Antonia Pantoja, A Pillar Of the Puerto Rican Community, Remembered

From the film "Antonia Pantoja" by Lillian Jiménez

From the film “Antonia Pantoja” by Lillian Jiménez

The life of a Puerto Rican New Yorker who transformed the lives of so many Puerto Rican and Latino youth was honored and celebrated with the unveiling of a mural at the heart of the city’s “El Barrio.”

In her 80 years, Dr. Antonia Pantoja founded organizations that have helped educate and give opportunities to many. The educator and community activist, who identified herself as a “Nuyorican,” accomplished much more than most in one lifetime.

Perhaps best known as the founder of ASPIRA – a non-profit organization which to this day encourages positive self-image, commitment to community, and education to Puerto Rican, and other Latino youth; she also founded the National Puerto Rican Forum, which promotes economic self-sufficiency; and Universidad Boricua, the precursor to Boricua College; among many other organizations dedicated to community empowerment and education in New York City and beyond.

In 1996, Pantoja became the first Latina recipient of the prestigious U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom Award for her role in the education and leadership development of Puerto Rican Youth in the United States and Puerto Rico.

On Saturday, Nov. 20, after three years in the making by renowned artist Manny Vega, a mosaic mural of Dr. Pantoja was unveiled which will allow her live on forever in “El Barrio” – a predominantly Puerto Rican community in New York City, which was very close to her heart.

A mural for the late Antonia Pantoja, founder of Aspira and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, was unveiled Saturday, November 21, 2015 in New York City's El Barrio. (Photo: Kristina Puga)

A mural for the late Antonia Pantoja, founder of Aspira and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, was unveiled Saturday, November 21, 2015 in New York City’s El Barrio. (Photo: Kristina Puga)

The event, attended by 100 plus people of all ages, began with the screening of “Antonia Pantoja ¡Presente!,” a 2009 documentary of the activist’s life by Lillian Jiménez. Afterwards, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito – a Puerto Rican woman who is the first Latina in this position- gave a few words.

“The emotion in this room is intense,” Mark-Viverito said after watching the film. “When you think about the contributions she made, and the logros(achievements) we’ve made, we can trace them all the way back to her.”

Mark-Viverito went on to say that she had the privilege of meeting Pantoja in the late ’90’s. Together, they would take Puerto Rican students to the island to learn about their culture.

“She had a very infectious spirit,” said the New York City Council Speaker. “Everybody that worked with her would be inspired by her. She was a believer in young people and the concept of paying it forward. That’s what we need to continue to do. The importance of putting these mosaics up is a way of making sure our contributions will never be erased.”

Pantoja moved to New York City, from San Juan, Puerto Rico at the age of 22. The year was 1944, right before the end of World War II, and just preceding the mass exodus of Puerto Ricans to the mainland.

Although she arrived with a teaching certificate from Puerto Rico, Pantoja’s first job in NYC was as a welder in a wartime factory. However, since Pantoja was born with aspiration, she went to school right away – ultimately, graduating from Hunter College and then Columbia University’s School of Social work.

In the documentary, Pantoja said, “[Puerto Ricans] were coming to work in factories, and the children didn’t know what the teachers were saying.”

As was her character, as soon as she saw injustices, Pantoja would waste no time to take action.

“ASPIRA was absolutely the project that drove her – she loved the kids,” Jiménez, director of the film, told NBC Latino. “She had been thinking about the position of the Puerto Rican community in the ’50s, and the lack of leadership. She wanted to develop an organization that developed leaders.”

To this day, Jiménez says she is always meeting people that say “I was an Aspirante.” She says there are thousands of them – from actors Jimmy Smits and Luis Guzmán, to Angelo Falcón, political scientist and president of the National Institute for Latino Policy.

Jiménez told NBC Latino that the mosaic was a collective experience of all the people who were impacted by Pantoja’s life.

“We were about 12-13 on the committee – we had a lot of conversations. I gave [Manny] the film, photos of her, and he would always show us renderings. Finally we settled on this one design. Everyone on the committee laid tiles – [Supreme Court Justice] Sonia Sotomayor even came to lay tiles,” said Jiménez.

