By John Mason
Sila Maria Calderon delivered a passionate message of social responsibility, community commitment, and helping the poor to students and facility Monday afternoon at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic.
The former governor of Puerto Rico said, “If you ever have the chance to give a couple of years to public service, do it. You’re going to be the happiest person in the world.”
Calderon is making several appearances in Connecticut to promote her philanthropic foundation – The Center for Puerto Rico: Sila M. Calderon Foundation – which addresses issues of poverty, women’s rights, urban development and strengthening ethical values and social issues.
In 2001, Calderon became the first woman elected as governor of Puerto Rico. She also has served as the mayor of the island’s capital, San Juan, and secretary of state. As governor, she started numerous programs for economic development, tourism, education and drug enforcement.
However, Calderon bucked decades of tradition when she decided not to serve a second four-year term. She called the decision the biggest mistake of her life.
“I thought I was getting too old,” said Calderon, 69, who was married and divorced three times and has three grown children from her first marriage. “I wanted my private life back. Looking back … I should have stayed on,” she said, given the political turmoil that ensued shortly after she left.
In 1989, while the Commonwealth’s Secretary of the State, Calderon had a profoundly moving experience in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo, which devastated the island. As she toured the countryside – meeting the people affected by the devastation, hardship and death resulting from the hurricane – she became increasingly aware she wanted to help those in need. She left public office not long after to coordinate efforts to re-build the island. “Social responsibility, to me, is the obligation to extend your hand to the less fortunate. There’s nothing more valuable than the dignity of human beings,” Calderon said during her 30-minute speech.
Eastern alum Yolanda Negron told Calderon she met her in the late 1980s while visiting relatives in Puerto Rico after the hurricane. Negron praised Calderon for her compassion toward others, but more importantly, she said she idolized Calderon for having the strength to battle the island’s drug and corruption problems.
Despite her assertion, it is clear that Calderon has been a force to be reckoned with. While she was governor, she started several economic growth and job creation programs that helped the island’s most disadvantaged residents.
But one program that continues to haunt Calderon eight years after leaving office is a billion dollar project, The Special Communities Program that went toward housing and infrastructure. Longtime opponents continue to assert that some of the funds were unaccounted for and the program didn’t achieve its objectives. The legislature continues to investigate the allegations.
When asked about the program, Calderon jokingly offered a flippant response, “I stole everything,” she said. And then, more seriously, “They have been investigating this for eight years since I left and they have not been able to find anything about the program that is irregular.”
Calderon strongly believes that the island should remain a U.S. Commonwealth as opposed to becoming the country’s 51st state. “I believe in permanent ties with the United States. I’m very proud of my citizenship and share the same values of democracy and liberty,” she said.
“She’s great,” said Estela Lopez, a friend, who helped arrange Calderon’s talk Monday and another scheduled today, Sept. 18, at Hartford Hospital in conjunction with the Latino Endowment Fund of the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. “Since leaving politics she’s found a way to continue addressing poverty.”
Dr. Elsa Nunez, the university’s president, said what amazed her about Calderon’s life is her ability to relate to poor people in light of having come from a wealthy family. “It’s very unusual,” Nunez said, “that someone from her elite background would care so deeply about the poor people of Puerto Rico.”
Eastern students Katherine Ruiz, 17, and Pamela Hernandez, 17, who are Latina, said Calderon is a positive role model for women working in male-dominated careers. “I’m very proud of how she has improved the lives of people, both while in office and now,” Ruiz said.
By John Mason