I found volunteering and giving back very rewarding. It was my way to give back to the community that had given me so much. I considered myself to be very lucky.”
Eventually Diaz’s time at the gas company had to come to an end. A former SCG president recruited Diaz to come work for him at the Regional Water Authority. Diaz continued his community work while employed at the water company, serving on various boards including Latino Youth Development, Junta for Progressive Action, Arts Council of Greater New Haven, among others. He also worked in education indirectly as a volunteer teacher — which he loved.
Diaz left the water company and took a position with the New Haven Board of Education working in parent advocacy and engagement, helping students strive for success.
“Working at NHPS has given me the opportunity to be a part of a process that prepares our youth for the future, “ Diaz says. ” I love being able to guide and mentor young people.’
Diaz decided he wanted to do more. In 2004, he and his partner David Greco cofounded Arte Inc., an organization dedicated to developing and promoting Latino art, culture and education.
“Arte’s programs serve urban youth who lack the exposure and experiences of their suburban peers,” Diaz explains “The vision was to create an organization to address this and help Latino youth and families.”
To date Arte has awarded $76,000 in scholarships, runs numerous after school programs, organizes college bound road trips, provides family programming, exhibits and cultural events. Diaz helped create Arte’s successful SLATE program, which teaches middle school students important life and social skills.
All of Arte’s programs are free to parents and students. Last school year alone, Diaz says Arte gave New Haven Public Schools and the City of New Haven over $137,000 in pro-bono programs and services. He continues to juggle both his responsibilities at Arte, the Board of Education and in the community, still picking up degrees along the way. In 2016, both Diaz and Greco received Honorary Doctorate Degrees from Albertus Magnus College for their community work.
“Legacy is a huge word, but I what I want to leave behind is an impact.” Diaz explains. “I want people to say he helped me, he cared for people and he made a difference. In a few years when we retire we can pass the torch to the next generation who will continue to pay it forward.”
Danny applauds the Progreso Latino Fund for the difference they are making in the Latino community.
“The Progreso Latino Fund has a solid foundation and will continue to grow and benefit the Latino community.” Diaz says. “PLF has adapted to the changes within the Latino community. The well attended forums and talks target specific Latino issues and look to address our changing needs. The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven (TCF) has supported and nurtured the fund and has done so much for our community. Housing the fund at TCF was a smart move and could not be a better partnership.”
As Diaz continues his work with students, he especially hopes to share with them a key life lesson:
“That no matter what your background, no matter what your ethnicity, no matter the obstacles that you find in life — that if you work very, very hard and give back, you will be rewarded. Many young people don’t understand this and we need to help them realize their potential. I'm legally blind, I have English as a second language, I came from a poor family and I had all odds against me. But, through education and through hard work, I was able to accomplish so much and have done so much. I also think the best is yet to come.”
"We work for the community, they are ‘our boss.’ There has to be some controls put in, but, I think oversight by the community needs to happen.”
Assistant Chief, New Haven Police Department
Hometown: New Haven, CT
New Haven Assistant Police Chief Luiz Casanova wanted to make a difference on the streets where he was raised.
“I came to New Haven when I was 12-years-old so most of my memories are from New Haven. I consider myself a native although I was born in Brooklyn, New York,” explains Casanova. “When I started my career, I wanted to make a difference about the way people in my neighborhood were being treated by law enforcement. One of the things that inspired me to seek a law enforcement career was that I wanted folks of color to have a better experience with the police.”
The 26-year law enforcement veteran, started his career at the State of Connecticut Department of Corrections. It was there where he says he first learned that the prison system was broken.
“[The system is] broken. Not only does it have a huge representation of people of color, but it also has all the wrong people in prison,” Casanova says. “Fifty-seven percent of the population of prisoners are there because of mental health and addiction problems.”
After spending time inside the system as a corrections officer, Casanova decided he wanted to be on the front line. he said, “In order for me to make a real, effective change or have any kind of impact on what I call the “conveyor belts” in the prison system, I had to become a cop.”
“I became a police officer and I spent most of my career putting the right people in prison by policing more intelligently,” Casanova says. “Instead of using the net approach that terrorizes whole neighborhoods, we use a more targeted approach towards people who are actually committing crimes.”
While Casanova’s approach to policing has proved effective, his career had a rough start.
“In the beginning of my career, there was a lot of pressure because I was policing in neighborhoods with people who looked like me. But, I had a job to do,” Casanova remembers. “You know, when you give people a lot of chances, sometimes you have no choice but to put them in jail. It is really not your decision, it is something that the person did that caused you to enforce the law. There is a balance too--you meet great people and you see things that average people don't get a chance to see.”
Casanova has worked hard throughout his career to rise through the ranks, much like his Latino counterparts.
“The Latino community has a lot to offer,” Casanova explains. “They work hard and know the language which is a plus [when you are policing areas] where there is a higher [population] of Latinos. Being able to communicate with people is a must.”
Casanova acknowledges both the opportunities and challenges that the Latino community faces and suggests that more Latinos should put their personal agendas aside and come together to foster the next generation of Latino leaders. For that reason, he is fond of the Progreso Latino Fund (PLF) and their position in the Latino community.
“I think programs like PLF are important because they highlight leadership in the Latino community. They are striving to make the Latino community stronger,” Casanova says. “They are willing to listen and they are a champion, in the current climate. They bring up topics that are current and really important to folks. They have become a teacher for many as well, so they are pretty powerful.”
The Progreso Latino Fund continues to highlight leaders, like Casanova, who are sure to leave a lasting legacy in their communities.
Regarding his personal legacy in law enforcement, “Currently, we're enforcing the law in the name of the community, yet we don't want to let the community in to monitor what happens in policing,” Casanova says. “I want to be one of the guys that changes that. We work for the community, they are ‘our boss.’ There has to be some controls put in, but, I think oversight by the community needs to happen.”
I like helping people. When I say that, [I mean that] police…we really need to change the way we do things. We need to really align community-based policing with community expectations. So, I hope that my legacy is to change policing in America in that direction.”
"We’ve made a commitment in the five years we have been doing this to use the resources of Yale for the needs of New Haven. It has been a wonderful blend of our commitment to the community and the wonderful resources that Yale University has."
President, Urban Policy Strategies, LLC
Hometown: South Bronx, New York
Marta Moret’s parents, natives of Puerto Rico, came to America separately and met in New York shortly after World War II. After settling in the South Bronx for a few years, Marta’s family moved to Milford, Conn. in the early 1950s. During that time, Marta recalls the isolation of being the only Latino family in her neighborhood and one of only two families of color. Growing up, education was important to Marta, as she was the first person to attend college in her family. She attended Western Connecticut State University, and later Yale University to obtain a Master’s in Public Health.
Partners in Life and Love
Yale is where Marta met Peter Salovey in 1983. He would become her husband and then in 2013, President of Yale University.
“There are two things that I’m doing as the wife of the President of Yale University,” Marta explains. “We’ve made a commitment in the five years we have been doing this to use the resources of Yale for the needs of New Haven. It has been a wonderful blend of our commitment to the community and the wonderful resources that Yale University has.“
When Hurricane Maria hit in September 2017, Marta and Peter stayed true to their commitment.
Puerto Rico Comes to New Haven
“During Hurricane Maria, my father died, so I was reaching out to relatives all over to let them know he had died,” says Marta. “It was impossible to reach many of the families that were up in the mountains, and in the early days, we could not even reach people around San Juan. So I was feeling terrible about it. Peter and I spent time talking about what we could do, both as a couple and as representatives of Yale University.”
After brainstorming, Marta reached out to Dr. Suzanne LaGarde, Executive Director of the Fair Haven Community Health Center. Suzanne provided Marta with information on what she called a humanitarian crisis facing at the Center as evacuees from Puerto Rico, many with significant health needs, sought a new start in New Haven.
“Once the airports opened, [evacuees] were coming by the dozens to the state and Suzanne was worried about New Haven, “Marta explained. Resources were stretched and there were no funds for staff to process information needed for FEMA applications, or help to feed, clothe and house the families.
Hearing this, Marta reached out to community leaders, putting together a team. Within 24 hours, her team was able to find staff to process the necessary paperwork, secure housing for evacuees and had arranged for winter clothing donations.
Creating New Systems and Sustainability
Marta was pleased with the work to help the Puerto Rican evacuees that had come to New Haven but thought she could be doing more.
She started working with a group of faculty, undergraduate and graduate students, and administrators. Many of them were Puerto Rican; all were eager to put together a long-term sustainability plan for the island of Puerto Rico.
“It is amazing to have Puerto Rican and Latino scholars from Yale exchange ideas with scholars from Puerto Rico about the environment, about the public health ramifications of a terrible water system, the lack of cooling and electricity that are found on the island. We are going to end up with all kind of diseases. So [we’re] tracking that, figuring out what to do about it as Yale researchers work directly with non-governmental organizations (NGO) in Puerto Rico to determine what is needed for long-term sustainability and self-sufficiency.
The NGOs have asked for:
- help with training people to put up solar panels on houses so they would no longer have to depend on the power grid
- technical assistance to help hospitals to deal with health breakouts that are likely to occur in the future
- help with addressing the rising rate of depression and suicide of Puerto Rican families dealing with tremendous trauma both on the island and in the US.
Marta and her team are hoping that in the next six months they can secure resources to hire a part-time or full-time bilingual coordinator/ researcher who is knowledgeable about community-based organizations and their needs to help the group organize and move their plan forward.
Marta is not alone in her efforts. The Progreso Latino Fund (PLF), which Marta helped found in 2003, has also taken action in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Today, PLF has made grants totaling over $23,000 to support disaster relief and recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and Mexico, and to support those who have moved to Greater New Haven.
Marta broke down what she wants her legacy to be into three parts:
“If I can influence how Yale works as a major community partner to help Hurricane Maria families, that would be amazing,” Marta says. “If I draw attention to the idea that in the policy and in public health and in other realms there are women of color who are just brilliant, making decisions and effecting change, I would love that as a second legacy. The third legacy is my teaching in public health. I want to be remembered as someone who spent a lot of time to help students, especially students of color and first-gen students to become the professionals of the future while working with vulnerable populations. That would be a great legacy.”
"Seeing the different abilities among my students motivates me to help them obtain their goals. I encourage them to set high standards for themselves and to not give up. I want them to challenge themselves and learn that they can overcome obstacles."
Talented and Gifted Teacher, Hamden Public Schools
Hometown: New Haven, Connecticut
Grace Guidet’s family came to the United States from Colombia, South America in 1966 in search of the “American Dream” like many others. Her grandmother joined the family two years later. Both her mother and father held several jobs to make ends meet, while her grandmother tended to the household.
“My parents worked multiple jobs for as long as I can remember,” Grace says. “They willingly struggled with [the] language barrier, isolation and financial worry in order to provide us with the opportunities this country could offer.”
Building the Foundation
Grace’s parents’ education was limited; however, her father was a successful freelance photographer in Colombia.
“When he arrived in this country, his lack of English limited his job options to a single one -- dishwasher. Housekeeping and assembly line work would eventually be their main way of sustaining the seven person household for all of my childhood.”
Although Grace’s parents had to forgo a proper education growing up, they wanted to make sure their children did not. They put all four of their children through private school, which came with a hefty price tag.
“This enormous cost placed a tremendous financial burden on my parents, one I was painfully aware of as a child,” Grace says. “However, my parents believed in education and its importance. They worked diligently and sacrificed endlessly without a single complaint.”
Grace and her siblings struggled to relate to their peers in elementary school, which sometimes left them feeling isolated.
“My sisters and I endured bullying for years and never quite fit in,” Grace says. “I remember serving as the translator for my parents often and regularly feeling out of place as the kids in school spoke of American customs that I had never taken part in. I was ashamed of our culture because it made us different. I wanted so desperately to fit in.”
A Turning Point
Things started to look up for Grace in high school when she met a more diverse group of her peers, which included 2nd generation immigrants like herself. This exposure started a ripple effect of self-acceptance and self-confidence, which unbeknownst to her would later shape her career.
Grace graduated from Southern Connecticut State University with a degree in accounting. After working in the banking industry for a few years, she found herself wanting to make a deeper impact on people’s lives, more specifically in the lives of children that face the same situation she once did.
After this self-revelation, Grace returned to school, receiving a Masters in Elementary Education from Cambridge College. After receiving her Masters, she began teaching in Hamden Public Schools where she remained for 10 years teaching 4th and 5th graders from diverse backgrounds.
“I especially loved the cultural diversity and felt proud that I was able to speak to parents in their native language,” Grace says. “I remember at parent conferences seeing their faces light up when they found out I spoke Spanish. It was as if a weight was lifted off their shoulders. It was more than just having someone speak the same language; it was about having someone understand their experiences in this country. They weren’t alone.”
Grace’s deep connection with her students and their families gained her recognition. In 2008, she received the Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award, a prestigious teaching award honoring top educators around the country, for her contributions to education.
“I remember that at that moment I felt more pride for my parents than anything else,” Grace says. “They were able to see the impact of their efforts and sacrifice in this country. They came with limited education and nothing else and now their children were making impacts on the lives of others. It was an amazing feeling.”
Now, Grace facilitates the Talented and Gifted Program in Hamden and has done so for the last nine years. She works with elementary students across the district to develop their academic gifts and shows them how to unlock their potential.
“Seeing the different abilities among my students motivates me to help them obtain their goals,” Grace says. “I encourage them to set high standards for themselves and to not give up. I want them to challenge themselves and learn that they can overcome obstacles. The best days are the ones in which I see something click and their eyes light up with excitement and pride.”
Breaking the Barriers of Isolation
The challenges Grace faced as a child are the same ones her bilingual students and their families face, only they have her to help them. Grace knows them as barriers of isolation and says the Latino community as a group can break them by creating a bridge.
“I feel many families lack a connection to this country,” Grace says. “The current environment is fueling this emotion even more. As an American community, we need be cognizant of other cultures and develop empathy for our newest members. Being an American does not mean you have to deny or let go of your culture’s traditions. It is possible to be part of both. We can create a new connection while maintaining old ones. As successful Latinos, we need to help create and maintain a bridge to develop these connections with our immigrant community.”
Although Grace sees some challenges for Latinos, she also sees opportunities.
“More and more Latinos are rising up as leaders and helping to bridge that isolation gap,” Grace says with excitement. “The Progreso Latino Fund is helping lay the foundation. We all need to do our part and lead by example. Whether it is volunteering at a local organization, teaching our children empathy or saying hello to someone in their native language, we all can make an impact.”
Grace has vowed to play her part by continuing to share the lessons she has learned from her family’s story, helping inspire immigrants facing the same plight. Despite her family’s hardships along the way, her parents were able to put her and her three siblings through college and go on to lead successful lives.
“My family arrived in this country 52 years ago with nothing,” Grace says. “Through hard work, perseverance and ‘ganas’ (desire), they achieved the American Dream they sought. It was a challenging road and I want to help as many people as I can learn these lessons and achieve their goals. We are not alone.”
"When you pull together the strengths of individuals collectively you can get a lot more done."
State Senator - 17th District, Connecticut General Assembly
Hometown: New Haven, Connecticut
For New Haven native Senator George Logan taking the step into politics was a gradual one.
“When I was growing up my goal wasn’t to solve the neighborhood’s problems or the state’s problems or the world’s problems,” Logan says. “I just wanted to get a job so I could maintain myself and in the future, a family. I liked math and science growing up and I thought that engineers all had a job so I figured I wanted to be an engineer.”
Logan went to Trinity College in Hartford, a liberal arts school, to study engineering.
“I wasn’t sure when I was in high school whether I was going to be able to handle an engineering curriculum or if I was going to like it. So I wanted to go to a school that had other options.”
Logan loved it and a year out of college he landed a job at Aquarion Water Company as a Junior Engineer. He would rise through the ranks at Aquarion, becoming a Senior Engineer, the Manager of Engineering Projects, Director of Engineering and finally the Director of Environmental Management, the position he holds now in addition to his role as State Senator of the 17th District. During his early years at Aquarion he also earned a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering degree from the University of Bridgeport.