To many, Pantoja was a life-changing role model. But to Dr. Wilhemina Perry, her partner of 30 years, Pantoja was the love of her life. They met when Pantoja joined the faculty of the San Diego State University’s School of Social Work in 1978.

“A couple of people had gathered to greet her in San Diego – I was teaching there at that time,” Perry, now 81, remembers about the first time they met. “She and I had started talking – we talked about social work – our professions. I remember thinking this is the most interesting person I ever met…She was like dazzling!”

Together, they co-founded the Graduate School for Community Development in San Diego, where they lived at least 15 years, and then moved to Puerto Rico for 13 years. There, they co-founded Producir – a community organization that has helped a rural community create its own cottage industries to generate employment -before they both decided to move back to her beloved NYC. Unfortunately, they only had two years there, as Pantoja was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.

“They predicted she would have four months to live, and she only had three months,” Perry told NBC Latino. “No one wants to lose a loved one, but I felt a little relieved because she had no pain – it was so quick.”

What Perry says she remembers most of Pantoja was that she was, “a very powerful, tiny and intense person, but she could also be funny and have this smile come on her face. She was very intense, but had this light side of her…”

“I’m thinking what would make her most happy about the mural, is the fact that who she was, and what she was trying to teach, will live now publicly. Not so much for her, the person, but she would see it as a way of extending her legacy and encouraging people to use her work as an opportunity to do their own work. She felt very strongly about that. She would say it’s not about me, but what are you going to do to make society a better place?”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

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Nun Fights For Families Of Killed, Missing In Mexico’s Drug Wars

Sister Consuelo Morales (Photo/Victor Hugo Valdivia)

Sister Consuelo Morales (Photo/Victor Hugo Valdivia)

When one thinks of drug wars, a nun does not come to mind. But 67-year-old Sister Consuelo Morales’s fight for the families of those missing or killed in Mexico’s drug wars is one of the powerful story lines in the new documentary, “Kingdom of Shadows,” making its world premiere at SXSW on Monday, March 16.

Acclaimed Mexican-American filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz (Emmy-nominated “Reportero,” 2012), follows three individuals, with very distinct lives, all dealing with the consequences of the U.S.-Mexico drug war.

There’s a Texan rancher who fell into drug smuggling, because he had trouble making ends meet as a farmer, as well as a Homeland Security Investigator on the U.S.-Mexico border who witnesses the continual rise of violent and deadly organized crime. Then there is Morales, a Catholic nun in Monterrey, Mexico fighting for the rights of families whose loved ones have been killed or “disappeared” as a result of drug violence.

Sister Morales returned to her native city of Monterrey, Mexico in 1992, after years working to help indigenous communities in Veracruz and in Mexico City. She came back to find her community in turmoil. It was then she helped found Citizens in Support of Human Rights (Ciudadanos en Apoyo de Derechos Humanos, CADHAC) to help families in need – and she has devoted her life to that cause for the past two decades.

According to the latest official numbers from the Mexican government, the number of people who have disappeared since the start of the country’s drug war in 2006 is nearly 23,000 (although this number has fluctuated widely depending on the administration). Filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz argues the most international attention this crisis has gotten was the disappearance of 43 college-student protesters in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero in September 2014, recently declared dead.

In an interview with NBC News, Sister Morales says the violence has substantially increased since 2007. “This situation of violence touches not only the people involved with narcos or the drug business, but it also touches families and young people that had nothing to do with it. When the Mexican government decided to stop this…the situation became worse and worse, because citizens were in between the delinquents and the soldiers. They were in a very vulnerable situation.”

She says that individuals ages 16 to 35 are the most affected by the violence and targets of kidnappings/killings. The worst years, she remembers, were 2010 through 2012.

“We were frozen,” says the nun. “People were so scared and still are scared. We just received a case from a mother who said five years ago they took away her son. Her husband is so scared [of the drug cartels] that he didn’t allow her to put an announcement with the authorities. They put an announcement with [CADHAC], but the day after, they didn’t come back.”

She explains this behavior is common, because Mexican citizens fear everyone – even the authorities – because they are also known to be involved in narco trafficking.

