Celebrating Latino Leaders: Norma Rodriguez-Reyes
“I’m a strong advocate for role models.”
President/Publisher 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/Publisher 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.”