Flanders resident Paola Zuniga-Tellez became the first ever Latina to be elected to the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association board this week at their annual general meeting, adding a much-needed voice to the organization that has struggled in the past to attract members of the Latino community.
“We are very excited. It is our most diverse board ever and it accurately represents the makeup of our community,” said Ron Fisher, president of FRNCA, a non-profit organization.
The Flanders, Riverside, Northampton area has about a 25-percent Latino population according to the U.S. Census, but despite the significant number, Fisher said that in the past they had a hard time reaching them because nobody in their board was Latino and that was not inspiring.
Fisher went on to explain that since they started conducting their meetings in English and Spanish through a translator two months ago, they have started seeing an increase in the Latino participation.
“There is this perception that Latinos don’t want to participate, but it’s not true,” Fisher said and explained that with some slight alterations to their methods, such as providing information in both English and Spanish, Latino attendance is up.
“The idea is to inspire a sense of community, to unite us, and to continue to do events that the whole community feels comfortable participating in,” he said.
Zuniga-Tellez, who will be the general member, said that she was inspired to run for FRNCA’s board because of the lack of Latino representation.
“I love the area I live in, but I know there’s a lot to be done and I think that I can help” she said.
She explained that since FRNCA started translating their meetings many people have approached her wanting to be a part of it. Right now there are Latino women coming from Hampton Bays to listen to what’s being discussed and generally just learn about the inner workings of a local board and local government.
“There are a lot of important issues that we touch upon, like for example, how ambulances are being funded and who to call, and those are of importance to any person living here,” she said.
Riverhead resident Gilma Garcia started attending FRNCA’s meetings after Siris Barrios, community liaison for Riverside Rediscovered, told her and other women that meetings were being translated.
“It is very important for me to participate in these meetings. We learn how to help our communities and that’s what we need. It’s all about getting the right information,” she said.
She also went on to explain that having Zuniga-Tellez on the board feels like an inspiring victory for Latinos and women in general.
“There are a lot of people interested, but they are not informed. Siris and Paola are doing a great job reaching them,” she said.
Doris Dacus, an active member of the community who has been involved with FRNCA almost since its inception in 1999, was also elected this week and has been appointed treasurer. Dacus is one of several African-Americans that have served on the association’s board.
Both Dacus and Zuniga-Tellez ran unopposed. Fisher said that as high-quality members of the community, they both were the most qualified candidates for the positions they sought.
An immigrant in pursuit of the American dream
Zuniga-Tellez, a 31-year-old native of Mexico, first came to the United States when she was 13.
“My mom brought us here so we could have a better life, a better education and live the American dream,” she said.
After spending her formative years in New York City, she moved to Long Island’s East End in 2005. Already married, she was stunned to find a Latino community that was underrepresented and lacked the access to many of the programs and activities that Latinos in New York City enjoyed.
She joined Centro Corazon de Maria in 2011, a local agency in Hampton Bays that supports immigrants, and there she also connected with SEPA Mujer (Services for the Advancement of Women), a non-profit organization that promotes women’s rights and empowers immigrant women.
But it wasn’t until 2012, when she went through a difficult situation with her young children’s school that she learned the hard way how important it was for her to know her and her family’s rights and how to fight for them.
“I learned then that if I wanted to help my family and my community I had to not only inform myself, but also get involved,” she said.
Zuniga-Tellez’s family had decided to move to Flanders that same year. At first she was warned by others because of the hamlet’s reputation, but she soon found out that the opposite was true. In Flanders she found a great community and she says she fell in love with the area.
When SEPA opened up a chapter in the Riverhead-Flanders-Riverside area, Zuniga-Tellez was one of the first ones to sign up. SEPA then partnered with Riverside Rediscovered and created an initiative last Fall that looked to train and empower Latina women so they could be become more civically engaged in their communities.
Riverside Rediscovered’s Barrios together with several of SEPA’s executive members ran several orientations that culminated in a Leadership Academy course earlier this year. Zuniga-Tellez was one of the 20 women that graduated from the program this past February.
She said that this course inspired her and gave her the tools and confidence that led her to become a member of FRNCA.
“I have a lot of hope, there is a lot of work to do, but I think that the solution is to do it together as a community,” she said.