Bill Sarno CTLatinoNews.com
When it comes to serving and loving Bridgeport, especially its Latino community, Alma Maya is the real thing, an “authentic” leader as one longtime Hispanic leader observed.
Currently serving her second term as town clerk, the Puerto Rico-born Maya has devoted several decades to improving the lives of Hispanics and others in the Park City by fighting for social initiatives and championing an educational empowerment program for immigrant youth.
Maya compares the closeness she feels with Bridgeport residents to the affection she has for her family. “I love Bridgeport,” she said, adding, “The people here are friendly and helpful. They will give you directions — the right directions.”
She learned a lot about her city growing up on its east side and by working many years with Bridgeport’s legendary social activist Cesar Batalla in nonpartisan drives for hiring equality and bilingual education.
Maya, who prefers nonpartisan endeavors, eventually ran for office, first as an independent and more recently as a Democrat. However, she would prefer to concentrate on educational issues.
Still, Maya was among the first mentioned as potential candidates to fill a state Senate vacancy in East Bridgeport created by the appointment of state Sen. Andres Ayala as the state commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles.
“Andres was an excellent advocate for the Latino community in the Senate,” said Yanil Teron, executive director of the Center for Latino Progress in Hartford and a participant in the statewide Hispanic Federation. “We need someone as good and without a doubt that is Alma,” she added.
Maya also has drawn accolades for her work as town clerk over the last seven years.
“She’s one of the most responsive public officials I’ve known in my 35 years of covering the city,” said Lennie Grimaldi, listing her among potential candidates on his Only in Bridgeport website, which provides a window into city life and politics.
“She is well respected within Bridgeport,” said Joseph Rodriguez, who is chairman of the Connecticut State Democratic Caucus, of which Maya is an active member. She is seen as someone who can work with everyone.
Rodriguez said his group “has had no conversations about any possible replacement” for Ayala, and as a rule the caucus does not like to impose itself on any community, but would “love to see a Hispanic continue to represent that district.”
At this point, Maya has not committed to any future role she might play in Bridgeport. At some point she must decide whether to seek a third term as town clerk, which Grimaldi said would mean another four years in what ostensibly is a part-time role. She has told Only in Bridgeport that she will not run for the Senate.
Moreover, if something like the Aspira youth empowerment program she guided for many years were to suddenly and unexpectedly emerge, it would be hard to imagine Maya not wanting to be involved.
The Bridgeport Democrats will have something to say as to what, or if any, public office she might seek. This is one area where her preference for nonpartisan approaches to local problems might be viewed less kindly.
“Maya has an independent streak that doesn’t always sit well with some members of the city’s Democratic political establishment,” was a recent observation made by Grimaldi on his website. “So whether Alma receives the endorsement for another four-year term is an open question,” he said.
One thing is for certain, Maya is not likely to sit on the sidelines, and if she does run for office do not expect to hear a lot of platitudes and patronizing double talk that often characterizes campaigns.
“Ask Alma a question, she gives you a straight answer,” says Grimaldi. “Seasoned politicians are generally programmed to give the answer they want to give no matter the question. Alma’s attitude is ‘You ask me a question, I give you an answer,'” said Grimaldi, who has known Maya for more than 30 years.
Similar praise comes Juan Figueroa, a former state legislator and assistant state attorney general, health care executive and the current chief of staff for Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra.
Alma Maya offers “authentic leadership,” said Figueroa, who has known her for more than 25 years. “She is a great Puerto Rican Latina leader, “embodies what Latino leadership is in this state.”
Maya is energetic as well as being knowledgeable and committed to the Bridgeport community said Teron who has had an opportunity to meet her in regard to statewide Latino concerns.
The daughter of a Korean War veteran who preferred farming to industrial work, 5-year-old Alma Arriaga came to Bridgeport in the 1960s, and grew up in a city that was a booming manufacturing center. “If you left a job on Friday, by Tuesday you would be working somewhere else,” she said.