While Logan quickly entered his engineering career after college, his love for community involvement that began at Trinity carried into his volunteer roles.
“I had such a good experience in high school and in college I wanted to encourage and motivate kids,” Logan says.
Logan spent his summers working for the Connecticut Pre-Engineering Program (CPEP) that encourages underrepresented students to pursue STEM careers. He attributes his urge to give back to the mentors he had growing up, specifically at the Albie Booth Boys & Girls Club, now known as the Boys & Girls Club of New Haven.
“When I was in middle school and a bit of high school, I went there just about every day after school,” Logan says. “There were counselors there and folks that I knew weren’t making a ton of money, but they were dedicated to their work and to kids that were growing up in the neighborhood like myself. They gave me advice and encouragement and I always thought that when I made it - and again that meant getting a job - that I too would give back to the community.”
Logan continued to volunteer with CPEP after college and started working with other organizations too. He now serves on the Board of Directors for the Central Connecticut Coast YMCA, Greater Valley Chamber of Commerce, Griffin Hospital and Junior Achievement of Western Connecticut.
Leaping Into Politics
“I enjoy helping out the community and then I saw an opportunity in 2015 where I thought to myself ‘why do we keep sending the same politicians to Hartford in a state of millions of people?’ Why not give it a shot and throw my hat in the ring and see if I could make even a bigger difference in my immediate community and state.”
In 2016, Logan indeed threw his hat in the ring and won. He beat incumbent State Senator Joe Crisco in the 17th District, which includes Ansonia, Beacon Falls, Bethany, Derby, Hamden, Naugatuck and Woodbridge. While Logan was successful in his campaign, he would love to see more Latinos in political leadership positions.
“I think that we need to see more Latinos in positions of authority in various professions, so that, just like any other group, the kids that are growing up can aspire and strive to be something and they can see people like them as role models. Now Latinos are certainly everywhere, but I want those numbers to improve. I do think we’re lagging in terms of our representation and leadership positions locally and at the state level.”
That is why Logan thinks the Progreso Latino Fund is so important.
“When you pull together the strengths of individuals collectively you can get a lot more done and I think that is an excellent way to jump start and have a bigger impact on the community that we are trying to help and support.”
"For many reasons I find New Haven to be civically engaged, very switched on in many ways, very accessible to become involved with, very smart and active on issues that I care about."
Assistant Dean, Yale Law School, Yale University
Hometown: Leawood, Kansas
Growing up in Kansas City, Sara Lulo’s family was the only Dominican family in her neighborhood or school. However, that did not stop her from getting a unique Latin experience within the city which she was raised.
Sara was fortunate to grow up surrounded by her immediate family, including her parents and two older brothers, but her extended family resided outside of the country, like many children with immigrant parents.
Sara recalls that circumstance brought the local Latino community closer together.
“My parents’ closest friends were from different Latin American countries, including Cuba, Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, and Peru. None of us had our extended families nearby, so we were each other’s extended families in many ways. The kids of my parent’s friends were the closest thing I had to cousins locally. So we treated each other a bit like family, with that sort of acceptance, familiarity and sense of shared history and experience that comes only with family,” Sara says.
On Her Own
Although Sara had made connections in her Kansas City community, she had always been drawn to the East Coast which led her to apply to college in New York State.
“When I was looking for colleges I ended up going with Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. I was still a little too timid to go to New York City. But when I went to visit Ithaca, it just felt perfect.”
At Cornell, she majored in Government with concentrations in International Relations and Women’s Studies. She also experienced a newfound freedom.
“Growing up with Latino parents, in the household we spoke only in Spanish. I was very much the daughter of protective Latino parents,” Sara says. “They were excellent parents and so supportive and had every confidence in me. They gave me every opportunity. But it was time for me to understand what being away from home and away from family was, and I was really thirsty for understanding what social independence meant.”
While the undergraduate experience was eye opening for Sara, after graduation she was for ready for New York City and the diversity it offered. She moved to New York and worked for two years at a Fortune 50 company. She then decided to pursue graduate studies at New York University, where she earned a Master’s Degree in Latin American and Caribbean Studies with a focus on Political Economy.
“Latin American Studies seemed like a great fit for me for graduate school,” Sara says. “I could finally formally study the histories, the literature, the economic systems and the politics of the region from which my family came.”
After NYC, Sara was off to law school, returning to Cornell. There she received her Juris Doctor and Master of Laws concurrently in a three-year period. Her focus was on international law, human rights and international organizations.
A World Traveler
After law school, Sara worked for the law firm of White & Case LLP, first in their New York office and then in their London office. Her career took her around the globe including England, Bosnia, Mexico, Kenya, Liberia and more.
“I worked with fantastic supervisors that were not only cool and interesting people, but also fun and smart mentors and friends,” Sara recalls. “They also had incredibly high standards which made me a better writer and a sharper thinker, and they were excellent examples of professionalism and integrity.”
Following her time at White & Case, Sara headed back to Ithaca to become the inaugural Director of the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice, a center within the Cornell Law School focusing on global justice and women’s rights, in particular violence against women. She also taught as an adjunct professor of law.
“It was a pretty steep learning curve,” Sara says. “I was coming from private practice and all of a sudden I was in an academic environment and leading a small start-up center that was striving to make meaningful contributions in an area of law I knew a bit about from my pro bono work, but was by no means an established expert. In addition to the day-to-day work of launching the center, it was a time of intense reading, listening, and studying complex inequities and global challenges.”
New Haven Calls
Sara spent two and a half years at Cornell before Yale Law School came calling; they were looking for an inaugural director for The Gruber Program for Global Justice and Women's Rights. Sara has been at Yale for five years, first serving as the Director of the Gruber Program and International Law Programs, and now as Assistant Dean.
While Yale brought her here, New Haven is why Sara stayed.
“Shortly after I arrived, I realized that if I was going to make a longer term commitment to living here and becoming part of the community, I really wanted to get to know New Haven beyond the University,” Sara says. “As wonderful as being affiliated with the University is, it’s not all of New Haven, for sure. There is a vibrant community beyond the University too. For many reasons I find New Haven to be civically engaged, very ‘switched on’ in many ways, accessible and active on issues that I care about.”
Some of those issues are within the Latino community; thus Sara’s interest in the Progreso Latino Fund (PLF) was a natural one. Sara recently attended her first PLF Leadership Network meeting, where she says she was just there to learn…for now.
“PLF is of interest to me because it’s exciting and smart to bring people together who are of the Latinx community or allies working on behalf of the community,” Sara says. “It’s interesting that U.S. census data shows that ‘hispanics’ are about to become or have become the largest non-white group in this country, but the term ‘Hispanic’ is broad and vague; it encompasses a wide spectrum of backgrounds, race and experiences. Still, it’s both powerful and sort of astonishing to reflect on that type of statistic and dynamic at this political moment. As a culturally bound community within a diverse broader community, how do we leverage that which unites us without ignoring that which distinguishes? Can we organize constructively, in solidarity with other communities, to protect and advance the rights of all?”
Sara sure hopes so.
"I think despite the many advances we made in this country; we still have a long way to go. All of us need to step up and do everything that we can to protect the most vulnerable and protect our democracy."
Director of Immigrant Rights & Racial Justice, Center for Community Change
Hometown: Puerto Rico
Kica Matos’ work for social justice has solidified her legacy in New Haven. However, the love she now has for the city, was not a love at first sight.
“I did not love New Haven when I first came here. It took a little bit of getting used to,” Kica says. “I didn’t understand the way that New Haven ticked and I didn’t know very many people other than my husband’s friends. So, I decided if I was going to live here and I was going to be happy here I really needed to get steeped in the culture.”
To get more familiar with New Haven, Kica began to ride her bike through its neighborhoods. “I fell in love with the Fair Haven neighborhood and got to know the immigrant community here. We bought a house in Fair Haven and moved here, and we have been living here ever since. I met these incredibly community-oriented people with a real vision for what New Haven could be like.”
Kica’s career was what brought her to Fair Haven. Her first Job in New Haven was as the Executive Director at Junta for Progressive Action, an organization that provides services and programs that helps advance Greater New Haven’s Latino community.
“When I started working at Junta doing advocacy, especially on the immigration front, I really got the sense that this was a city that allowed you to have the space to advance a policy agenda,” Kica says. “In other cities the size of New York, for example, there is a lot of bureaucracy and a lot of red tape to cut through in order to make changes. I quickly found out that the size of New Haven, the reclusivity of local government, was such that you really could be steeped in community and advance a community-based social justice agenda in ways that you really could not in bigger spaces.”
Kica’s fight for immigration rights is going strong during this tumultuous political climate.
“The way that this community has responded to the climate of fear and hatred has been really inspirational,” Kica says. “We have seen people from all walks of life engaging in activism to protect our democracy. I think many people are feeling that our democracy is at stake and unless we step up to the plate to protect our most vulnerable we will see more incidents like Charlottesville.”
Although Kica’s focus is on immigration, she acknowledges that Latinos face challenges in other areas of daily life.
“The Latino/a community is a rapidly growing community in New Haven and in the State,” Kica says. “We continue to face many challenges, economical and educational; challenges related to health and access to health; and unfortunately, too many of our kids are in failing schools where the achievement gap is still considerably big. But at the same time, we are seeing economic advancement as more and more Latinos climb up the ladder. More and more Latinos are getting degrees and so we’re really seeing the evolution of a community.”
Kica believes that one way the local Latino community can become stronger is through networking. That is why she supports the efforts of the Progreso Latino Fund and the opportunities it provides Greater New Haven’s Latino community to gather and exchange ideas.
“We need to network as a community,” Kica says. “We need to pay attention to the needs of our community and we need to be generous. We need to give for the advancement of the Latino community. The opportunity for people to network and to engage philanthropically are really critical as is the need to focus philanthropy on the needs of the Latino community.”
Therefore, Kica continues to work to improve the social, political and economic status of the Latino community.
“I will always fight for justice because I think despite the many advances we made in this country; we still have a long way to go. All of us need to step up and do everything that we can to protect the most vulnerable and protect our democracy,” Kica says. “I would like people to say that I was a freedom fighter, who fought with a lot of love and a lot of courage. I would like my legacy to be one of love. I would like to feel that I left the world a little better than I found it, and I poured a lot of love into my work, my community and my family.”
"I always thought about the people who didn’t have access to education and how lucky I was that despite our struggles, I always had school as my stable place."
Assistant Dean, College of Arts and Sciences, Fairfield University
Born in Colombia, Andrea moved to the United States at the age of five with her mother and sister. The family eventually settled in Stamford, CT. One of the most important things to her family was education and so her mother made sure that no matter what challenges they faced, school came first. It was a tough adjustment for Andrea and her family, who were the only Hispanic and immigrant family in the neighborhood. Andrea struggled to find where she fit in until things started to look up for her in high school.
“By the time I got to high school, I had gained some confidence” Andrea says. “I had also made a decision early on that I didn’t want to be a statistic; I didn’t want people to put me in a box and label me ‘ you’re Hispanic’ and ‘you’re an immigrant’ and ‘you’re a woman’ which means ’fill in the blank.’ I felt very strongly that I didn’t want to live my life to prove something, but I also thought it was important for me to demonstrate to people that ‘yeah, I am all of those things’ and ‘I can do a lot of things’ and ‘maybe things you thought I couldn’t do, I can do.’”
Although high school was going very well for Andrea, she hit a rough patch upon the news of her father’s murder.
“That was a transformative time for me.,” Andrea says. “I was just starting high school and it kind of shifted our family a bit. It was the first time I realized I needed to become independent. I needed to stand on my own two feet and be strong for my mom. I needed to make sure that my life was together because she had a lot going on. So high school was great, but it was also challenging.”
Finding Her Calling
Andrea’s love for knowing the why and how of things led her to study psychology in college. She says she was very inquisitive from an early age. Andrea attended the University of Connecticut (UCONN) but struggled at times balancing academics and work, as she worked 2-3 jobs to help defray some of her college expenses. Going away to school was a choice Andrea made intentionally, but it is not always common in her culture for kids to leave home so early. Although it was an adjustment, it was well worth it.
“I felt very strongly that I needed to step out of my comfort zone. Like a lot of things throughout my life, I felt like I needed to do something to help me to grow and become an independent person. So I choose to go away to school.”
After graduating from UCONN, Andrea took a year off before returning to school at Fairfield University. As a graduate student, Andrea studied community counseling which is now the clinical mental health counseling program. Again, her choice to further her education meant balancing work and academics as she worked full-time as a legal assistant 3 out of the 4 years she was in graduate school. Her time in graduate school only furthered her passion for helping others and it also provided an opportunity for a lot of introspection.
“Especially when it came to education, I just always felt so grateful to have been able to do well enough in school to obtain a college education and beyond,” Andrea says. “I always saw it as a privilege to be able to do that and just really loved learning and being in the classroom environment. It was a humbling experience for me because with every achievement, in my heart and mind, I always thought about the people who didn’t have access to education and how lucky I was that despite our struggles, I always had school as my stable place. I was always so grateful for the people at school who really believed in me and encouraged me to reach my full potential. That’s an ongoing journey as I strongly believe in life-long learning.”
In her last year of graduate school, Andrea took a clinical internship in Bridgeport working with minority groups. It was through that experience, and through a practicum at UCONN in Stamford, that she found she preferred to work with young adults. While finishing her clinical work, Andrea took a part-time academic advisor position at UCONN, Stamford. Upon graduation Andrea struggled to find a job that stayed true to her interests but eventually she landed an academic advisor position at UCONN Storrs in the dean’s office. She stayed at UCONN for two years before heading to Fairfield University, where she now works as assistant dean for the College of Arts and Sciences. Her clinical background working with young adults helps with her current work working with students who are at risk academically that have similar experiences to her own.
“It’s really fulfilling for me to be able to share with them that I also know what it is like to be first generation, to be at a predominately white institution and having to navigate things on your own. I love being able to model to students that you can overcome barriers if your work hard, if you use resources, if you advocate for yourself.”
While an administrative job was not her first choice, she has found she is right where she needs to be. She has a lot of empathy for the students she works with knowing herself what it feel like to navigate through college with little to no help.
“On paper, my story seems that it was easy but it wasn’t,” Andrea says. “I had a lot of barriers. Anything from access to resources, access to information, knowing what my rights were, knowing what I was eligible for and so I think one of the hardest things is that Latinos don’t always know their rights.”
Andrea says overcoming barriers is not unique to her story, but immigrants as a whole. She says it took a long time for her to receive her citizenship. She and her family found it hard to navigate the legal system and obtain the right documents to do so.
“I think it is important, especially now given the political climate for Latinos to know those organizations that are going to help them whether it is education or whether it is a community resource to know that they matter, to know that it’s okay to advocate for yourself, to ask a question. But it’s tough because I think a lot of people are stuck, especially now.”
While Andrea was very vocal in regards to her rights, she says it is common in the immigrant community to not “rock the boat.” She finds it sad that people are so afraid to exercise their rights in spite of injustices. Her solution – seek help.
“For the future we need to support each other. We need to come together. We need to support those people in our community who may not have the courage to have a voice.” Andrea says.
Andrea’s involvement with the Progreso Latino Fund serves to her notion of supporting people in her community.
“PLF is the first group I have been a part of that I have been privileged to know people who are Latino and are leaders and are driven,” Andrea says. To be amongst other Latinos who are like me very driven, who are involved in their community, it’s been inspiring and the work that we do giving back to the community is so important. I love that each of us brings a different perspective.”
Angel Fernández Chavero
"I believe that leaders, real leaders, are people who at a time and a place decide that they have to help push to make a difference; and when they’re confronted with moments of doing something expedient or doing something that is self-aggrandizing, that they make the choice that is neither those, but what is best for the long term."
