NYSUT Secretary Treasurer J. Philippe Abraham welcomed two Latina trailblazers as part of “Celebrando Nuestra Hispanidad,” NYSUT’s Hispanic Heritage Month celebration — NYS Education Commissioner Betty Rosa and Evelyn DeJesus, American Federation of Teachers’ executive vice president.
Both women are the first Latinas to hold their respective positions. “You each have done so much to uplift us and to represent Latinx individuals throughout the country,” said Abraham in opening remarks at the virtual October celebration. “I am honored to welcome you to this event.”
The pair took part in a lively panel discussion co-moderated by Abraham and Maria Elena Guzman, a UFT member and educator. Andy Pallotta, NYSUT president, thanked both for participating and welcomed viewers. “It’s good seeing so many friends here today and to celebrate the many contributions of Hispanic and Latinx Americans.”
Both women stressed the importance of staying true to yourself. “I learned early on that you have to define who you are and to always be a woman of integrity,” said DeJesus who overcame great personal challenges. “You have to know that you matter and that you are valued.”
“I don’t allow others’ expectations to define my worth — I reject rejections,” said Rosa who advised finding strong mentors and creating a road map for where you want to go. “Lead with honesty, have a moral conscience and trust your gut.”
Fostering greater diversity within the teaching profession, and the importance of unions and education policy makers working in partnership, were also discussed. “We all have the same goal — high quality education for all, so we need each other … even when we agree to disagree,” said Rosa. “Unions take on issues that support the overall healthiness of what we’re trying to achieve.”
DeJesus advised Latinx and Hispanic individuals interested in education to jump in. “We need more people who look like, and who understand, our students; so many kids have lost so much,” she said.
Other event highlights included a performance by SUNY Albany dance troupe Fuego Intenso, and remarks by Esther Hernandez-Kramer, Farmingdale Federation of Teachers; Hector Ruiz Jr., UFT; and Wendy Palladino, Bellport TA. Commissioner Rosa; Yanira Merino, president of the Labor Council of Latin American Advancement; and Migdalia “Mickey” Jimenez, regional director of Capital District Latinos, each received NYSUT awards.
“We must continue building our voice and fighting for equality,” said Merino, who thanked NYSUT leaders for the accolade. “We came here in different boats, but we are now one in this country.”
Noting that a $4,000 UFT scholarship helped her attend college at Long Island University in the early 1970s, Jimenez read one of her scholarship recommendation letters penned by a teacher that continues to inspire her. “She helped me get where I am today, I keep this letter in my bible,” said Jimenez who termed her award an incredible honor. “Teachers do so much for children … simply by believing in them.”
Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated annually Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. “Celebrando Nuestra Hispanidad” is part of the statewide union’s “Many Threads, One Fabric” social justice event series.