Celebrating Latino Leaders: 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.”
Dr. Abie Benitez
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.