Acting Interim Executive Director for Commission on Equal Opportunities, City of New Haven
Hometown: Mexico City, Mexico
Ambitious is one way to describe Angel Fernández-Chavero. Hailing from Mexico City, Mexico, Angel navigated his way through life to grab his piece of the American dream while helping others along the way.
Angel grew up in Los Angeles, California after his family made the move from Mexico to America when he was just 6 months old. He attended Head Start (later becoming chair of the Board of Directors for New Haven’s LULAC Head Start program) and Catholic grammar and Jesuit high school. Following high school, Angel was accepted into Yale which brought him to New Haven.
Once arriving at Yale, Angel dealt with homesickness. He missed the comforts of home where his Mexican heritage played a major part. Mexican influences in New Haven were practically nonexistent at the time.
As someone who became a naturalized American citizen where he had to make a conscious decision to say that he was an American, Angel realized he had to take stock of his heritage and sense of self.
“Well, how proud am I of my heritage? Of my parents? And what does that mean when you go to a school whose slogan is ‘For God, for country, for Yale’ and either that thrills you or makes you puke… I had a lot of ‘identities’ to reconcile.”
While Angel says Yale was both fun and a huge learning experience, he credits an urban planning summer course he took as a rising high school senior for helping him shine at his first post-grad job, working in the Housing and Neighborhood Development office at New Haven City Hall.
“When I was looking for work, I got the job at City Hall because I could write and because I was so young. I was cheap labor and I didn’t have to have acronyms explain to me because I had taken that one course,” he recalls.
A Career by Accident and Interest
Angel says he ended up in a career in neighborhood development, economic development, philanthropy, and community organizing by a combination of accident and interest.
“On the government side, I thought it was cool to help people figure out how to buy a house and get into housing. I did have some interest in urban planning, obviously,” he says. “And an interest in the Latino community, especially the Puerto Rican community here because they were the overwhelming majority at the time [but] compared to where the Chicano community was in L.A., I thought ok…well…I don’t know how long I’m going to be here, but let’s put the shoulder against the door and start pushing.”
To say Angel has been active in the community would be an understatement. He has been the chair of Latino Youth, chair of the Development Committee of the Yale Latino Alumni Association, chair of the Connecticut Housing Coalition, a founding board member of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center and the Regional Data Cooperative (now DataHaven), treasurer of Casa Otoñal, a co-founder of the New Haven Jewish-Latino Dialogue and the list goes on. However, his most notable volunteer role is the help he gave to St. Rose of Lima Church. Angel played a major part in leading their efforts to fight against racial profiling of and brutality against Latinos by the East Haven Police Department. His efforts, along with his pastor’s, resulted in the resignation of the police chief, Department of Justice management oversight of the police department, and the arrest and conviction of four police officers. For this, he and Fr. Manship were honored in 2012 with the National Council of La Raza’s top civil rights award, the Graciela Olivarez Award.
What Leadership Looks Like
“I believe that leaders, real leaders, are people who at a time and a place decide that they have to help push to make a difference; and when they’re confronted with moments of doing something expedient or doing something that is self-aggrandizing, that they make the choice that is neither those, but what is best for the long term,” he says.
He knows more than a little about the importance of taking a long-term approach, having worked as a senior philanthropic officer at The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven – the region’s permanent endowment established in 1928. While there, he also served as the staff liaison to the Progreso Latino Fund.
“What I really loved about my tenure there is how much I learned about what makes nonprofits tick,” Angel says. “How to really run a nonprofit to achieve its mission, I think that’s where I learned some of my best lessons.”
Currently, Angel has returned to City Hall, acting as the interim executive director of the Commission on Equal Opportunities. He and his wife, Filomena Ayala, and their daughter Angela reside in New Haven, while daughter Celina is finishing college at California State University, Northridge.
Looking back over his life, Angel is proud of what he has accomplished.
“I’ve raised my children well and I’ve shown them and others that you really can make the world a better place.”
|"With education, we can get better jobs and we can create businesses. We’re able to have better healthcare and stay healthy. We’ll be able to grow the future generation."
President, Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut and co-founder of The Progreso Latino Fund at The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.
Hometown: Bronx, New York
Born and raised in the Bronx, New York to Puerto Rican immigrants, early on the odds were stacked up against Frances Padilla and her family. With a mother in and out of the hospital and a brother in and out of drug rehabilitation, her father struggled to manage the family’s woes while maintaining a sense of normalcy for his younger children, Frances and her younger brother Luis. Frances’ father sought help from the city’s social services office to help him sustain a work-life balance, but they were less than helpful. Though that was not the first time the system failed Frances and her family.
“We had a tragedy in the family that also marked a great deal of who we became, my brother and I,” Frances says. “My brother, Freddy became a heroin addict at the age of 14 and that really marked a difficult period in our family. With my mother sick over Freddy’s struggles, my father was just trying to keep everyone together.”
Frances says in the 1960s, heroin addiction was a crime and instead of being treated her brother was arrested and thrown into the prison system. Frances’ brother dealt with his drug addiction until he was murdered at the age of 21 during an altercation.
Fortunately for Frances and her family, a neighbor offered a beacon of hope during this time. The neighbor offered her father a helping hand with her and her brother Luis, allowing him to keep his job and keep his family afloat. These experiences gave a young Frances perspective.
“Those kinds of things, they really shaped my thinking over time about what I wanted to do in the world.” Frances says.
Frances says while she had gained perspective, her path was not yet completely clear when she entered college. Frances attended Wesleyan University, where she was encouraged to apply through ASPIRA (to aspire, in Spanish), a nonprofit dedicated to “developing the educational and leadership capacity of Hispanic youth”
, a group she had been involved in since her time at The Bronx High School of Science.
“I decided to major in psychology, mostly because I needed to understand myself better and I needed to better understand the life I had lived up to that point. I remember even in high school, especially after the district attorney sort of blew off my brother’s case, thinking that I wanted to change the way things work.”
After Wesleyan, Frances went to work at the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven (the New Haven Foundation as it was known then), and then later, to attend Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where she received her Master’s Degree in Public Administration. She says there at the Kennedy School she really wanted to figure out how philanthropy could be a more effective player in public policy.
A New Found Role
After leaving the Kennedy School, Frances founded a consulting practice focused on community development through education, affordable housing, youth development, community organizing and more. As a consultant, she worked with foundations, nonprofit organizations and government officials to address problems in the communities she knew so well growing up. She stayed in that role for 10 years until one of her clients, Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut, which promotes universal access to health care in the State and beyond, suggested she join their staff.
Originally the program director at Universal Health Care Foundation leading its research and policy initiatives, Frances’ leadership in the field was recognized when she was named President in 2012, succeeding its first president, Juan Figueroa.
Frances credits ASPIRA, her cousin Ivette, 11 years her senior who took her under her wing and the many other people along the way who helped her and her family with the successes she’s seen.
“I urge young people, particularly Latino/a/x, to take full advantage of educational opportunities as I did. Many are understandably worried about taking on student debt. I think of student debt as an investment in yourself with long-term return. With education, we can get better jobs and we can create businesses. We’re able to have better healthcare and stay healthy. We’ll be able to grow the future generation.”
| “Networks are key. But we need to ask ourselves, how well are we promoting and publicizing the things we have, and leveraging the resources and opportunities for Latinos in our community?”
President & CEO, NEGRON Consulting
Hometown: New York City, New York
Michael Negrón’s life, both personally and professionally, contains a collection of unlikely outcomes.
Born and raised in the Bronx, Michael is the eldest of three children. His father is from the town of Corozal, Puerto Rico; his mother is a Holocaust survivor, a German Jew born in Berlin, whose family moved to Portugal when she was five. She arrived in the United States on an American Red Cross relief boat to live with a foster family in New Jersey, just about the same time his father’s family was immigrating to New York City. They were both 13 years old. Years later, they would meet, fall in love, marry and start a family.
Michael attended New York City public schools, including Bronx High School of Science, one of the most recognized specialized schools in the country. He graduated a year early, just before turning 17, and stayed in New York City to attend Baruch College, where he earned his bachelor’s in Accounting. After that, he earned an MBA in International Finance at St. John’s University while working at his first job as an accountant at Steinway Pianos, a division of CBS, in New York.
He would spend more than twenty years in corporate finance and manufacturing operations before making a dramatic transition that would lead to the creation of his own consulting firm, strengthening companies and nonprofits by focusing on human capital over financial goals.
“Throughout my career I was often told I was a different kind of finance guy. People would say, ‘You don’t treat us as overhead or an expense, you treat us as individuals, as an investment, as an asset.’”
Michael’s consulting work has included projects with well-known corporations such as Travelers, Aetna, Pitney Bowes and Priceline.com in Connecticut, and Verizon, P&G, Johnson & Johnson and British Petroleum, as well as large foundations and international philanthropic organizations.
He says it was while leading a business process review for Priceline.com that Michael’s transformation from “just a finance guy” into an organizational development professional began.
“I was supposed to be there consulting for two or three months, serving as a bridge between IT and finance. But I left a research paper for the CIO in his inbox that I had put together on my own, reviewing best practices in travel and internet, and he loved it!”
More than 15 years later, he has consulted for Priceline.com on international expansion, leadership development workshops and executive coaching, and he worked with Verizon and P&G for over five years conducting leadership summits and coaching for high potential multicultural talent.
Making a Personal Investment
While Michael was building his own consulting network, he had the opportunity to work with a professional colleague performing executive searches for companies. He jumped at the chance to find executives within his Latino network who were qualified but might be overlooked or not even apply.
“I would add to every job description the ‘bilingual preferred’ language, even if it wasn’t required, because I wanted to find that new talent, opening up the playing field to people who are not the majority population.”
Years later, an individual who Michael had placed in one of those searches called him up with an opportunity. A major diversity firm in Washington, D.C. was looking for Latino executives who had navigated the corporate system to join as consultants.
The work required training and certification in a number of fields. Today, Michael is accredited in emotional competence inventory from the Hay Group, resilience factors inventory from Adaptiv Learning at the University of Pennsylvania, in addition to EI & Diversity training, executive transitions and succession planning. And, he has conducted nearly one thousand coaching sessions within varied industries across the country.
“It’s like the instructions given when you are on an airplane: ‘In case of emergency, apply the oxygen mask to yourself before helping others.’ You have to take care of yourself first.”
Michael says it is often the mentality among professionals, especially of minority groups, to keep their head down and work hard and eventually they will be recognized for their work. But, that’s not always the case.
“You have to let people know that you are interested in an opportunity. You have to be able to share what you know, or what you have accomplished. I hear people say all the time that they don’t want to be boastful or be considered ‘one of those people.’”
That’s why Michael says it is so important to have organizations like Progreso Latino Fund (PLF), which he has previously served as a member of the Advisory Committee and more recently consulted for, and the National Society of Hispanic MBAs (NSHMBA), of which he is a lifetime executive member and, in 2005, served as interim CEO during a significant transitional phase.
“Networks are key. But we need to ask ourselves, how well are we promoting and publicizing the things we have, and leveraging the resources and opportunities for Latinos in our community?”
The Best Job in the World
Michael and his wife Edita live in Guilford, and recently celebrated 38 years of marriage. Speaking of unlikely outcomes, the two met at a 4th of July party in New York City, two weeks before Edita was to move to Florida. Michael went to visit her in Florida, and they were married about six month later.
They have two sons, one who is currently overseeing the International Speakers Group for NEGRON Consulting from Japan, where he and his family live. The other son and his family moved from New York City to Guilford, living with Michael and Edita for a short time while getting settled, and recently bought their first home in Guilford.
“Being ‘un abuelo or ojiisan’ (grandpa in Spanish and Japanese), is probably the best job in the world.”
Michael says Edita deserves so much credit for who he is today.
“She models behavior, rather than tell people what they should or shouldn’t do. She has done the hard work spiritually, to help understand why we are here. My sons, in particular, have benefitted immensely from that, as I have.”
Michael also finds time to give back, having served on the Board of Directors for United Way, Casa Otoñal, Rotary International and NextGenLeaders (PeaceJam Foundation affiliate), and served for many years as a volunteer photographer for the Connecticut Food Bank’s annual Walk Against Hunger. From 2010 through 2012, he served as chair of the Connecticut Chapter Advisory Council for the NSHMBA, a position that didn’t exist until then.
Michael is inspired and energized by the potential he sees in the next generation of Latino leaders. He says it’s important to always be on the lookout for young and fresh ideas. And it’s equally important to provide those individuals with the support they need and the opportunity to lead, even if they fail the first time. Serving on volunteer boards can provide that opportunity.
“I think there needs to be more acknowledgement of the issues that other Latino backgrounds are experiencing. There’s an opportunity for some bridge building, as we are all at different points in the evolution of being here in the U.S., as Latinos, as Americans. It’s also generational, it’s not just cultural. But I think the most important thing is that we have to ask for help and how we can help.”
And, the importance of hard work needs to be stressed to that younger generation, without sounding too preachy. It’s only with a considerable amount of hard work, and good fortune and blessings, that Michael and his father José are able to say there is a Negrón living in Tokyo, Japan.
“When you are not the majority, you have to do double the work. You have to join the Chamber of Commerce, and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, or the African American Chamber of Commerce, or a Women’s Group. We can complain about it, or we can look at it as an opportunity to broaden our network and have a voice at both tables…which hopefully someday will become one table.”
|“I believe that this is a time when true leaders emerge and when ‘sparks’ - voting, mentoring, educating, leading policy changes – can ‘light a hundred fuses’ and ignite the fires of change for our city, state and country."
Tara Sanabria Davila, MSW, LCSW
Clinical Coordinator, Outpatient Psychiatric Clinic for Children,Yale School of Medicine
Hometown: New York City, NY
It was only recently that Tara Davila truly recognized her leadership, and that being who she is – and where she is – can be an inspiration for up and coming Latinos.
“I remember recently sitting in an interview with a Latina clinician who was just beginning her career. She spoke about how she aspires to be an administrator one day and that seeing another Latina as part of the leadership of the clinic that she was applying to work in made it feel possible.”
As faculty at the Yale School of Medicine, Tara’s primary role is as clinical coordinator at Yale Child Study Center Outpatient Psychiatric Clinic for Children. As part of the clinic’s administrative team, Tara has spent the last several years providing clinical supervision and training to a multidisciplinary group of clinicians that include social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists. She also serves as site coordinator for the Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy team at the Outpatient Clinic. She has worked with students about to begin their careers as well, ensuring that they will provide the highest quality of service to children and families encountering challenges that impact their emotional and mental health.
“I have always been aware of what I bring to the table in terms of considerations for our clients. I realized that, by virtue of my role, I have an additional responsibility as a leader and a mentor for clinicians of color. That interview really helped bring that to the forefront for me.”
But for anyone who knows Tara’s history, it would be no exaggeration to say that she has always embodied a leadership mentality.
It began in her teenage years, as a camper at the 92nd Street Y on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in New York City, when she was selected to participate in a leadership program. For the program’s required service project, Tara’s group chose to raise money to support other campers whose families wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford camp. The seemingly small effort was a formative and bonding experience for the emerging group of leaders.
“It was my introduction to teamwork and leadership. I’m actually still friends with a lot of the people that I did the leadership project with.”
It made an impression on the Y’s leadership as well; they recognized Tara’s unpolished talent and she soon became one of the youngest camp counselors there, supervising children and teenagers for five years, throughout part of high school and college.
Work Ethic and Education
One of three children, Tara’s parents were her most influential mentors. Her father, born and raised in Puerto Rico, came to NYC at 12; her mother was born and raised in New York to Puerto Rican immigrants.
Her father worked for Con Edison for 42 years, skipping his own high school graduation because it coincided with his first day on the job. Her mother worked as a dental assistant before deciding to start her own daycare out of their home, so she could be close to her children.
“It was a great way for my Mom to be present and also contribute to the household income, ensuring we could still do fun things. And more importantly, it allowed us certain privileges such as Catholic school education and a parent who was always accessible to us throughout the work week.”