“Two years ago, a kid – two and a half years old – was walking with his father very close to his office,” remembers Sister Morales. “His father wanted to take him to the doctor. On the corner, there were two groups of young people. One of them was taking people away. They took his father, and left the boy on the street..If we don’t do something to support and give what we can to this child to grow in confidence, what will he have in his heart?”

According to Sister Morales, the people who are generally taken away are the ones giving economic support to the family. In this way, she says, the narcos are instilling fear in the community. If you don’t have money to pay them their “dues,” you get taken away.

The petite yet strong-willed nun arrives at CADHAC around 8:30 am every morning. After meeting with her team, she has appointments throughout the day with people needing help with justice or violent situations.

“They come and ask questions and share information with us, and we help them resolve their problems,” says Sister Morales. “We may help them, and stay beside them, but never in front of them. We help them with the tools to get justice.”

There was a point in her life, she says, when she questioned her belief in God. But helping people was something that was innate to her since she was a young child.

“I asked myself what was the message that Jesus gave us – it is to love each other,” says Sister Morales about why she does the work she does. “The only thing that is important is that they are human beings, and they have dignity. I am their sister.”

Bernardo Ruiz sees her as a savior.

“What I do know is that people like Consuelo, and the families she works with, need more international support,” he says. “From my perspective, they’re the ones who represent our path forward.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

The Latinas behind the Americas Latino Eco-Festival

Festival founder, Irene Vilar (Photo/Gary Isaacs)

Festival founder, Irene Vilar (Photo/Gary Isaacs)

Irene Vilar is no stranger to activism. She says her own grandmother spent 27 years in prison for fighting to make their native Puerto Rico an independent state.

Vilar wrote a memoir and became an author at the tender age 22. Years later, she founded the non-profit Americas for Conservation + the Arts, the mother organization of the Americas Latino Book Awards, as well as the first non-profit literary agency in the U.S. dedicated to proliferating minority literature in the Americas. Continue reading

Latina Leaders: First Hispanic and female honored by American Heart Association for volunteerism

Dr. Ileana Piña (Courtesy Montefiore Medical Center)

Dr. Ileana Piña (Courtesy Montefiore Medical Center)

Dr. Ileana L. Piña was born in Havana, Cuba and moved to Miami with she was six in 1959.

In July 2011, Dr. Piña joined Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Centeras professor of medicine and epidemiology and population health, and vice chief for academic affairs, respectively. Her primary role is to reduce re-admission rates for heart failure patients. She also serves as a principal investigator for 11 ongoing research projects and presented on several topics at this year’s American Heart Association Scientific Sessions.

Most recently, Dr. Piña was the first Hispanic and female to win the Chairman’s Award for volunteerism from the American Heart Association for her dedication to educating the community about heart health across diverse populations.

How does it feel to be recognized for your long-time dedication to heart health?
Humbling. Blessed. I think there are so many people that deserve this award more than me. I’m humbled to take it especially because I am an immigrant.

At what age did you realize you wanted to study medicine? And what pulled you towards studying cardiology specifically?
I have always loved the smell of hospitals. I was very poor, and my father died when I was nine – he had a heart attack at 49. He took me to school that morning and was dead by 3pm. After he died, my mother and I moved into the projects in Miami. When he died, we didn’t have education [about heart disease] – the American Heart Association had been founded, but that education didn’t get to immigrants like us. My mother died when I was 19 of cirrhosis of the liver.

I started college after my mother died – the rest of my family was still in Cuba. I had three jobs – modeling, tutoring, drawing blood. I’m a product of community college, because that’s all I could afford. I then went to the University of Miami, by then I was living with my aunt who had come from Cuba – but I paid for my own education.

I also have a masters in public health, because I got tired of patients not getting the right medications at the right time. Heart failure is an epidemic. We need to think differently about it – look at the population, and look at what we can institute to make a difference to patients.

What accomplishment throughout your career are you most proud of?
My daughter – the light of my life. She’s a veterinary student at Ohio State University and graduated with a BA from Duke in May.

