Their interests, backgrounds and where they live are diverse, but Isabel Ceballos of Simsbury, Maria Nazario of Chaplin, Emilio Estrella of South Windsor, Leopoldo Nazzaro of New London and Nitza Diaz-Candelo of New Haven share a common aspiration.
Each wants to play a significant role in fields such as education, public service, human resources and government to help move the state’s growing Latino population toward greater economic, social and political empowerment.
Nazario, who is of Puerto Rican descent and works for the Windham schools, cited the “importance of being a Latino in Connecticut now” as motivation for wanting to effectively contribute to the conversation when issues of concern to her community are discussed.
Similarly, Ceballos, a Colombian who grew up in Bristol and directs a private school’s program to improve the learning skills of girls from Hartford, has found that with “so many people in Connecticut being Latino” she wants to help effectuate positive changes for them through the attainment of networking and advocacy skills as well as political engagement starting at the local level.
To fulfill this mission, these five Latinos and 13 others chosen from across Connecticut spent Saturday mornings this fall at leadership classes sponsored by U.S. Sen. Christopher Murphy and the Connecticut Hispanic Democratic Caucus. These sessions covered public policy, grassroots advocacy, campaigning and social and traditional media, as well as the challenges confronting Latino families.
In addition to Murphy, presenters included Senator Richard Blumenthal, U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, Democratic State Party Chair Nick Balletto and Pat Russo, who is president of the Women’s Campaign School at Yale, along with state and local elected and community leaders.
The academy’s classes, held at various sites around the state, kicked off Oct. 8 and culminated November 19th in a graduation ceremony in the state Capitol building. The graduates will also travel to Washington, D.C. on Dec. 6 for meetings with national government, advocacy and media representatives.
Murphy did not attend the graduation but sent a message praising the participants as being members of what the program’s organizers hope will emerge as a new generation of Latino leaders. “Whether it’s fighting for issues like quality education and reforming our immigration system, or running for office themselves one day, these new graduates will bring fresh voices to the table,” the Democratic senator said. “I know Connecticut will be better off because this class has the know-how and passion to make a real difference,” Murphy added.
There obviously was a heavy Democratic component in the academy’s organization and lineup of presenters. However, the participants also were exposed to broader strategies to foster political engagement, a major concern in the Latino communities, and dealt with general information about the political process, how government works and how to effectively advocate, said Laura Maloney, Murphy’s press secretary.
“While some of the class do want to run for political office, others just want to become more active advocates on certain issues, such as education or immigration,” Maloney said.
Moreover, in selecting participants, preference was given to applicants without any political experience according to the academy’s organizers, although some did have a partisan background. In addition, gender and geographic diversity were taken into consideration.
The class consisted of Ceballos, Nazario, Estrella, Nazzaro, Diaz, Grisel Aguilar of New Haven, Tammy Barraza of Farmington, Jorge Cruz of Bridgeport, Jalmar DeDios of Hartford, Juan Hernandez of Hartford, Nicholas Laskos of Shelton, Yvette Martinez of Hartford, Carmen Nieves of Bridgeport, Daisy Olivo of Meriden, Gladys Rivera of East Hartford, Daniel Robles of Orange, Francisco Santiago of New Britain and Enid Vazquez of Bridgeport.
In addition to developing political acumen, some of the participants said what they gained through the leadership academy will be applied to nonpartisan endeavors.
Nazario, who came to eastern Connecticut from New York City, said the academy provided her with the advocacy skills to be a more effective liaison for parents and children with the Windham Public Schools.
Ceballos is the executive director of the Horizons enrichment program at Ethel Walker School. This initiative brings girls from Hartford to the private school where they are mentored in literacy and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. The goal is to close the achievement gap, she said.
Education also is a primary focus of Nitza Diaz-Candelo who came to Connecticut at the age of 15 from Puerto Rico. She said her experience in acclimating to a new high school situation has fostered an interest in serving on the New Haven Board of Education, an objective that eluded her in last year’s Democratic primary. “I know what it is like to not know English well and have seen how it is to be a newcomer in U.S. schools,” said Diaz, who has a doctorate in educational anthropology and is an educational consultant.
Currently the board president for the Fair Haven Community Health Center and active with the United Way in New Haven, Diaz said the academy gave her an opportunity to meet a lot of leaders and “look for a common vision” and “for hope, waking hope.”
Estrella, who is a student at Eastern Connecticut State University, has been active in voter engagement with the Hispanic Federation and is working with the Center for Puerto Rican studies at Hunter College in New York City where he is involved in creating national youth program for Latinos. His aunt Yanil Teron is director of the Center for Latino Progress in Hartford.
“Besides the benefits of networking,” Estrella said, the academy attracted his interest because he wanted to learn the mechanics of running a campaign, which he said, “from an outside perspective always seemed daunting if not nearly impossible to ‘get into.”
Navarro already has acquired hands-on experience with running a successful campaign. This spring and summer he was a campaign manager for Chris Soto, a Democrat who was elected to the state House of Representatives in November in his first bid for public office. Soto attended the graduation luncheon.
Other academy participants indicated the plan to become more politically involved. Tammy Barraza recently moved from New Britain to Farmington and saw the academy as a way to gain experience in the political process. Working in human services for the state Department of Social Services, she said her concern is the “well being of the public.”
Aguilar said she had been active politically years ago when she lived in Puerto Rico. She said she recently joined the board of Neighborhood Housing Services and appreciated what she learned from the academy in regard to engaging people, particularly Latinos, in the political process.
Hernandez already has taken the first big step in political involvement by becoming, at age 25, a member of the Democratic Town Committee in Hartford. Active in the Hartford Marathon Foundation, Diaz said the academy has helped him become more knowledgeable about fundraising and other campaign functions. However, he said the “number one” benefit he derived from the academy is the “amazing people he got to meet.”
Several of these people, including Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, several Hispanic members of the state House and CHDC’s officers Norman Reyes and Yolanda Castillo, spoke at the graduation ceremony, which was attended by scores of relatives and friends of the participants.
One of the primary messages at this gathering and during previous sessions was the need to widen political engagement, getting out the vote in the hope that there will be a Latino running for statewide office in 2018.
“This is our best chance to elect a constitutional officer,” said Castillo, who suggested it might be awhile before they have another chance.
Bronin also expressed support for electing a Latino to one of the top statewide positions that will be on the ballot in two years. These posts are governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller, treasurer and secretary of the state.
Reyes took this theme a step further. “We definitely will have a constitutional officer in 2018.”
Among the academy participants, the interest and timing for seeking political office varied. Navarro said he would like to run for the local council in New London and welcomed the training he received through the leadership academy. Diaz also indicated that another bid for a board of education in New Haven is likely.
For Nazario, the classes were an eye opener in regard to political involvement. “I did not realize all the steps leading up to being a candidate,” she said. Her next step involves moving to Windham, where she hopes to apply some of the advocacy skills she acquired on behalf of the town’s large Hispanic population, which is concentrated in the Willimantic section.
Estrella envisions a much longer road to becoming a candidate. “While the idea of public service has always been there for me, I think for now I will stay behind the scene helping other campaigns,” the college student said.
“I don’t love the idea of an entire life in politics and I think the general public has had enough of these kinds of people as well,” Estrella said. “I want to do what I can elsewhere and if I feel the call and the time is right, I’ll thrown my hat in the ring,” the South Windsor resident said.