Tara’s parents agreed that education was important from the beginning, insisting that she and her siblings attend college. Tara was the first in her family to attend a four-year institution and obtain a degree, receiving her Bachelor’s in psychology from UMass Amherst, where she also minored in Spanish and African American studies. She would go on to earn her MSW from Boston College.
“My parents helped me learn that you earn your stripes, you work hard and you let your work speak for itself. I’ve really embraced that in all aspects of my life. They also made me aware that some people find more obstacles along their way than others. I had many people help me overcome the obstacles in my path, and when I found myself in the position to help others navigate and remove barriers, I did what I could to help them.”
Tara says that, like many first generation immigrants of her generation, she did not grow up speaking Spanish in her home. She always thoughts that this was a deliberate choice of her parents, but has come to learn that this was all just part of cultural assimilation.
“Being Puerto Rican, it was always around us through culture, music, food – the culture and the values were always there when we were growing up. My grandmother always spoke to us in Spanish, and we would answer her in English! So it was important for me in high school and in college to learn Spanish.”
While at UMass Amherst, Tara took on another leadership role as one of a small group of students to organize an annual weekend-long conference for Latino students, hosting different leaders from the community to speak and conduct workshops. This group included Tara’s future husband, Malwin, and future brothers and sister in law, as well as others she would come to call friends, many of whom have now gone on to become school principals and town leaders in their communities. Tara and her fellow student leaders also took action as part of a group of students that organized and participated in a week-long sit in and takeover of the school administrative offices to protest budget cuts at the school that would have disproportionately affected students of color.
“That experience made me realize how creating a network is very important for the collective success of individuals, brave and innovative individuals with the audacity to dream. Having that space to support one another and get excited about each other’s’ dreams – and making them a reality – using all of our different talents together to help us all be successful in which ever paths we choose.”
It’s what drew Tara to the Progreso Latino Fund (PLF) when she and Malwin moved to Greater New Haven.
“I attended a couple of forums, and it just made sense. It felt like that group at college. And it was important for me to be able to contribute to the Latino community in New Haven, which has become my home.”
Making the Move
Originally, Tara considered various service career paths but she ultimately decided to pursue a Master’s degree in clinical social work. To her, if felt like a natural fit for her view of the world and her perception of her place in it.
“I realized what I really enjoy doing is helping people; and I was always the type of person that people felt comfortable coming and talking to. Social work provided me training to engage in meaningful work that supports a whole person and the totality of their experience in the world.”
After completing the graduate program, she and Malwin relocated to Connecticut, which she describes as a “cultural and geographical middle ground,” between his family in Massachusetts and her family in New York. Tara accepted a position working for crisis intervention and stabilization services through the Child Guidance Clinic for Greater Waterbury, helping Spanish-speaking families in acute psychiatric crisis living in that community.
“It was really quite gratifying to help families who might not otherwise have access to those services. At the time, I was the only Spanish- speaking clinician in that program and the community had many bilingual and monolingual residents.”
Though she loved working in that community, Tara found she missed the pace of Boston. Her husband had taken a job in New Haven, and encouraged her to come visit the city.
“I fell in love with its city vibe combined with small town charm. We moved that summer in 2003 and have been here ever since!”
She worked in Waterbury for a few more years, then took a position at Clifford Beers Guidance Clinic, working part time while raising her two young children. When they were both of school age, she took a full time position at the Child Study Center. By that time, she had already found other ways to contribute to her community, through PLF.
“I saw in PLF this core value of supporting the communities that we felt a part of, where we live and where we are raising our children. And I think people appreciate having those opportunities and places to get together and share resources. I’m excited to be a part of cultivating that in Greater New Haven.”
She also sees its potential to lead the New Haven Latino community through this current period of national anger and frustration over racial injustices and violence.
“As a clinical social worker who serves New Haven, I hear about the individual and local impact of national stories of injustice, police violence against black and brown people as well as reciprocal violence against police, which evokes anger, fear and worry. These events, and the coinciding emotions, run deep for all of the communities that I am a part of.”
But anyone who knows Tara knows that she also has eternal hope.
“I believe that this is a time when true leaders emerge and when ‘sparks’ - voting, mentoring, educating, leading policy changes – can ‘light a hundred fuses’ and ignite the fires of change for our city, state and country.”
|“There need to be more role models and more diversity among people in places of power and prestige. I think in a way, success is when it’s so normal that people see diversity in leadership and don’t question where the Latinos are."
Dean, College of Arts and Sciences, University of New Haven
Hometown: Hamden, CT
Lourdes Álvarez has focused her scholarly attention on contributions to society by scholars, poets, mystics and dissidents living in the religiously tolerant cities in Spain prior to the rise of the fundamentalism and violence that ended the experiment in convivencia.
This was the focus of the graduate work that brought her to New Haven, but it began long before then.
“I was always very interested in cultures and contact between them, because I saw that in my own life – being in between cultures and in between languages.”
Lourdes was born in Texas, but grew up in California. Her parents had emigrated from Cuba in 1959. For a time, Lourdes attended a Catholic school run by Mexican nuns on the U.S. side of the border.
“It was against the rules to speak Spanish, so that’s all we did. My grandfather was pleased that my Spanish was so good, but he was less enthusiastic about the Mexican accent.”
Growing up, Lourdes became aware of being treated differently, because she didn’t “look” Latina.
“I think I was always more sensitive to the difference, not just from Anglo-Americans, but even within my own community. I would walk into a Mexican grocery and begin speaking to them in Spanish but they would answer me in English. And I would think, ‘You’re not even listening to me. You’re just looking at my face and making all kinds of assumptions about who I am.”
A Passion for Education and Athletics
Though Lourdes majored in neurobiology at the University of California at Berkeley, she was also interested in becoming as educated and confident a speaker of Spanish as she was English. She continued on to earn her Master’s degree in Spanish from San Francisco State University and her PhD in Spanish and Portuguese from Yale. Currently, she speaks five languages, if you count both standard and Moroccan Arabic.
Health and fitness is also of personal interest to Lourdes, who at one point left college to ride and race bicycles with the Berkeley Bicycle Club, a group of former, current and future competitive cyclists.
“I just felt amazing that I was hanging on! Most of the riders were national class athletes for many years – and I had never been very athletic. At first, I would ride with them until I got dropped. But then I would come back the next day and try to hang on a little longer, and a little longer the next day. So when I finally did not get dropped on one of their rides…that was just awesome!”
Lourdes says her decision to teach came naturally, as she considers herself a very social person. But, she is also attracted by the idea of education as a transformational activity.
“In my family, education was the key to social change. If you’re going to make a difference, that’s the most fundamental place to start.”
Lourdes began her teaching career as assistant professor of Spanish at Bard College in Hudson Valley, NY for seven years. She then relocated to Washington, D.C. and Catholic University of America, where she also taught Spanish and ultimately became Chair of the Department of Modern Languages.
“Teaching Spanish in the U.S. is about asserting the beauty and richness of a culture and history that is often times unknown. One of the things that I am most proud of in my teaching career is working with Latino students and helping them to feel confident speakers of both languages.”
But Lourdes says she retained a deep fondness for the Greater New Haven area. So when she learned in 2011 about the available dean’s position at the University of New Haven, she was intrigued.
Returning to Greater New Haven allowed her to reconnect with her mentor and friend María Rosa Menocal.
As director of the Whitney Humanities Center from 2001 - 2012, María brought together poets, artists, architects and other experts from so many walks of life, Lourdes recalls, and was beloved by so many people in the community.
“She had an incredible zest for life; her teaching and being a mentor wasn’t just about academics – it went well beyond that. She was masterful at bringing people together.”
Sadly, María passed away not long after Lourdes returned to the New Haven area.
“A lot of the things that she was interested in and that I am interested in are reflections of our modern day predicament in terms of tolerance and empathy and understanding of people who are different from us. She taught me so much about bringing joy to what we do in academia.”
Transforming a Community with Knowledge
Lourdes says part of teaching is attacking people’s arrogance around the present.
“We think that the present – as we know it – is the most evolved that we have ever been, that we are thinking more deeply and with a greater sophistication about human rights, for example. And then you’re confronted with a text from the 10th century, and it’s actually kind of stunning to see we’re not the first people to think these things.”
As dean, Lourdes sees herself as a community networker, as well as educator. She is able to connect resources at the University of New Haven to needs in the community and foster partnerships for students, faculty, school and community leaders.
Community is a central component to success, she notes, where an individual feels respected and able to lead a fulfilling life, while helping others. She says she is inspired by the work of individuals and organizations that are empowering individuals to take control of their own lives, in the Latino community and beyond.
“There need to be more role models and more diversity among people in places of power and prestige. I think in a way, success is when it’s so normal that people see diversity in leadership and don’t question where the Latinos are.”
Lourdes admits that, often times Latinos have national loyalties, which may lead to groups being pitted against each other. Organizing together for a political voice can be helpful because, when there is a political voice, people want to pay attention to it.
“I think Latinos in this country still haven’t really seen a figure who is capable of bringing the people together, transcending individual nationalistic types of identities. We need that; people should feel like they need to pay attention to the Latino community.”
|“We do need more Latino leaders in order to address and advocate for the different needs in our community. In my opinion, promoting cultural traditions as well as accepting other cultures is vital and necessary.”
Executive Director, Junta for Progressive Action
Hometown: Brownsville, TX
Sandra Trevino believes that research saves lives.
She has plenty of research to back up that belief, having worked as a licensed clinical social worker specializing in childhood mental health disorders at the Yale Child Study Center, and later as a research associate at the Department of Emergency Medicine at Yale School of Medicine.
And, currently, as executive director at Junta for Progressive Action, she collaborates with the Yale Center for Clinical Investigation (YCCI) to increase the representation of New Haven’s Latino community in clinical trials.
“Our mission is to help, advocate and empower communities, thereby ensuring a better life for others.”
According to the YCCI, Latinos are diagnosed with diabetes, asthma, and certain cancers in disproportionate numbers. But, they are underrepresented in clinical trials. Junta’s partnership with YCCI is ensuring that clinical research designed to combat such diseases is taking the Latino community into account.
“Research can ensure that our needs are met and help future generations. But - most importantly - it is saving lives right here in this community.”
Along with research, Sandra has a passion for human rights, and Junta has been advocating strongly for comprehensive immigration reform, community safety and workers’ rights since its inception. Recent events, including the U.S. Supreme Court’s stalemate regarding President Obama’s executive actions on Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) and the expansion of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), have only strengthened Sandra’s resolve.
“When the news of the 4-4 decision issued by the Supreme Court was announced, I was overwhelmed with sadness and anger. Then we started hearing that there is nothing we can do, which is far from the truth. We will continue to fight for and demand comprehensive immigration reform.”
Born in Ohio and raised in Brownsville, Texas - where she earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology - Sandra came to New Haven in 2003, after receiving her Master’s of Social Work from the University of Texas-Pan American. She spent her first two years as a fellow at the Yale Child Study Center, and continued on as an instructor there for an additional two years.
In 2005, Sandra was introduced to Junta for Progressive Action and began working with then Executive Director Kica Matos to establish The Neighborhood Place, a therapeutic afterschool program to support at-risk children referred by local agencies such as Clifford Beers, Yale Child Study Center and Cornell Scott Hill Health Center.
“At that point, I realized I wanted to do community-based work, helping and advocating for our community. When Kica decided to go work for the City of New Haven in 2007, I was offered the position of interim executive director.”
The rest, Sandra says, is history. She later became executive director and has served in that role since. She finds other ways to give back to her community as well, currently serving on the Board of Directors of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. She is a former New Haven Police Commissioner (2007 – 2014) and has previously served on several other nonprofit Boards, including Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven, Concepts for Adaptive Learning, and Read to Grow.
“Literacy is another passion of mine, because so many learning disabilities go undetected. When given the opportunity, I share my own personal struggle with dyslexia in order to encourage others not to give up when faced with a learning disability.”
Nurturing Passion and Concern
The city of Brownsville is located at the southernmost tip of Texas, on the northern bank of the Rio Grande. Sandra’s family has been there for generations, residents of a region that has been considered part of Spain, Mexico, Texas (an independent nation) and, finally, the state of Texas.
Sandra’s family made their living as migrant workers, which meant the majority of men in her family – her father and uncles – were out working in the fields during the day. So she remembers the women in her family, including her mother, grandmother and many aunts as the biggest influences on her young life.
“They made things happen! I was part of a family who would help others, regardless. Even if we only had a little bit for ourselves, they were helping individuals with difficulties that we all had the potential of experiencing, because we were all in the same situation.”
She says some of the traits of the women in her family - patience, courage, trustworthiness, humility, emotional stability, warmth and sense of humor – are the same traits that make strong Latino leaders in our community today.
“I think success is when you’re able to help others without expecting anything in return. And I think that individuals that are in that position should really take the time to mentor others, because a lot of us just get here by chance. No one took the time to invest in us, and if there was more of that, think of how many more great leaders there would be.”
Just as in clinical research, community leadership and development requires a representation of all parties involved. And Sandra wants to see more Latinos stepping up to the challenge.
“We do need more Latino leaders in order to address and advocate for the different needs in our community. In my opinion, promoting cultural traditions as well as accepting other cultures is vital and necessary. As we continue to struggle and face adversity with racism, gender discrimination and hate crimes, I urge all to do their part to create a better life for others.”
|"There is still so much possibility and so much opportunity in this country. You can have your voice be heard - now more than ever before - and really let that voice blossom. We need more leaders to keep pushing that collective voice, to keep the momentum going.”
Jorge Luis Jimenez
Associate Relationship Manager and Vice President of Business Banking, First Niagara
Hometown: Bridgeport, CT
Dream big and set goals. It’s a mantra for Jorge Luis Jimenez, passed down from his father, and it’s the reason he – at 29 – is one of the youngest associate relationship managers at First Niagara Bank, providing businesses with annual revenues of $2 to $25 million with loan, deposit, treasury management and other financial solutions. Jorge specializes in treasury management, with knowledge of a variety of merchant banking and transactional needs.
“I’ve watched the really successful people in my industry and paid attention to what they were doing. I always dream big, and I always listen and ask a lot of questions.”
He has also worked very hard to get where he is. At the age of 15, while attending Notre Dame High School, he worked as a barista at Starbucks - becoming a shift supervisor after only a couple of years. The manager at the RadioShack a few doors down noticed Jorge’s work ethic and asked him if he was interested in sales.
“I said, ‘I have no clue about sales, but I’ll try it.’ And I learned quickly that if I explain to the customer the benefits of a product and if it makes sense for the customer to buy the product, then I’d be doing the right thing for the customer. I did really well, and I started making a lot of money.”
His father made sure that Jorge’s income was put to good use, invested in a bank until the time came for Jorge to buy a house.
“My dad took me to the bank every Friday to deposit my paycheck. He always impressed upon me that capital is important, and that I should buy a house.”
The manager at that People’s Bank branch also took notice of Jorge, and upon moving to Washington Mutual, asked him if he ever thought about being a banker. Jorge had just entered the pre-med program at University of New Haven (UNH).
“I actually went to college to be a doctor, because my grandfather was a very famous doctor in South America and my father thought I should be one too. But I realized pre-med was not for me, so I switched to a double-major in business and accounting.”
Jorge would work weekdays at the bank from 8:30 – 4:00 in Norwalk and then drive straight to UNH in West Haven for evening classes. He took classes on Saturdays as well, and was able to graduate early. By then, he had also become a business banking specialist and readily embraced the teaching aspect of the work, explaining finance and investments to customers, guiding them to the right choice for them.
And, Jorge fulfilled his father’s expectations when he bought his first house at the age of 22.
“Dad always told me to buy a multi-family house, in order to use it as an investment. I think he had all these visions and plans that he never had the chance to do, and so I think he encouraged me to do those things.”