A study recently came out saying younger Hispanic women face higher risk of death from heart attacks. Why do you think this is the case?
Hispanic women are more behind in knowledge. Hispanic women are now where Caucasian women were 10 years ago. It’s not very good. That’s why we’ve had all these campaigns in Spanish. We have the same risk factors.

RELATED: Latinos raising awareness on how to keep Hispanic hearts healthy; offer tips

What can we do to prevent this?
I’m trying to get Hispanic women to pay attention – know your cholesterol, exercise, lose weight, really take care of yourself and teach your aunts, daughters and grandmas. I have seen a lot of young Hispanic women who sat with chest pains for more than three days – it’s more the norm than the exception. There’s also a fear to go to the doctor, but more than anything else it’s a lack of acknowledgement that there’s something wrong. Symptoms are not always crystal clear. If you have symptoms, go see somebody. Don’t make up excuses. We always take care of everyone else but ourselves.

What do your daily duties entail, and what do you love most about your job?
I spend 30 percent of my time with the FDA as a consultant for devices and an internal medicine reviewer…I see patients in the clinic, in blocks of time. I’m responsible for reducing the 30-day readmission rate for heart failure. It’s unacceptably high. Patients come back for many reasons. Nobody has a perfect answer, but we’re working on it. I do clinical trials with my chief, Dr. Mario Garcia. We coordinate the clinical trials, and I mentor the fellows on their academic projects.

What piece of advice would you give a young Latina who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Do whatever you love. If you do whatever you love, you’ll never go to work.

The U.S. gives you the opportunities. I had 30 cents in my pocket when my father died, lots of hand-me-down clothes and often felt hungry, but if you keep your nose to the ground, the U.S. will give you the opportunities. That’s why I love this country. Work. If you don’t work, you don’t get anything.

RELATED: FDA has banned trans fats, but does it get to the heart of the problem?

Originally published on NBCLatino.com

Latina Leaders: Former intelligence officer in the Air Force pays it forward

Sandra Tibbs (Photo/Kelsey Borlan Lee)

Sandra Tibbs (Photo/Kelsey Borlan Lee)

At 34, Sandra Tibbs already served in the U.S. Air Force for 10 years, and now she is using her experience leading a crew of 1,200 as an officer in military intelligence to empower others.

Three years ago, Tibbs founded Neverest Solutions, a consultancy firm that trains corporate, government, and small business executives to be better leaders. Based in San Antonio, Tibbs travels the country giving workshops and leadership development training sessions which teach conflict resolution, strategic thinking, male-female dynamics, and how women can become influential leaders.

Where are you from originally?
I’m originally from Peru. I was born in Lima. I came to the states when I was 17 to live the American Dream. My dream was to join the U.S Air Force, because the opportunities in Peru in the military aren’t the same as here. I just had a little money my mom gave me, and I stayed with one of my mom’s friends for six months in Austin until I found my own place. My first job was Taco Bell. I worked there while I studied English in order to take the test to enter the Air Force. I joined the Air Force when I was 18.

What was your best experience being in the military?
I didn’t really believe in myself or my capabilities. For me, the Air Force was such a blessing, because it helped me find what I was capable of and people that believed in me. When I was enlisted, I was approached by one of my supervisors, and they thought I should apply for ROTC and become an officer. The military does a great job in investing in the development of their leaders in every level. I was taken out of my comfort zone. I was always afraid of speaking in front of people because of my accent, but part of my job as an officer was to speak a lot to other leaders. It pushed me so I could achieve and grow and have an impact. I realized leaders are not born, they’re made. And I began to think, “How can I help others?”

What were the skills you learned that helped you in your business today?
I was in charge of collecting important information needed for decision makers to make the right decision. You have to think a lot at the strategic level. A lot of pieces come into play to give the right recommendations. We never have all the facts so we have to gather what we have and make an objective, informed decision.

What did you study?
When I was in the Air Force for about a year, I started going to college. I got a bachelor’s in biology, because I was thinking I was going to be a doctor, but intelligence sounded like a lot of fun, so I followed that and got a master’s in organizational leadership. Now., I’m in my third year of PhD studies in organizational leadership.