The immigrant population was diverse then, she recalls, including Irish, Italians, Polish, Jamaicans, Germans and others. When the jobs dried up, many of these people moved elsewhere, she said. “The Puerto Ricans and Blacks stayed.”
Maya remained in Bridgeport to attend school, to marry Marco Maya and to raise three daughters. She did leave temporarily to attend Springfield College in Massachusetts where she majored in human services.
Maya received an education in community involvement while working on various social causes with Batalla who “was a stick in the eye to the city’s powerful, be it politician or business,” said Grimaldi on his website.
As Batalla’s “disciple, Alma was … one of the leading community warriors for social change: school desegregation, special education, police presence, political influence and voting power,” Grimaldi wrote.
Batalla and Maya’s family, the Arriagas, both came from the same town, Aguas Buenas, in the central mountains of Puerto Rico. While the two families knew each other, with both having settled in Bridgeport by the 1960s, Alma and Cesar first became acquainted in the 1970s and began to work together in the 1980s.
Maya became involved with Batalla’s Puerto Rican Coalition, which along with the NAACP sued the city for hiring discrimination. This led to Bridgeport employing bilingual teachers, and Puerto Ricans joining the police and fire departments.
Batalla taught Maya that focusing on just one issue is not enough because everything is inter-related. For Maya, this translates into a belief that “money effects everything.” If you give a family some economic stability, they will be able to stay in one place, she said, and that will take care of their education and medical service needs.
Also, she said, that to achieve changes that are not just cosmetic, leaders need to have the political will to address the root causes of issues.
Batalla passed away in 1996, a victim of exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, she said.
Another key figure in Maya’s public life is Lowell P. Weicker, Jr., who, after serving in the U.S. Senate, was governor from 1990 to 1994.
Maya described Weicker as being “so honest and so upfront,” and having done more for Latinos and Bridgeport than any other governor. He was the first to appoint Hispanics to judgeships, and chose several for key roles in his administration, she said.
Weicker also started many projects for Bridgeport that came to fruition under Mayor Joseph Ganim later in the 1990s, Maya said. These included building a state police barracks, bringing Housatonic Community College downtown and establishing a gubernatorial office in the city. “He cared for this part of the state,” Maya said.
It was during the Weicker period that a Connecticut branch of Aspira was launched in Bridgeport. Founded in 1961 in New York City by Antonia Pantoja, this now national organization was created to overcome a high dropout rate among Puerto Rican high school students. It also was conceived as a way to develop leadership in the Latino community through education.
Maya helped found Aspira of Connecticut in 1991 in Bridgeport, starting with 15 students. The program eventually had hundreds of participants and even involved parents as it expanded to other Connecticut cities.
Maya served as executive director of the Connecticut group, setting up leadership clubs in schools for not only Puerto Ricans, but also for immigrant students from Albania, Jamaica, Lebanon and other countries.
The Connecticut branch expired in 2011 when it lost most of its funding. However, Maya said there is a need for something to replace it, particularly to help the new Latino immigrants from South America and Latin America.
If she was to become a state legislator, she said, her priority would be to foster economic and education development.
Maya received an education into local political reality in the 1990s when she made an unsuccessful bid for a school board seat under the A Connecticut Party banner, an independent coalition created by Weicker. What she learned, she said, is that in Bridgeport you have to be endorsed by one of the major parties to get elected.
As 2015 began, however, Alma Maya, had put aside politics, which is not her favorite pastime anyway, to tend to family concerns in Puerto Rico, and had left it up to others to speculate about her political status. Drawing upon her faith, she says that her course will be determined by God’s will.
While some Bridgeport politicians say it is unlikely that Maya will run for the Senate. State Rep. Christopher Rosario points out that many in the city also were also taken by surprise by the Ayala appointment.
Editor’s note: This story on Alma Maya was planned before the newly vacant state senate seat in Bridgeport was created.
photo: Only in Bridgeport