Mentors and Life Lessons
Jorge’s mother and father were both born in Ecuador and were both the first of their families to immigrate to the U.S. in the mid-1980s. Born in 1987 in Queens, NY, Jorge was three when his parents moved their small family to Bridgeport. His father got a job as a machinist for Dupont, from which he will retire in 2016. Jorge’s mother was a Pre-K and kindergarten teacher at Holy Family School in Fairfield until its closing in 2010.
The move to Bridgeport marked the start of helping family members who were also interested in coming to the U.S. Jorge’s parents provided shelter and support as more and more aunts, uncles and cousins came to establish new and prosperous lives in Connecticut.
“My parents are my mentors; my inspiration to give back to my community started with them. I saw how they took in everybody. And it didn’t matter who they were, they were willing to help.”
Home was like a college dorm, Jorge says laughing. Every “semester” there was a group of family members ready to move into their own house and another family coming in from Ecuador, ready to fill the vacancy.
“I was an only child, but I always had cousins in the house with me as I was growing up. We had four bedrooms in that house and let me tell you, every one of them was utilized to the max!”
He was closest to his cousin Fernando Moreno-Rivas, who was a year and four days older and in constant competition with Jorge - in sports, cars and life achievements.
“We both went to Holy Family School, and then we were both accepted to Notre Dame. We were both involved in our church, always holding can and bottle drives to give back to the community. We both played soccer. We both excelled at math, but we both struggled in school at times because of the language barrier.”
After high school, Jorge went to UNH and Fernando joined the Army, climbing the ranks quickly to sergeant. Sadly, Fernando was killed in a car accident earlier this year, leaving a devastated family and community who described him as a ‘superhero without a cape.’
Making Moves for a Stronger Community
In November, Jorge received the Millennial Move Maker Award from the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce and its PULSE Young Professionals group. The award is given to individuals who are “making an outstanding difference in the professional and outside world.”
“A lot of the work I do, in and out of my occupation, is work with young professionals to help them grow and develop, give them the right tools, and what they need to do to get to the next level.”
He says that is what initially attracted him to The Community Foundation and the Progreso Latino Fund (PLF). He now serves on the Advisory Committee of PLF.
“PLF is kind of like my baby now, out of all the Boards and activities that I’m involved with. We’re really trying to encourage Latinos to be a driving force in the community. We have a great group right now.”
That “driving force” was on Jorge’s mind long before he came to PLF. While working at a Bank of America branch in East Haven in 2008, he realized just how much of the Latino community in that town was just getting established.
“We started working with some of the Latin American consulates, and when people would come in to renew passports and other documents, I was there to explain to them the benefits of opening a checking account and creating financial security for themselves.”
After two years, he left Bank of America to become a branch manager at Citizens Bank - the youngest to do so - all while just finishing up college.
“I had a passion for teaching; I had a passion for helping others. I made my staff stronger, teaching them everything: how to sell, provide good quality service. But I would also make them realize what they were doing for customers was important – being helpful while still making money.”
That passion still exists, and Jorge says he is always willing to help others: professionally, financially, or however he can. In addition to PLF, he is also on New Reach Inc.’s Board of Directors and is director of public relations and social media for PULSE. He also reviews resumes on the side - for young professionals, friends and acquaintances.
“I’m always willing to help someone get to the next level. There is still so much possibility and so much opportunity in this country. You can have your voice be heard - now more than ever before - and really let that voice blossom. We need more leaders to keep pushing that collective voice, to keep the momentum going.”
|"I believe we as individuals and as a community have the passion, desire and urgency to work to make this a better place. I feel this is the time for our Latino community to be recognized as a powerful force in our region and in the nation.”
Vice Chair, New Haven Board of Education
Hometown: New York City, NY
Alicia Caraballo comes from a family that believes education is the key to success.
Born in New York City, Alicia spent her formative years in New Haven, attending St. Mary’s High School on Orange Street, then Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU). She received her Master’s Degree in Social Work from Columbia University, where she was active in Puerto Rican affairs.
“The women in my life have been my mentors, teaching me the value of education. My grandmother had, after years of working as a maid, in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, returned to night school, graduated and became a social worker.”
Alicia moved to Washington, D.C. with the opportunity to work for Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation (NeighborWorks America), a national housing program that had recently been created at the Federal Home Loan Bank Board. She traveled the country, creating homeownership opportunities for families at all income levels, revitalizing neighborhoods from the bottom up. But the travel took its toll on her family, and she decided to return to New Haven and follow in another family member’s footsteps.
“My Aunt Carmen was a teacher and later became a guidance counselor in the New Haven Public Schools. NHPS was looking for a school social worker; it seemed like the right fit for me.”
Alicia would remain within the New Haven Public School district for the next 26 years, moving from social worker to Assistant Principal, and then Principal of Hill Central School, Supervisor of Career & Technical Education and Special Education before becoming Director of New Haven Adult & Continuing Education, where she served 10 years. She retired from the school district in June of 2014 only to be appointed a month later by Mayor Toni Harp to serve on the Board of Education, where she is currently Vice President.
When asked why she agreed to serve on the Board of Education, Alicia highlighted not only her commitment to this district where her granddaughter attends school, but the important work to ensure that every student is ready to succeed in this ever-changing, complex world. She wanted to be part of the process that manages that work.
Service at Every Level
If education was a value impressed upon Alicia at a young age, so was commitment to her community. Her mother, Pura Delgado, left her job in a factory to become a community activist, working tirelessly to develop New Haven organizations such as Junta for Progressive Action, Fair Haven Community Health Clinic and Crossroads, Inc. Then, she decided to become a business owner, opening her own bridal shop on Orange Street in what’s now known as the Ninth Square District. As an entrepreneur, she not only had gowns made for weddings, she established a relationship with Valencia Bakery in New York to have their cakes delivered to New Haven. She was a florist, a photographer and a Justice of the Peace.
“It truly was a ‘one-stop shop’. My mother understood the importance of lifelong learning, regardless of your age, and that with hard work you can accomplish anything. There is no question that my mother has been my mentor.”
Community service has been very important to Alicia as well. In addition to her role on the New Haven Board of Education, she is on the Board of The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven and serves as its Development Committee Chair and liaison to the Progreso Latino Fund. Alicia has also served on the Boards of Hispanos Unidos contra SIDA (AIDS), Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven, Casa Otoñal and Neighborhood Music School.
Inspiration and Urgency
Alicia has recently begun to develop a reputation as mixed media artist. A collage workshop at Creative Arts Workshop many years ago sparked her interest to learn more. Since then, she has completed a two-year Art Cloth Mastery Program with professional fiber artist Jane Dunnewold in San Antonio, Texas.
“My work is spontaneous and intuitive, without much planning. Vibrant colors, making marks, brush strokes, scribbles, ethnic images, faces, maybe some words become a wearable piece of art that makes my heart sing.”
Alicia is also a two-time Fulbright Scholar, having participated in programs in Brazil and Argentina. As part of her Scholar Program in Argentina, she helped to establish a ‘Murga’ in an elementary school in Cordoba.
“Murgas are Argentina’s young who use found objects as instruments and write hip-hop poetry and music. We obtained a grant that provided instruments, as well as music and art teachers who worked with students and staff at the school to produce incredible performances.”
Tragedy has served as motivation for Alicia, as well. She has lost a brother and her only child to gun violence. As a result, she has been very vocal throughout New Haven, raising awareness of the issues our community needs to address, particularly gun violence.
“The impact of violence in our communities is destroying us; the loss of life and the pain and suffering that families endlessly endure is taking its toll and we must do something about it.”
Nevertheless, Alicia says she is encouraged by the community activism she has seen throughout our Greater New Haven region and the country of late. Though it may be fueled by the political climate, as well as other recent national events, it is still symbolic of a larger shift in opinion of what will help everyone succeed.
“I once read a quote about success that resonated with me: ‘The size of your success is measured by the strength of your desire, the size of your dream and how you handle disappointment along the way.’ I believe we as individuals and as a community have the passion, desire and urgency to work to make this a better place. I am encouraged by the community activism; I feel this is the time for our Latino community to be recognized as a powerful force in our region and in the nation.”
|"An important part of my continued success is giving back to young people, helping them understand that they deserve success as much as anyone else."
Director of Program, Talent Philanthropy
Hometown: Bridgeport, CT
As a child, Yolanda Caldera-Durant’s parents consistently reminded her of the importance of education. And, as a young student, she had no problems excelling in school. Though her parents did not go to college, she was encouraged to, and Yolanda watched as her sister and a cousin went on to higher education after graduating high school.
“I thought to myself, ‘If they can do it, then I am fully capable of getting my education and there’s nothing to be afraid of.’”
But when she began classes at the University of Connecticut, there were a few things for which she was unprepared.
A Sense of Belonging
“Coming from a community [in Bridgeport] that was predominately Latino and African-American and Asian, to the University of Connecticut, which was – at that time – about 90% white, that was a bit of a culture shock.”
She took advantage of UCONN’s Center of Academic Programs (CAP), which is designed to provide resources and support for students who are the first generation in their families to go to college or are from under-represented groups on campus.
“It helped me to enter gently into a four-year university setting, where there were very few Latinos and very few people of color in general.”
Yolanda quickly found her niche, along with a few other Latinas having the same experience, through the Puerto-Rican and Latin American Cultural Center on campus. A bond was formed, and after that, she and seven of her classmates co-founded the Beta Sigma Alpha Sororidad Latina Inc. - the first Latina sorority on the UCONN campus.
“It was a big deal and we received a lot of support from the black fraternities and sororities already on campus.”
The sorority supported community service projects on campus and raised money to help the community. To this day, the sorority’s Alma Maldonado-Cordner Book Scholarship, named after Yolanda’s mentor and the sorority's first academic advisor, is awarded every year to Latina high school students or undergrads attending a four-year university.
Graduating on the Dean’s List, with a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology, Yolanda was hired by the Department of Children and Families (DCF). She was back in Bridgeport, as well, in high demand because of her bilingual skills. She found herself in the middle of a system of families who had their children removed, and not enough foster families for all the children needing homes. She recognized that a better connection to community services would help so many of the families she was seeing.
“The parents who were having their kids removed had a lot of challenges: there was extreme poverty, there were mental health issues, there were addiction issues. It was a very complex problem, and I wanted to be part of a way to help prevent families from being separated, because it takes multiple generations to recover from a child being removed from a family.”
She moved into the philanthropic world, taking her knowledge and experience as a DCF social worker to help secure financial resources for organizations already working to prevent families from being impacted by child welfare issues, supporting youth and family development.
“I didn’t want to work in a place where I was putting out fires; I wanted to be in a position where I was able to impact macro-level change, systems change. My work has always been about social justice.”
She gives credit to the many mentors she’s had throughout her life, influencing her to have a strong work ethic, be responsible and take care of others. She says her mother was “the original feminist”, always pushing Yolanda to be empowered, get an education and give back.
Leading the Next Generation
Yolanda has just become the first Director of Programs at Talent Philanthropy, a national campaign launched in 2014 to maximize foundation investments in a nonprofit workforce that is diverse, high-performing, impactful, and enduring. Informed by an Advisory Council of stakeholders from across the nonprofit sector, and supported by several national foundations as well as local funders, Talent Philanthropy encourages investment in nonprofits to increase professional, leadership and career development opportunities, thereby increasing impact and sustainability of the nonprofit sector.
Most recently, Yolanda spent several years as Senior Program Officer at the Connecticut Health Foundation, managing grants related to expanding healthcare and access for communities of color, while also directing the Foundation’s Health Leadership Fellows Program. Prior to that, she was a program associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Center for Community and Economic Opportunity in New Haven, creating workforce development opportunities for low income residents and promoting economic self-sufficiency for families in our region.
“A really important part of my continued success, and my ability to feel like I deserve what I have, is by giving back to young people, helping them develop leadership skills and helping them understand that they deserve success as much as anyone else and helping them to make informed decisions about their lives.”
As a member of the Progreso Latino Fund’s Advisory Committee, Yolanda is excited to see the Fund taking a partnership role in the Immigration Strategic Funders Collaborative of Connecticut, which recently received a grant from the Open Society Foundations to help local nonprofits and community organizers prepare for the implementation of both Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) and the expansion of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) under President Obama’s 2014 Executive Actions.
“It’s an aspirational body of work, and it truly hinges on the upcoming presidential election. I am proud that the Progreso Latino Fund, The Community Foundation and other partners are building this infrastructure to help Latinos to come to and remain in the state, legally.”
This fall, Yolanda will also be teaching Fund Development and Grant Writing for Nonprofits as adjunct professor in UCONN’s Nonprofit Leadership Program. And, she has recently helped to rekindle a local group of Las Comadres, which is a national Latina social networking group, providing a supportive community for Latina professionals to share experiences, support, professional and personal connections, resources and networks.
“I really think it all starts with developing our young people, and I think a lot of young Latinos lack strong leaders in their lives and they need support to really understand that they have the ability to succeed. It’s not about, ‘Who do we bring in to save people?’ We need to save ourselves. We have the passion and the knowledge, and we have the ability to really do better.”
|"No matter where you go in life, you have to get involved and give back. That’s our personal tax for being on the planet."
Founder of New Paradigms Consulting, LLC, management consulting firm
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
For the past two decades, John Padilla’s career has centered on helping people rise out of poverty by connecting them to jobs. His success has earned him the reputation among government and nonprofit leaders around the state and country as a go-to expert on what works and what doesn’t when it comes to employment services and workforce development.
The Passion to Give Back
Padilla’s workforce development career began with the Hartford Neighborhood Jobs Initiative, which he led after working in the corporate sector in the aerospace and telecommunications industries.
“I was earning good money in the private sector but decided I wanted to follow my passion and do something different. I didn’t know anything about workforce development at the time, other than that economic mobility begins with a job. So, I applied the skills I had learned in the private sector to a nonprofit setting. And it worked.”
Success with the Hartford Neighborhood Jobs Initiative led Padilla to more opportunities with other funders, building a successful consulting practice, and eventually to managing the national portfolio of workforce development investments at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the $3 Billion funder of initiatives that help improve the lives of children and families in poverty.
One of his biggest achievements at Casey came in 2009, when he successfully persuaded Connecticut officials to apply for funding made available by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. His testimony before the state legislature and work building a coalition of agencies eligible for the federal funding resulted in $34 Million coming into the state for residents most in need.
Padilla also helped to ramp up New Haven’s local sites of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, which provides low-income people with free tax preparation by volunteers who have been certified through the IRS. The assistance helps people access significant money due to them through the earned income tax credit and deductions they might otherwise miss out on.
“At the time New Haven’s VITA sites were serving at most 250-300 people per tax season; in our first year we served an additional 500 and eventually grew to serve 3,000 low-income tax filers. VITA brings back millions to the community.”
A Life Lesson
Padilla’s passion for giving back to his community was inspired in part by the lessons he’d learned from a Brooklyn community organizer, Jose “Tuffy” Sanchez.
“Tuffy was well known in Red Hook, where I grew up. Everyone knew Tuffy. He was very much into trying to get kids to stay in school, to be proud of their Puerto Rican-ness, and to make something of themselves while not forgetting those less fortunate.
He was the one who taught me that no matter where you go in life, you have to get involved and give back. That’s our personal tax for being on the planet.”
Early Leadership Training
As a high school freshman, Padilla joined ASPIRA, the renowned Latino youth leadership program founded by Dr. Antonia Pantoja. His junior year, Padilla was elected to be one of two student representatives on ASPIRA’s National board, where he sat next to Hon. José A. Cabranes, the first Puerto Rican federal judge, and Hernan Lafontaine, who later became Hartford’s Supt. of Schools.
“ASPIRA is where I learned leadership skills, both the value of leadership and how you use leadership. Leadership is about how you bring people along, build consensus, and get things done in ways that build community. Leadership is not about personal gain or harming others because they disagree with you. I learned early on that just because you’re driving the bus, that doesn’t give you license to run people over!”