What is the most important piece of advice you give to your clients?
One of the biggest things is we have to be aware of who we are and what we stand for, what our values are, and what we want for ourselves. Be aware of what we are willing to compromise and what we are not. As we move up in an organization, we’re going to have to make decisions that are difficult. Everyone should have an idea of their ideal leader. When you have that idea of who your ideal leader is, you have to ask yourself what would my ideal leader do in a difficult situation?

What is the most important piece of advice ever given to you?
We are the only ones who can limit ourselves. It doesn’t matter what others say. People are going to doubt you, because they don’t know what you are capable of, but you have to believe in yourself and your purpose. You are going to attract the things that go with you. When you try to be something for everyone and please everyone, you are going to be attracting people that will not be of service to you. If everybody likes you, you’re doing something wrong.

What’s your favorite part of your job?
Seeing people grow as leaders and have them have a positive impact on their organization. I just finished a group training program, and it was priceless to see how engaged those people were. For me to see that, and how they’re implementing the tools they learned, that’s amazing. The things you see in successful leader – they are always learning and growing. They are always thinking, “What can I do to be a more effective leader?”

Thoughts this Veteran’s Day?
I was blessed with the people I got to work with. I learned so much from the airmen, senior officers, everybody I became in contact with in my Air Force career. That is the reason I’m the leader I am today. I admire the people that are still serving. They are the heroes. They make so many sacrifices for us. I just want to honor them – those there right now and those that will come after us. Without them, we wouldn’t have the freedom to pursue our dreams and live the lives we life.

Originally published on NBCLatino.com

Latina Leaders: U.S. Army Colonel’s mission is to help others succeed

Colonel Irene Zoppi (Courtesy U.S. Army)

Colonel Irene Zoppi (Courtesy U.S. Army)

Many of us have high ambitions, but very few aspire to be a U.S. Army general.

That is a goal Colonel Irene Zoppi is striving for next. Currently, she’s one of only 15 Latinas in the U.S. Army Reserve who holds the rank of colonel. She also happens to be a full-time professor at Strayer University in Maryland, a wife and mother of three, and a Gulf War veteran who holds a doctorate in education policy, planning and administration and a masters in business.

“I think that I’ve taken every opportunity given to me,” says the 47-year-old who moved to the U.S. mainland from Canóvanas, Puerto Rico 26 years ago, barely speaking any English. “Often, as immigrants, we don’t get every opportunity so we start looking for them. Once we find them, we continue working at them so we can get ahead.”

As a girl in Puerto Rico, she says she used to wander around the naval station where both of her parents were stationed, admiring the uniforms and the discipline around her. She ended up joining the Army at 19, while continuing her studies at the University of Puerto Rico, because it “had more opportunities for women” than the Navy.

By 21, she got commissioned as an officer and had a bachelors degree in foreign languages – which she calls her gift. She eventually learned five languages and earned the nickname, “the Visa card,” among her fellow servicemen, because she often served as the translator for them.

Zoppi says moving up the military ladder and learning to acculturate to American culture — especially as a Latina — was not easy.

“A lot of time I was put down,” says the tough but light-spirited coronel who admits to having had trouble deciphering English for a long time when it was spoken too fast. That, however, was the impetus for her to work harder.

“The diversity wasn’t there at that time — so it was difficult and a lot of work. I was battling everybody — I didn’t go partying like everybody else so I could do better.”

Zoppi has seen her share of tough situations as she has advanced in the Army, but she clearly believes in her mission.

 ”One of the most impacting moments in my life was being in combat,” says Zoppi who has earned countless metals for her service, including the Bronze Star. “Although I believe in peace and diplomacy, sometimes the ultimate price we pay for democracy and freedom and national defense is war.”

The military first began accepting women into its ranks in the early 20th century. Yet according to the U.S. Department of Defense, as of 2011, approximately 13 percent of active duty military are women.

Today, as a professor and colonel, Zoppi is very motherly and even hugs her soldiers. She says she really cares for them and often gives them advice.

“In order to become successful, you have to know yourself by going to school, taking advantage of career centers, taking personality tests, and then develop a plan — long term and short term,” she advises. Zoppi already planned her life to age 100. “I have created a map of things I want to do, but also remember to be flexible and adaptable and don’t forget to be spiritual and give back.”