From 1994-2000, Padilla served as a member of the Board of Directors at The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. In 2002, he and his wife, Frances, gathered a group of Latino friends to build philanthropy in the local Latino community. A year later, the Progreso Latino Fund was created at The Foundation, ensuring resources would be available to meet the needs and opportunities of Latinos in the region, forever.
“The idea of PLF came from the belief that our community was growing and maturing and a number of individuals were now in the position of being able to give. We all came from similar backgrounds – from working class families that valued education for their children – and we had all done pretty well. We understood that we have to go into our pockets to support our own – no one is going to do that on our behalf. The way you build capital at The Foundation is by being a donor.”
On What is Needed for More Latinos to Be Successful
The best way forward for Latinos, Padilla says, is through education.
“ASPIRA molded that into my DNA.
Young kids need to understand that education is the one and only transformative activity that you control, that you can use to get ahead. There is no other activity that I know of that has that power.
You can be a successful athlete and blow out your knee. You can be a successful artist, and all of the sudden your art isn’t in vogue any more. You can be a musician, and your moment passes. But education is for a lifetime. And a good education provides the tools so you can reeducate yourself. I’ve been fortunate that I have had five careers in my professional life, and that’s because I’ve always been ready for the next opportunity. I had people in my life who taught me many lessons - the most important was that I learned how to learn.”
“If you live by a certain set of values and people respect you for those values, 90 percent of your success is achieved.”
Director of Business Administration, Community Renewal Team
Hometown: Bloomfield, CT
Santiago-Martinez is a founding member of the National Society of Hispanic MBAs and the Connecticut chapter. She has volunteered on numerous nonprofit boards of directors and was the PTO President of Wintergreen Interdistrict Magnet School, a Hamden Inland Wetlands Commissioner, and a member of the Town of Hamden’s mayoral transition team. She currently serves on the boards of the New Haven Scholarship Fund, Liberty Community Services, Fellowship Place and the Progreso Latino Fund.
Professionally, Santiago-Martinez has held leadership positions in economic development, finance and project management, and she has taught at Quinnipiac University's undergraduate Lender School of Business.
Led to Community Service by Family and Faith
Santiago-Martinez’s father was one of, if not the first, Spanish-speaking Pentecostal ministers in Connecticut. It was at his Hartford church where the Santiago family learned from members of the congregation that the migrant workers in nearby Windsor Locks were in need.
“I recall my mom. . . every Saturday, she would pack these big, what they call calderos, pots of rice and beans and some kind meat, usually chicken. We used to take all that food over to the tobacco fields where the migrant workers lived in large dormitory-style housing.
I remember my sister and me as little kids giving them plates as my mom would dole out the food. There were always lines that formed. That was our ritual every Saturday.”
Santiago-Martinez also watched her father organize voter registration drives at the church and encourage the congregation to vote in order to be heard.
“My father was a big believer in citizenry and in making sure that we do the right thing and exert our rights. And my mom was the indefatigable force who every Sunday would walk the streets convincing parents to let their children attend Sunday school, while keeping an eye out for families in need. That was the beginning of my interest in community service and community work.”
Growing up in Bloomfield
With the benefits he received as a Korean War veteran, Santiago-Martinez’s father moved the family from Hartford’s Stowe Village housing project to a ranch house in Bloomfield. The town was becoming known as an inclusive community that was open to change.
“I had the best of all worlds. My sister and I were the only Latinas in the school. And yet, growing up in Bloomfield helped me to become the person I am today. Living there, I learned to understand other people. We were in the minority. But we exchanged ideas, and I learned about their lives and they learned about mine. Bloomfield was a place where people were okay with differences.”
A Special Teacher
Even though Santiago-Martinez was on the academic track in high school, it was in a typing and stenography class where she learned some of her most important lessons.
“Alice Rogers, I still remember her to this day. She was Jamaican. She was very hard on us. There were seven young ladies in that class. She would say you have to be twice as good, three times as good to get to where you need to be. She was all about excellence. She was all about doing well. She set an example with her value system.
To this day, that credo drives me because quality matters. If I do a job or give you a product, I have to make sure it’s done well and all the questions are answered.”
Another profound influence on Santiago-Martinez was her involvement with Aspira, the Latino youth leadership organization founded by Antonia Pantoja. She had met Pantoja in 1979 in Washington, D.C. as a fellow with Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Institute and was deeply moved by Pantoja’s movement.
“Antonia was the person I hoped to be. I’ve read all of her pieces on economic development and just about everything she has written.”
A Different Time
As a teenager, Santiago-Martinez was connected by the Neighborhood Youth Corps to a summer and after-school job at the local agricultural extension center.
“I think back at all these opportunities we had accessible to us and it gives me sadness that the same are not available to young people today -- jobs after school and connections with people that can mentor you.
There was a different tenor in our community. I think that people really tried hard to make sure that young people were ready. When they graduated from that high school, even if they weren’t going to college, it was made sure that they had some sort of skill set to go and get a job and make a living.”
On Being a Successful Latina
After serving for eight years as director of lending for the Greater New Haven Community Loan Fund, Santiago-Martinez joined the Community Renewal Team, the Hartford-based Community Action Agency, in 2010 to direct the business operations.
“What has helped me to grow and learn is, first, respecting people wherever they are. Respect is a big deal for me. If you live by a certain set of values and people respect you for those values, 90 percent of your success is achieved.
The second is having passion for what you do and what you believe. If you influence people and bring them along to join you in that passion, success is sustained.”
“I’m a strong advocate for role models.”
President of LaVoz Hispana de Connecticut
Hometown: New Haven
After a first career as director of the Atwater Senior Center, Norma Rodriguez-Reyes is now President of La Voz Hispana de Connecticut (The Hispanic Voice of Connecticut), now the largest Spanish language newspaper in the state. She is the third of 10 sisters and three brothers. All graduated from Richard C. Lee High School. In the 1980s, she was the first Hispanic State Central Committee Member. She was the first Hispanic to have cast an electoral vote for President Clinton, a delegate to the National Democratic Convention in 2006, and a was member of the State of Connecticut Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission, appointed by Senator Martin Looney. She is on the Board of Directors of the Spanish American Merchants Association and chairs the Online Journalism Project.
Throughout her career, Rodriguez-Reyes has been generous with sharing opportunities and giving back. Following the recent law allowing driver’s licenses for undocumented residents, she signed up to be a certified driving instructor.
At La Voz, she provides internships to high school students and brings them with her on business meetings. When she was a commissioner in the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission, she was invited by Sen. Chris Dodd to Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor’s Senate confirmation hearings. She made sure to bring two teenage interns along with her.
“Every time I get invited anywhere, I always take people with me, and always make sure to take young people,” Rodriguez-Reyes said. “Going to Washington to see the hearings, these are things that you remember for the rest of your life.”
Rodriguez-Reyes started mentoring younger people shortly after she graduated from the University of Connecticut, when she and her sisters returned to their neighborhood church.
“We graduated from college and we came back to church because we wanted the young people to know that the same way we were poor girls, the same way we went to college and made it, they could too. I’m a strong advocate for role models.”
When Rodriguez-Reyes was growing up, the priority that her parents placed on education put them at odds with the dogma of their Pentecostal church.
“Back then, a lot of people in our church didn’t graduate from high school because the church didn’t allow girls to wear pants. Well, in school you had to do gym. And when you did gym you wore pants. Parents would abide by the church rule and their kids didn’t graduate. Thank God my parents drew the line in terms of the rules of our church and our education, and I would wear pants for gym.”
The expectation of going to college was instilled in the 13 Rodriguez children by their father, a migrant farm worker from rural Puerto Rico with little formal education.
“My oldest sister Ruth, at the age of 16, got her Social Security card because at that time you only got it when you were going to work. She was so happy that she would be able to go to work. My father asked her to see the social security card, and he tore it up. He said, ‘You aren’t going to work. You’re going to college.’”
Learning to Appreciate Her Heritage
Rodriguez-Reyes was born in Puerto Rico and came to New Haven at 5 years old. She spoke only Spanish until the fifth grade. By the time she reached UCONN, however, speaking Spanish was something she wanted to hide because at that time it was not fashionable to be a Latina.
“When I was growing up, the last thing I wanted to be was Hispanic. I wanted to be what the role models were. They were all American who spoke perfect English with no accent.”
A professor convinced her that being bilingual would help her later in life, so she kept up her fluency. Shortly after graduating, she went to a Puerto Rican parade pageant in New Haven. The first Hispanic event she had ever attended, it was a transformative experience.
“There was a pageant for the queen of the parade. I remember being so proud when I saw these young girls competing from all the different cities and towns in Puerto Rico. That was my first time feeling really proud of being Hispanic. Since then I made the commitment, when I became the President of La Voz, to give a thousand dollar scholarship to whoever wins the statewide pageant.”
On Being Latina
Rodriguez-Reyes now attends as many of the expanding multicultural events in the region as she can. She also sympathizes with younger people who feel, like she once did, ambivalent about their heritage.
“Those who grow up in the suburbs, the ones that want to blend in and not be seen, I know what they have to go through. You feel pressure from all sides. If you have a Spanish last name and don’t speak Spanish, Hispanics are very tough on you. Those are the idiosyncrasies that you have to understand to really survive in this generation.
For me, I was a girl that didn’t even want to speak Spanish and wanted to change my last name. And now I’m running the state’s largest Spanish language newspaper and have a show on the radio 103.5 FM “Que Pasa” in both Spanish and English.”
“I love being responsible for making something."
Chief Operating Officer, Space-Craft Manufacturing Inc.
Chairman of the New Haven Economic Development Corporation
First Vice President New Haven Preservation Trust
Director ACM Aerospace Components Manufacturers, Inc.
Hometown: Orange, CT
As the head of the daily operations of a New Haven manufacturer of jet engine components, Pedro Soto is on top of the latest aerospace technology. He also has a deep interest in preserving the past.
At the Helm
When Soto took over operations at Space-Craft, the company founded by his father, it was primarily a supplier of replacement parts to the military. In order to win orders for the next generation of jet engines, the company had to take risks, invest in new technology, and adapt its processes. They are now part of a resurgent American manufacturing sector.
“If you were to buy a 737 today, you couldn’t get it for 8 years. The backlogs on these aircraft are record breaking. These new planes have incredibly more efficient engines, so they pay for themselves quickly. It’s been good for Space-Craft. We have at least one part in every single next-generation engine from Pratt and Whitney and GE. For a forty-four person company, that is a neat thing to say.”
Working at his father’s company was never the original plan for the younger Soto. A graduate of Hopkins School and Amherst College, where he majored in political science, Pedro had an interest in computers. His first jobs were with a dot-com start-up and later as a systems administrator for Yale Information Technology Services.
“In 2006 my dad had some health problems and I was looking for a career change. He asked me to come help. He said, ‘You’re a smart guy, you can figure it out.’ I ended up really loving it. I love being responsible for making something. I love the fact that we are making a product, that it comes in as a big piece of metal, and it goes out as a part, a tangible product.”
Emerging as a Leader
Soto’s father, John Soto, started his career as an 18-year old who talked his way into a job at a machine shop. After mastering his trade as a machine operator, he worked his way into management, and eventually founded Space-Craft Inc. in 1970. Pedro sees his father as a mentor, though they have different approaches to leadership.
“We’re pretty different people. He’s eminently talented, but hands on. I’m more cerebral. I tend to look at systems and processes. He’s more like, ‘I know how to do this, watch me.’ We end up with the same result. For me, I have to attack a problem from a broader view and get consensus.”
Because of his position as a business leader, Pedro has been asked to sit on volunteer boards throughout the city. As the president of the New Haven Preservation Trust, he helped the organization climb out of a deficit with a successful campaign during its 50th anniversary celebration.
“I love old buildings. In another time and place I would have been a historian. I think you have to celebrate the history and remind people that one of the reasons New Haven is New Haven is because of its history and its architecture.”
Looking to a future Latino majority
Growing up, Soto had to contend with the biases of peers who had never known any prosperous Latinos.
“There was always this sense of, ‘How did you get to live in that house there?’”
For Soto, a sign of progress will be when the success of Latinos is no longer questioned. But he also wonders what will happen when Latinos are no longer a minority group.
“Where are the divisions going to be? Are we going to get over the questioning of everyone who doesn’t have the common American background? Or are we going to do what people did to the Irish. What’s going to happen? At some point, we might become just as intolerant. I have hope that won’t be the case.”
“It’s a duty of mine, as an educated individual, to fight for the people who didn’t have the same opportunity as me.”
Project Engineer at the Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge (“Q” Bridge)
Hometown: Sucua (Morana-Santiago), Ecuador
At Wilbur Cross High School, Padilla volunteered for CT Students for a Dream, which successfully advocated for the 2011 in-state tuition bill for undocumented students. As a college freshman, he co-founded New Haven Reach, a student volunteer organization that helps undocumented and underrepresented New Haven high school students access higher education. He recently received a New Haven Promise Legacy Award for this work, and is a member of the Progreso Latino Fund.
Coming To the United States
Born in a small town in southern Ecuador, Padilla was raised by his grandmother and uncle after his mother and father had left for the United States.
“My father had finished college and the economy was not doing so well. He was making more money doing minimum wage jobs here than as an entry-level professional back home.”
The day after his seventh birthday, Padilla left Ecuador to be reunited with his parents.
“I had only seen my parents through pictures. That was how I was able to recognize them.”
Being in a new country where he didn’t speak the language was strange. But on his first day of school, Padilla was put at ease when he was amazed to discover that the principal was fluent in Spanish.
“He was one of my first role models in this country. One of the reasons I have always loved New Haven is because of its schools. Christopher Columbus School, which I attended, made my transition and my assimilation into this culture simpler and better because everyone spoke Spanish at school. I didn’t have much trouble finding my way around the school and learning math and science while I was learning the English language.”
A Call to Lead
At Wilbur Cross High School, Padilla would see Yale student-volunteer tutors and mentors come in at the beginning of each school year, an experience that opened his eyes to what was needed for students like him.
“I never saw any Latinos. So I always felt that voice was missing. I wanted to have a voice for my community. I started noticing what needed to be done for my people and for the underrepresented.”
Padilla volunteered for the student rights organization, CT Students for a Dream and began working with counselors and administrators at Wilbur Cross, many of whom were unaware of the challenges faced by undocumented students like him.
“A few of the undocumented students were stars in school, but they didn’t pursue a higher education because they knew that at the end of the day, no matter how good you are, it’s really hard to get into college with that status. You could be a top-ranked student, but if a college asks for your social security number and your parent’s financial information, it creates a big divide.”
Padilla was accepted to the University of New Haven’s Civil Engineering program, receiving both merit and private scholarships, including support from New Haven Promise. He then turned around to give back. He and his best friend, who was at Yale, created New Haven Reach, a volunteer organization that helps undocumented and underrepresented high school students apply to colleges and scholarships.
“You’re dealing with kids who are really unaware of the college application process. It’s mind blowing. I remember I had five guidance counselors helping me out at Cross, and I had other programs that supported me, and it was still tough to get into college. So we knew that there were a lot of kids in New Haven who had the potential to go to college, just like myself, but needed that extra push. Today, many of the kids I’ve worked with are doing amazing.”
The Need to Be Visible
Now a project engineer working on the “Q” Bridge and supported by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Padilla continues his activism on behalf of undocumented immigrants.
“The way to win the fight against the political spectrum that is against us is to speak up. It can change people’s lives by just telling a story and standing up. Because I have an education, since I’m a civil engineer, it’s a duty of mine, as an educated individual, to fight for the people who didn’t have the same opportunity as me. If we stay in the shadows, nothing happens.
Five years ago, it was practically impossible to go to college for undocumented students. The changes that have since occurred at the state and federal level for Dreamers were because of the work of thousands of unafraid undocumented students.”
On What Is Needed for More Latinos to Become Successful
“It’s a support system that we need. My success is highly correlated with the 4th-grade teacher who made me dream bigger even though I was ashamed of my status, counselors that provided help throughout high school and college, and by my parents who arrived to work the lowest jobs in this country to give me a better life.
I believe as Latino leaders we need to complement the goals of the school system by tutoring, mentoring and volunteering."
“We need to start reconnecting with our heritage and bring it into how we’re raising our kids. We need to be building each other up not tearing each other down.”
Luz Catarineau Colville
Hometown: Bronx, NY
Since 1994, Luz Catarineau Colville and her husband Mark Colville have run the Amistad Catholic Worker House in New Haven. One of about 175 Catholic Worker Houses around the country, Amistad is dedicated to helping people in crisis, serving hot breakfast and lunch to whoever walks through the door. And the work goes far beyond feeding the hungry.
An Early Calling
As a young girl growing up in the Bronx, Luz Catarineau Colville would hear her father say that her immediate family members were the only people who really mattered. He believed that no one else was going to help her, so she should only think about taking care of herself and her parents. But that never felt genuine to Luz. And at the age of 17, she had a life-changing experience when she converted to Catholicism.
“When I became Catholic I realized that every day is to be lived on this earth like it is your last day. This is what I needed to do. When I read the Bible I took it literally. And I thought it was about helping others and not about you. I believe your salvation is with the other.”
As a young woman, Catarineau Colville became involved in a community organizing effort to protect neighborhood schoolchildren from the drug dealers who would lurk in the school playground. The neighbors tried to pressure officials to install a fence to keep the dealers out, but there was a lot of back and forth without any action.
Then she attended a community organizing training session offered by her parish. The trainer, a member of South Bronx for Change, was Mark Colville.
“We were a Latino community and I thought, what is this white guy doing trying to organize us Puerto Ricans? But he taught us who our targets are, that it’s not about your neighbor being a bad person. It’s about the government that is failing the people and the system that doesn’t take care of us. It’s not about us fighting for more programs for food stamps or Medicaid. It’s about us taking care of each other.”
Colville earned the trust of the neighbors and helped them build the relationships they needed to get the fence installed.
A Watchful Community
After falling in love and marrying, Luz and Mark were given an opportunity by Father Tom Goekler, a long time mentor to Mark. Goekler owned a house on Rosette Street in New Haven that he was renting to low income families and students, and he gave it to the Colvilles so they could turn it into a Catholic Worker House. Embarking on this new phase of her life, Luz drew inspiration from the Bible.
“I knew nothing about the Catholic Worker movement until a year before we started. For me it’s about the Sermon on the Mount and reading the gospel-- to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and visit the prisoners.”
Rosette Street is in the Hill neighborhood, where crime rates have been high for decades. When the Colvilles first moved there, the leader of the notorious Latin Kings gang lived next door. Drug dealers were a fixture on the nearby corner and people were scared to go outside. Instead of calling the police, however, Luz and Mark started building relationships with neighbors and meeting the drug dealers head on. Some dealers would move on while others accepted the Colvilles' invitations to meals. One of the worst dealers stopped dealing entirely, turned his life around, and now keeps a watchful eye on the street.
“People have an understanding that we have kids living with us, so there is a rule of no guns and no foul language. People call me Mother Colville. I’m the den mother of the house. I have many, many kids. If you treat people the way you want to be treated, you’re golden. We’ve never had anybody rob us, break into our house, or our cars. Our neighbors are in full support of what we do. They get together and say this is our neighborhood, and we shine lights on what is going on here and drug dealers are not going to last here very long. Eventually, they move on.”
On Serving Others
Five days a week, the Amistad Catholic Worker House serves 60-70 people for breakfast and 20-30 people for lunch, which requires managing a team of volunteers and accepting donations of food and supplies. They remain open during snowstorms and other times when the soup kitchens may be closed. Luz also organizes Chapel on the Green, a service and hot meal on Sunday afternoons on the New Haven Green.
“When a person comes to us through the door of our house to enjoy a meal, it’s the breaking of bread with family. It’s not about being a soup kitchen, or being in a place for ten minutes and that’s it. It’s about getting to know each other around the table and being able to support each other.”
"We get to know their story and where they came from and how they came to be in the present moment. We try to respond to them in their period of crisis.”
In this environment of serving others, the Colvilles raised four children and a niece and a nephew.
“Our youngest son is twelve now, and he is our ambassador. Whenever somebody new comes to the door, he says, ‘Hey, my name is Isaiah, let me talk to you about what we do here. You can come and eat here, you can come take showers, and do your laundry’. He’ll go through the whole spiel.”
Meeting People Where They Are
Beyond serving meals, Luz says the most important aspect of their work is getting to know the people who come through the door and suspending judgment.
“People just need to be heard, not judged, and not put into a program immediately. Work with them where they are and build up from that. For us, the first step in relationship building is just getting to know someone’s story, talking to them and figuring out what is going on. There are stories of people who’ve just lost their job, who’ve been sleeping in their car, who parked their car on the wrong side of the street and it got towed and now they’re living in tents. All you have to do is talk to them for a few minutes and you’ll see that they’re the most kind and gentle person. All they want to be able to do is live self sufficiently. A lot of people are scared.”
Catarineau Colville admits that the work is not always easy.
“Living at the Amistad Workers House can be frustrating at times. I’m so compulsive about cleaning. I go in and do what I need to do. Being married to Mark is just as difficult. Mark says, ‘It’s lived in.’ I say, ‘It’s a mess!’ We balance each other because we are so opposite. Mark and I have been married 25 years.”
Embracing Her Latino Heritage
Despite being from Puerto Rico, Luz’s parents made sure their children spoke only English in the house. Catarineau Colville learned Spanish in college and has continued to value Latino culture.
“I think it’s important to not turn away from history and culture. We need to start reconnecting with our heritage and bring it into how we’re raising our kids. We need to be building each other up not tearing each other down.”
|"Success is when you inspire others to create opportunities for themselves."
Saul A. Cardenas
Hometown: Cali, Colombia
Saul Cardenas’s dream was to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a doctor. Life had something else in store for this hard-working man who went to law school instead and is now an associate at Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker LLP, specializing in defense litigation.
Adjusting a Dream
Saul Cardenas resided in Colombia until his teenage years, when escalating violence prompted he and his family to seek asylum in the U.S.
Arriving in Miami, Saul went to live with an older brother who had emigrated five years earlier. His parents followed, leaving almost everything behind, except for their work ethic and determined spirit.
“We came here and had to start again. Like every other immigrant here, I have done it all: from construction, to parking cars, to cleaning, to serving coffee. You name it.”
With Spanish his native tongue, Saul knew he would have to learn English if he was to become a doctor. He enrolled in community college but found the language barrier a bigger deterrent to his aspirations than he originally imagined.
“I had an aptitude for finance, so I followed that path and earned my undergraduate degree at Florida International University and later decided to enroll in law school at the University of Miami.”
Creating Opportunities for Others
Cardenas credits his parents for instilling in him the importance of working hard for something you believe in, the desire to help others and a sense of community. “My parents taught us to value hard work, regardless of the type of work, as the only way to achieve success. As a child, my father was delivering newspapers from his bicycle at four in the morning back in Colombia; today, he is a doctor. He proudly made sure that we always knew that story growing up.”
While working and attending school in Florida, he volunteered in his spare time to build houses for those in need. When he moved to Connecticut, Saul provided pro bono legal services for immigration and trafficking cases through the International Institute of Connecticut. Today, he volunteers as an Advisory Committee member of the Progreso Latino Fund.
Saul’s interest in creating opportunities for others expanded while in law school, when he worked at the school’s immigration clinic.
One of the first files he worked on hit home. It was an immigration case of extended family seeking asylum, just as his family had done years earlier. His cousin and her husband had been paying an immigration attorney to handle an application, only to find that the attorney wasn’t doing a thing with their file.
“When I got the case, my cousin’s husband was about to be deported. I made every possible phone call and filed every possible document that I could. The next morning, before he was about to get on a plane, the immigration officials told him he didn’t have to go. That was a great feeling, because I could help.”
In the clinic, Saul helped individuals who were in deportation proceedings,and in some cases, stopping them from going back to war zones. In one case, he helped reverse the deportation order of a Mexican farmer who had fled the drug cartels after they killed his family and took his land.
“Before we were able to help him, he was incarcerated for almost three years and had contracted various illnesses while detained. The farmer now has permanent residency in the U.S. He doesn’t have to go back to that country. He doesn’t have to worry about being killed or sought out by any of those violent groups.”
On What it Means to be a Successful Latino and What is Needed for More Latinos to be Successful
For Saul, success is defined in terms of helping others – whether it’s navigating the legal system or serving as a role model, as his parents did for him.
“All people need help. Help comes in different ways. Success is when you inspire others to create opportunities for themselves. I hope to inspire others to achieve success not because of my ethnicity, race or the adversity I faced, but because of my hard work to overcome any of those obstacles.”
| "I am meant to help make change and give a voice to those who feel their voices are not being heard."
Program Manager of the New Haven Juvenile Review Board
Hometown: New Haven, Connecticut
In 2007, Velazquez helped New Haven Family Alliance launch the Juvenile Review Board, which works with students who have been arrested for the first time or face potential expulsion or suspension so that they stay in school and do not receive criminal charges. Velazquez and her staff use a model known as restorative justice. The program has since expanded to Hamden, and Velazquez is sitting on a citywide workgroup to incorporate restorative justice throughout the New Haven Public Schools.
“It’s about holding students accountable to repair the harm they did to their relationships and rebuild those relationships. Not just to the direct victim, but to everybody around them that they impacted including their family and including themselves. Because ultimately when we make bad decisions it harms us,” Velazquez said.
One of the most important aspects of Velazquez’s job is working with students after they return to school, and rebuilding their relationships with teachers and staff.
“Academics saved me. Being able to learn and have people in school push you to do more because they believe in you even when you don’t believe in yourself -- that’s one of the most important things for young people today. When there is a disconnect with the school, then we really work on trying to rebuild that relationship. If the kid or the parent is upset with the school, we need to fix that. We need to repair whatever harm was caused.”
It takes a Village
Velazquez’s desire to be a leader for youth was inspired by teachers at school as well as neighborhood mentors.
“I used to go to the Barbell Club in the Hill. The building is still there next to the little park, but it’s vacant now. Nobody is doing anything with it. There was an after-school program there and a summer camp. There was a gentleman there, I don’t remember his name, it was so long ago, but I remember him just being so positive and pushing us and asking us about school and taking the time to encourage us to do more, and giving us leadership roles.”
Velazquez lived with her mom until she was 12 years old, then her grandmother, and was bounced around to several different families across New Haven. Despite a rough childhood, Velazquez always had adults looking out for her. At 14 she took her first job with Youth at Work as a camp counselor.
“I was only 14 and was responsible for 8 -12 year-old girls. Even though I was only two years older than some of them, they called me ‘Miss.’ When I see some of them now, they still call me ‘Miss.’ So I’ve always wanted to take a leadership role and help people . I’m the oldest of seven. I’m very proud of all my siblings. They’ve all made good choices.”
Velazquez says that she has since healed her relationship with both parents after a long period of reflection.
“I don’t blame them. I believe that a lot of things that happened to them were because of their environment and circumstances. I believe that my mom is a great human being with a great heart, and she struggles with some things for which she has never received support but should have through the years. I love her and accept her for who she is, because I’m not perfect either. We all have things that we have to work on.”
Finding Her Way
An active student, Velazquez graduated from Career High School and was accepted to three colleges. She chose Western Connecticut State University, where she volunteered as a math tutor and for the suicide prevention hotline. She also worked part time as an administrative assistant in the dean’s office and was a cheerleader. But she soon became overwhelmed and dropped out after a year.
“I had so much on my plate and no support at home. When it was vacation, I didn’t have a home to go to like the other kids. For Christmas, I ended up going with a friend to her family’s house.”
Returning to New Haven, Velazquez immediately began working secretarial and restaurant jobs, sometimes two or three at a time to make ends meet. After several years waiting tables, she quit after becoming fed up with the way a woman coworker was being treated. She enrolled in Springfield College and earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Human Services.
“Because I have younger siblings and wanted them to do well in life, that inspired me to go back to college and earn my degree. The best way to help someone else is by showing them.”
She now holds two Master's Degrees from Post University and Walden University and is working on obtaining a PhD in Clinical Psychology.
Velazquez took her passion in helping youth to the Job Corps, where she was the admissions counselor for several years. Then, a young man she had helped place with a program in Massachusetts was shot and killed, followed by another shooting death of an acquaintance.
“I went to two funerals in one week. I was so upset that I decided to look for another job where I could intervene earlier, so I could provide support for young people and help them make good choices before something bad happens.”
A friend told her about a job opening at New Haven Family Alliance for a case manager. Velazquez jumped at the opportunity, and within a few months was promoted to help create and lead the Juvenile Review Board.
“When I got the promotion, I felt that I am meant to be a leader. I am meant to help make change and give a voice to those who feel their voices are not being heard."
On what it means to be a successful Latina and what is needed for more Latinos to be successful
Velazquez said she values the cultural traditions passed down from one generation to the next, something she shares with the Progreso Latino Fund, which celebrates the rich and proud culture of the Latino community.
“It’s the small things; it bothers me that the younger Latinos don’t speak Spanish anymore. I believe that being connected to the culture somehow is so important. Being proud of where you come from is important. I think we can bring our culture here without losing it. My fear is that accepting what is considered normal, people let go of who they are. Sometimes we have to unlearn some things to teach ourselves who we are.”
|"You do not always have to understand what someone is asking you to do if there is trust in the middle."
Senior Manager of Community Investment, United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut
Hometown: Tocopilla, Chile
Activist, community organizer, and now senior manager with the United Way, Ricardo Henriquez is dedicated to fighting injustice and poverty. But he wasn’t always interested in helping others. It wasn’t until he immigrated to the United States after achieving success as a journalist that his view of the world changed.
An Arrogant Young Man
“I had a really supportive and nurturing family that always told me that I was the best thing that happened to that little town. I was the first one in my family to go to college - in my entire family. My mother had 9 brothers and sisters I had over 30 cousins.”
Henriquez’s family lived in the small towns of Tocopilla and later Calama, where his father was a miner and his mother was a nurse’s assistant. Until Henriquez was 18 years old, Chile was ruled by a dictatorship.
“Everybody was poor, except the people in power. We were the poor that were not that bad because my parents made big sacrifices. We always had something to eat.”
After graduating with a journalism degree, Henriquez quickly landed a job with a newspaper in the capital city, Santiago.
“I was really full of myself. I thought I was really special. I’m not going to use the word that I usually used to describe myself back then, but I was not a nice guy.”
As the newest reporter on staff, he was put on the labor beat because no one else wanted it. By a stroke of luck, the labor spokesperson was appointed to the Presidential Palace. Because of his relationship with the spokesperson, Henriquez was promoted to cover the office of the President.
After three years, Henriquez became restless and sought a new adventure. In 2001, he immigrated to the United States, landing in New Haven, where he had several friends, with a plan to eventually move to New York.
A Transformative Experience
Henriquez came to the U.S thinking the he would easily walk into a good job and continue living the charmed life he had had in Chile. He was badly mistaken. He faced discrimination. His degree was “useless.” The apartment he could afford came with a difficult roommate. With no other options, Henriquez started working in restaurants, first as a dishwasher and, then, moving up to waiter.
“The whole immigration experience changed my view of the world. I saw a lot of horrible things, in those years being a server. Not so much against me. Of course, I am Latino and I have an accent, but the thing that affected me the most was the way that women were treated and the sexual harassment that was happening at so many of the places I worked and nobody was doing anything. These women were not saying anything because they needed the job they had.”
Angered by the abuse from bosses and insults by customers, Henriquez went to a May Day rally. He discovered a new calling – community organizing.
“The entry point was you show up to a march. You are scared, you don’t know anybody, but you’re there and you scream a little bit, and that’s how I got my start. Then I became serious and became an organizer.”
Henriquez saved his money and went to graduate school for a master’s degree in nonprofit management. He became the Director of the Grand Avenue Village Association in Fair Haven and organized small business owners. He then joined Unite Here at Yale, first as administrative staff and later becoming a community organizer. He dived in to local politics, running campaigns and organizing field workers for candidates.