The Puerto Rican colonel advises to continue seeking opportunities throughout one’s life.

“Don‘t just do what feels good, but contribute to the good of our Earth,” says Zoppi. “We have to consider each other.”

In order to do her part in giving back, Zoppi often offers her time as a keynote speaker, motivating women around the world. She says she enjoys helping other women, especially Latinas, to get ahead.

“I want to help other women see they can do it.”

Dr. Irene Zoppi being promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1987. (Courtesy Irene Zoppi)

Dr. Irene Zoppi being promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1987. (Courtesy Irene Zoppi)

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

Latina Leaders: From undocumented MIT student to satellite engineer

Diana V. Albarrán Chicas (Photo/Susie Condon)

Diana V. Albarrán Chicas (Photo/Susie Condon)

Diana Albarrán Chicas still remembers waking up at four in the morning to accompany her parents to their job picking strawberries in the fields. It wasn’t easy, she says, growing up undocumented throughout her school career. But she eventually made it to the prestigiousMassachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) — a school she never heard of before her school counselor urged her to apply.

At 31, Albarrán Chicas is the first Latina, and only the second woman, to be a test section manager at the 50-year-old company, Space Systems/Loral (SSL) in Palo Alto, Calif. She oversees a team of 10 who design and build satellites and space systems for a wide variety of government and commercial customers, including DirectTV and DishNetwork.

“During one of the summer programs I attended as a Junior in high school, I learned about engineering and what engineers did,” says Albarrán Chicas, who originally dreamed of being an architect so she could build her own house when she immigrated with her parents from Mexicoat age 5. “I started to learn more and realized what I really wanted to do was engineering.”

If it wasn’t for that summer program, she says she wouldn’t have known careers in engineering existed.

“My parents only finished third grade in Mexico,” says Albarrán Chicas, who was the first in her family to graduate from high school, let alone make it to college. “I didn’t know about MIT until two weeks before the deadline to apply.”

At age 17, she packed up her bags and moved from Riverside, California to Cambridge, Massachusetts to take college courses in electrical engineering and electromagnetic wave theory.

“What I do now is work at the antennae department,” says Albarrán Chicas. “Through the antennae we are able to design how the satellites are going to define coverage on earth.”

She explains that satellites are launched into space and travel with the earth, linked with ground stations on the earth.

“That’s how the satellite communicates back and forth,” says Albarrán Chicas, explaining the full cost to test and launch a satellite is $500 million. “Once we launch our satellites into space, we can’t really fix them. We have to make sure they are designed properly and tested adequately.”

What she says she really enjoys about her job is the ability to be a problem solver. She says she is still is in awe that she is able to work with such a talented team and do such important work.

“It feels great to be able to come in and break some of the stereotypes that Latinas are not good in math and science,” says Albarrán Chicas.  Together with her husband (they met while students at MIT) they saw the need to introduce more young people to science, technology, engineering, math and science (STEM).   The couple created Empower Educational Services last year. “We’re trying to pay it forward in terms of everything we’ve learned — especially in under-served communities.”

She also works with Latinas in STEM, created by a group of MIT alumnae.

“The main purpose is to help empower Latinas to pursue STEM fields and thrive,” she says.  There’s a big push in improving the numbers, but there’s also a big trend in Latinas leaving STEM. We want to address why they leave – and raise awareness of Latinos who are doing well.”

Personally, she thinks immigration reform is definitely needed because there are too many talented undocumented youth in this country with so much to offer.

“It’s such a sensitive topic, because it could have as easily been me not being a citizen, and I can’t imagine not doing what I’m doing because of not having legal status,” says Albarrán Chicas who became a citizen at 21, when her parents were able to get their residency card and petition for her. “Ten years ago, there weren’t any scholarships for people who were undocumented. It was something that you didn’t talk about.”

She says sometimes remembering that time is still so difficult.

“There were some very dark moments — living in hiding for a long time, not saying anything to anybody,” she says. “My parents have been my source of inspiration — everything they sacrificed for my brother and I, I don’t think I can ever repay that back.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com