“Moving here humbled me. It made me realize that people can make you feel like nobody when they have the power to do that. I started giving back when that clicked.”
Working for Unite Here, Henriquez met Andrea Van den Heever, a long time organizer and founder of the Connecticut Center for a New Economy.
“She really helped me channel all the anger and frustration that I had at the time into something positive, into something that could actually be changed.
She also taught me about trust. You do not always have to understand what someone is asking you to do if there is trust in the middle."
His Work Today
Henriquez now oversees strategy and investment in financial security for United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut.
“We fund programs and initiatives that aim to eliminate poverty.”
On What is Needed for More Latinos to be Successful
“My friend and I were at a state of the economy forum and they were showing slides. It was completely well-intended. They were trying to show that minorities get the short end of the stick and that we should do something about it. But after the 15th slide that said Latinos were the poorest and needed the most services, my friend leaned in to me and said, ‘I get it, we’re bringing down the economy.’"
Henriquez thinks that the focus of the conversation about Latinos needs to change.
“Of course we shouldn't turn a blind eye to these issues and pretend they don’t exist. But we also need to highlight the great things the Latino community does and has.
Immigrants bring so much of what is great in the world to this country. That has to be highlighted more.”
|"It’s easier, as a young person, to see yourself doing something when you see that somebody else is doing it."
Yadira Duran Ijeh
Director of Change Management, Dept. of Children and Families
A Busy Household
Yadira’s father was from the Dominican Republic and migrated to Puerto Rico where he met her mother. The two moved to New York in the mid 70s, where they worked in bodegas and corner grocery stores. The young couple then relocated to Bridgeport and started a family.
“My family nicknamed me Yari, which I feel is the person I’ve become. Legally it’s Yadira. But anywhere you go, you ask for Yari, you don’t ask for Yadira.”
Yari’s home was the center of her social world. In addition to having a biological sister, she grew up with many foster siblings. She estimates that her parents fostered upwards of 150 children and teenagers over the years.
“My mother did it out of love. She had love to give and this made it easy for her to share it. Before becoming a foster parent, she studied to become a certified nursing assistant and worked in a nursing home. She eventually left that field of work to dedicate herself full time to us -- my sister, me and the foster children placed with us.”
Many of the foster children lived with them as temporary placements, but several stayed for five to six years. The home became a magnet for other teenage friends in the neighborhood.
“My sister and I always talk about having grown up with a bunch of kids. I was always the oldest. When I was in high school there were seven of us at home and we were all high school students. So it was a lot of fun. And we’re still in touch with them.”
On Her Profession
Yari turned her personal experience as a member of a foster home into a professional career with the Department of Children and Families. As Director of Change Management, she oversees policy changes to fix systems that are not working or are inconsistent. Part of her work involves giving a voice to the adolescents under DCF care. One recent success was a sibling bill of rights that will provide a process for foster children to visit brothers and sisters. Another was the development of criteria for obtaining a drivers license.
“The practice wasn’t consistent. There were some regions where the requirements were applied differently and kids talk. They would say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not fair. You got it, but I didn’t.’ With their help, we were able to get some practice guidelines and criteria for getting a license.”
Giving Back to the Community
Growing up, Yari remembers her family would reach out to families in crisis with meals. As an adult, her efforts have centered on volunteering and serving on nonprofit boards.
“For a few years I volunteered at the Shubert Theater. I ushered folks to their seats. I’d see people I knew and they’d look at me and say, ‘What are you doing here?’ and I’d say, ‘I’m giving back.’”
Yari is active with the New Haven Juvenile Review Board, which gives students who have been arrested for the first time an alternative to the criminal justice system. She also volunteers for True Colors, which develops programming and services for gay youth.
“Helping young people achieve success, whatever that is for them, is important to me.”
A Mentor Opens Her Eyes
In 2007, Yari met Progreso Latino Fund (PLF) co-founder, John Padilla, who opened her eyes to the world outside of government work. She attended her first PLF forum, and it was a life altering moment for her.
“I was intrigued by the number of Latinos in the room that I didn’t even know. Often, when you are doing this work, you feel like you are alone. And when I looked around the room, I thought, no we are not. How do we capitalize on this? How do we take this energy and move it forward with some of the issues that are affecting our own people in the community.”
Now she serves on the PLF Advisory Committee.
On what it means to be a successful Latino and what is needed for more Latinos to be successful
Yari says that one of the things the Progreso Latino Fund has been trying to do is to tell people’s stories.
"It’s easier, as a young person, to see yourself doing something when you see that somebody else is doing it. We want to show our young people, and even ourselves, that there are more of us out there and that we are doing such great things for ourselves and our community. Latinos have interests in so many different things and there are opportunities to work together.”
|"There is no difference than with any other ethnic group. You have to get educated. You have to work hard. You have to consistently improve yourself. To me it’s doing the right thing, trying to make a difference in somebody’s life."
Jorge L. Perez
Connecticut State Dept. of Banking Commissioner
Hometown: New Haven
Jorge Perez was born in Havana, Cuba, to parents who were anti-communists. The family received political asylum from the United States after his mother was at risk of being shot for her political views. They fled, relocating to the Bronx.
“To me it was a trip. I was eight years old and didn’t know what we were doing,” says Perez.
Life in the Perez household was hard. Perez’s father battled alcoholism and could be abusive toward his wife. They were poor.
“Section 8. Welfare. We ate more grilled cheese than I could care to count,” recalls Perez.
When Perez was a sixth grader, he caught the chicken pox and missed so many days from school that he was held back from seventh grade, even though he had mastered his subjects. Disappointed, he repeated the familiar lessons and by the end of the year was eager to move on.
“My father, he tells me, ‘Don’t bother going to middle school. Nobody in this family has ever gone to college; half of the family never even graduated from high school, including myself and your mom. You’re going to end up working in a factory anyway.’
So, that drove me to prove him wrong. I like a good challenge.”
An Early Influence
Perez and his mother moved to New Haven’s Hill Section when he was a young teen. He entered Troup Middle School and aced his first marking period with one exception – a C grade in Mrs. Hope’s English class. He thought she must have made a mistake and went to see her after class.
“She said, no, the problem is that you don’t have a concept of verb tenses. Your thoughts are good, you write pretty well, but your verb tenses are terrible.”
Perez didn’t listen to this answer, thinking instead that she simply didn’t like him. He went to the principal and asked to be moved to a different class.
“The truth was, I needed help,” admits Perez. “She wouldn’t budge and the principal wouldn’t take me out of the class. So I had to learn how to do my verb tenses if I wanted to do better than a C grade.”
On His Profession
The first in his family to go to college, Perez graduated from Richard C. Lee High School and then the University of New Haven, Cum Laude with a degree in accounting. After a long career in private banking, starting in the mail room and working his way up to vice president of commercial lending, Perez became the first Latino Banking Commissioner in Connecticut’s history.
As Banking Commissioner, Jorge has jurisdiction over Connecticut’s laws pertaining to state charter banks, credit unions, consumer credit, broker-dealers, investment advisers, securities, and tender offers. He oversees a department with approximately 116 employees. In his capacity as Banking Commissioner, Jorge serves as a voting ex officio member of the Board of Directors of the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority.
Throughout his life, Jorge Perez has stayed committed to the Hill neighborhood, one of the poorest, highest crime areas of the city.
“Even though I could live anywhere I want at this point in my life, I live two blocks away from where I was raised. I love the neighborhood. Either you’re part of the solution or you’re part of the problem.”
He was first inspired to enter local politics through an experience he had as the treasurer of a newly formed nonprofit.
“What got me into local politics was my involvement in Habitat for Humanity and helping them start the New Haven chapter. The alderman in the area wouldn’t meet with us or help us. So I decided to run against him and I won. Now I’ve been the alderman for 28 years.”
During his tenure on the Board of Aldermen, Perez has served as president twice and was the finance committee chairman for a decade. Throughout his career, he has also assisted numerous nonprofits including the Community Action Agency, the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority, and the Hill Development Corporation, and most recently, New Haven Works.
“Someone said to me, you can run away, like most people do when they can, or you can try to stick around and make a difference. I said I’ll try to stick around,” remembers Perez. “The neighborhood still has its challenges, but it has changed a lot. Like I tell people, even when I die I will continue to live in the Hill since I bought my plot in the cemetery located in the neighborhood.
My daughter was born and raised [in the neighborhood], and she will be graduating from Yale University in May. And hopefully she will not move more than a few blocks away from where she was raised.”
On what it means to be a successful Latino and what is needed for more Latinos to be successful
“There is no difference than with any other ethnic group. You have to get educated. You have to work hard. You have to consistently improve yourself. To me it’s doing the right thing, trying to make a difference in somebody’s life. It’s not about money. It’s not about prestige. It’s not about recognition. I try to instill in kids, society doesn’t owe you anything except a fair chance, which you’re not going to get most of the time. So the few times it pops up, it’s up to you to take advantage of it.”
| "It’s important that we as leaders understand that Latinos are coming from different places. They have different cultures and different ways to approach the educational system."
Principal of Worthington Hooker K-2 School
Hometown: Barranquitas, Puerto Rico
Evelyn Robles was born and raised in a small town in central Puerto Rico. She was the youngest of seven children.
“I was the baby in the family. My father died when I was 13, so my mother took the lead. She never remarried; she was just devoted to us."
Growing up, she saw her older brothers and sisters start working as young teenagers and take full-time jobs as soon as they graduated high school. But Robles’ mother had a different plan for her.
“My mother always told me, ‘No. You need to go to school. You need to go to college. You need to be a professional. You have the potential. And your father was always telling you that you were going to go to college.’ They didn’t have the opportunity to go but they instilled it in me.”
Robles became the first in her family to attend college when she went to the University of Puerto Rico, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and accounting. At 22 years old, she set off with her mother to Connecticut, where one of her sisters had relocated.
“I stayed in Hartford for a couple of years with one of my sisters, and I went to Capitol Community College to learn English as a Second Language. In Puerto Rico, we learn English as a second language in school, but we never practice. So, it was important to me to become fluent.”
Robles career plan of becoming an accountant got off the ground when she was hired by a small firm in Hartford. However, she quickly realized she had made a mistake. She hated spending time in a small office doing numbers. By chance, she met the bilingual supervisor for a local vocational-technical school system who encouraged her to become a bilingual teacher. Robles found a part-time job as a teacher and never looked back.
“It was very inspiring. These students really needed help. I truly loved it and decided that I needed to become a real teacher. I truly, truly found what I wanted to do.”
Within a year, she was entering a master’s program at the University of Connecticut in bilingual bicultural education. There she encountered new challenges.
“As a first-generation Latino in this country, it was difficult. I needed to compete with native English-speaking students. Some of the challenges were resources. I went to school on scholarships. My family was very supportive, but they were not professionals. I had the moral support. Getting used to the system was also difficult for me. I didn’t have a car, so I had to take the bus all the time and get rides. It was difficult, but at the same time, what helped me through all of it was the support of my family.”
During this time everything started happening at once for Robles. She became engaged, married, and started her family, all the while working full time and studying for her masters and doctorate.
“When you’re doing it, you’re not thinking about it. But when you go back and you think about it, you realize, ‘Wow! I did all that.’”
When she went to UCONN, Robles met a professor who became her mentor and adviser, Liliana Minaya-Rowe.
“She was absolutely wonderful. She was a very structured, meticulous, and powerful woman. She was the one who said, ‘I’m going to walk you through this and help you understand what you are going to do in order to finish and be successful.’
I learned from her to be organized, to set up goals and set up deadlines to accomplish those goals, and to focus myself on accomplishing those goals. Now, she’s my friend.”
Why she gives back to the community
Robles is a member and volunteer at the Holy Trinity Church in Wallingford, a board member at the Spanish Community of Wallingford, SCOW, and a former board member at Junta for Progressive Action.
“If I found great mentors throughout my career, I can be a mentor too. I feel it is my responsibility, especially to children and young adults. Right now, everything depends on them. They don’t need to become doctors and lawyers. They need to create a strong character. They really need to understand who they are and what they want to do in order to become good people.
A lot of times we see young kids that have mom, dad, they have everything, and the first obstacle they find, they give up. I always tell my story to them. I say, 'If I could do it, you can do it too.' It’s a powerful tool."
Robles is principal of New Haven’s Worthington Hooker School. The student body is the most culturally diverse in the city, with 17 different languages represented. The school includes a significant population of refugees who have been resettled by Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS).
"As a building principal, there is a lot of responsibility. You have to make sure that you have a safe building, that you have a great classroom environment that is conducive to learning, and you need to make sure that you support your staff.
I have students who have come from refugee camps with a lot of needs - social and emotional as well as linguistic. I have to put together a support plan for them, and work with other community agencies to make sure that they feel welcome, that they feel empowered, that they feel safe. It’s a great opportunity to involve parents, teachers, and the community. I love to be there.”
On what it means to be a successful Latino and what is needed for more Latinos to be successful
“I think it’s important that we as leaders understand that Latinos are coming from different places. They have different cultures and different ways to approach the educational system. They have different priorities and we need to, we must, engage families in the educational plans for these kids.
I think it’s important that they feel that they are important and needed in the community, that they can bring their expertise to the community. It is very important for us to be visible, to lead by example.
There are so many opportunities, scholarships and student loans, whatever it takes. I am a real example that you can prepare yourself. You can become a professional. And there is opportunity if you want to get it.”
|Fernando Muñiz currently serves as the Chair of the Progreso Latino Fund at The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.
Muñiz is the Deputy Commissioner of Administration at the Department of Children and Families (DCF). He is the first Latino deputy commissioner at the state department, and his 2013 appointment came at a time of sweeping changes. Formerly the Chief of Quality and Planning at DCF, Muniz helped oversee policy reforms aimed at restoring trust with minority communities such as increasing the number of children placed with relatives.
Describe your life's journey and where you grew up
I was born in Puerto Rico, the oldest of three. My parents moved to Connecticut when I was 7 because my father had lived in Bridgeport as a teen in the 50s, and 60s, when everything was booming and there was a lot of work. So, he had always wanted to return.
I went to public schools in Bridgeport and undergrad at Fairfield University. While at Fairfield, I started working for nonprofit organizations.
What do you do for a living?
I oversee the budgets, contracts, and human resources for the Department of Children and Families.
At heart, I still consider myself a youth worker. I empathize with the difficulties workers face. As I make decisions about resources, I think, "How are these choices going to impact the kids and how will they impact the workers?"
When did you start giving back to the community?
We had a civic-minded household. My mother was a teacher and volunteered for a youth services organization. In high school, l did a lot of volunteer work for a youth leadership organization where I was a tutor. I always had a calling for community service.
While I was an undergraduate, in 1994, it was the first year of Americorps. I ran a youth program for a substance abuse agency.
I had started college as computer science major. After I got involved in the social services field I switched to psychology.
Who were your mentors and what did you learn from them?
After college I was hired by The Regional Youth Adult Social Action Partnership (RYASAP), where I was mentored by executive director Bob Francis. He offered me my first opportunity and mentored me in the nonprofit field. I looked up to him as a leader and someone who was civic minded.
My other mentor is Alma Maya, the town clerk in Bridgeport. She was the director of ASPIRA Connecticut, where I worked on getting first and second generation Latino-Americans ready for college. She’s had a huge influence on me in how we think about our responsibility for the next generations.
If I learned anything from my mentors, it's important that we leave the world a better place, either through giving or volunteering time, or mentoring.
What do you see as critical for the progress of Latinos in the region?
I think that education is the key. Even though job prospects aren't great, we have to encourage kids to look at opportunities where there are jobs. In STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education) and for anyone who is bilingual and bicultural, there are great opportunities.
At the DCF, we recently had 150 applicants for open social worker positions and less than 10 percent were proficient in Spanish. There are opportunities if students are majoring in the right things.