To fully appreciate what Marilyn Cruz-Aponte has achieved with her promotion to director of Hartford’s public works department means to Latinos entails an awareness of how unique her career path is for a Latina and also how it should encourage others of her heritage to seek influential roles in what, for now, are considered “nontraditional” occupations.
The career path, Cruz-Aponte has followed with success for several decades is one in which Latinos currently are under-represented, particularly in leadership positions. The profession’s leading national organization, the American Public Works Association, has more than 29,000 members, including Cruz-Aponte. However, only 11 percent are female, and 2.8 percent are Hispanic.
Moreover, while APWA and other groups report that nationally a number of women lead public works departments, there was little evidence of Latinas having roles similar to Cruz-Aponte, except in heavily Hispanic California.
Also of significance is that the responsibilities that Hartford’s new Mayor Luke Bronin gave Cruz-Aponte on Jan. 1 and the city council recently approved, is very much in line with a national movement to translate Latinos growing voting power and their passion for the environment into policies addressing concerns such as climate change.
It is important, said Hartford city council member Wildaliz Bermudez, to have someone with Cruz-Aponte’s “expertise, commitment and passion” for the environment and “the decades of work experience that she brings forth” in a position to influence recycling, composting and other policies that are “good for the planet.”
Bermudez noted that Cruz-Aponte, as assistant to the DPW director, last year spearheaded implementation of a mattress recycling program, which is the first in the nation. This program turned a drain on the department’s resources and a bulky disposal headache into a function that now earns the city a small amount of revenue and has helped create private sector jobs.
Cruz-Aponte’s success also opens the door for other Latinos to consider the possibilities for choosing careers where they can help set policies regarding the environment, said Bermudez, who is the lone Latina on the city council and on the staff of the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters.
Ingrid Alvarez, Connecticut director of the Hispanic Federation, said of Cruz-Aponte’s accomplishments, that it is exciting to observe how “this path of growth for her is progressing.”
Alvarez said that the quest for leadership opportunities is not an easy for women, especially women of color, but what Cruz-Aponte demonstrated is “that we are very diverse and can advance in all different sectors.”
Cruz-Aponte’s affinity for public works stems in part from her experiences growing up in New Britain as the daughter of Puerto Ricans who met and married in New York City, and like many other Hispanics, migrated to central Connecticut seeking work in a once thriving industrial sector.
Cruz-Aponte recalled that her relatives included farmers, laborers and people skilled in various trades. Moreover her father “was a very skilled handyman and could do everything.” As a result, she said during an interview at her Jenning Road office, “I am not unaccustomed to the work we do here.”
Cruz Aponte’s interest in recycling and environmental issues took shape during high school. She went on to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sociology and social work, while maintaining a strong interest and involvement in environmental advocacy.
Earlier in her career, she had the opportunity to handle environmentally-related assignments for then congressman Toby Moffett and for Governor William O’Neill, who lead the state from 1980 to 1991. Working with these notable state leaders, both Democrats, also fostered an affinity for the political and governmental processes.
Bronin, elected last year, is the third Hartford mayor, all Democrats, to give Cruz-Aponte a major role in a 200-person department whose responsibilities include the highly visible and sensitive duties such as collecting trash and keeping roads maintained and clear of snow.
“I am honored that he (Bronin) looked at my legacy at work and has shown confidence in my ability,” said Cruz-Aponte who previously served under mayors Eddie Perez and Pedro Segarra, who were both born in Puerto Rico.
Bronin saw Cruz-Aponte as a good fit for the team he was building by focusing on people who shared his vision for Hartford, explained an administration spokesperson in January.
Juan Figueroa, a longtime Latino and Democratic leader in Hartford who has known Cruz-Aponte since the 1980s, said “I like her style and what she brings as a leader and manager.” The former state legislator, added, “She is very professional, a hard worker.”
Figueroa, who served as chief of staff to Bronin’s predecessor Pedro Segarra for more than two years, expressed pride and admiration for Cruz-Aponte’s performance. “She went out of her way to make the department work better,” he said.
Cruz-Aponte is well-known and respected among Democrats and is popular with members of that party who control the governor’s office and the General Assembly, according to an article last year on the Hartford Courant website.
In addition to guiding the Hartford department, Aponte serves on the board for the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority, which two years ago succeeded the Connecticut Resource and Recovery Authority as the state agency devoted to solid waste disposal and recycling. Her appointment to the MIRA board was made by House Speaker Brendan Sharkey.
Cruz-Aponte is familiar with the political and constituent pressures that can be encountered in holding an influential role in an urban government. “It is my job as a professional to be engaged in the community,” she said. “I listen to all stakeholders and any concerns and requests,” she added, “but ultimately I need to be certain that programs are designed to be done with integrity and best procedures.”
In addition to the mattress program, Cruz-Aponte can boost several major accomplishments in trash collection and recyling. She played a leading role in the implementation of single-stream solid waste collection programs during a 16-year stint in New Britain and then again in Hartford where she came on board in 2008.
The work assigned to Hartford’s public works department essentially is to provide city residents and businesses with a safe, functioning environment and functioning infrastructure. This entails maintaining safe and clean roads, parks and public golf courses, sidewalks and public buildings. Other responsibilities include leaf collection, snowplowing, traffic signals, the operation of more than 1,000 trucks and other pieces of equipment and even issuing permits for holding weddings in city parks.
As to what Bronin expects from DPW, the new director said, “He wants us to provide the city with a professional organization with a fully trained staff that will understand its mission and services and execute them to the best of its abilities.”
A big part of what Cruz-Aponte does involves being a teacher, she said. Her preference is to tap in-house talent to serve as instructors. What makes this succeed, she said, is that the diversity of the workforce goes beyond ethnicity and racial lines, and is evident of skills which can relate to the department’s functions. Cruz-Aponte said.
“The hallmark of my 25 years in public works,” she said, “is that I ask employees how we can do things better.” Cruz-Aponte said that “The core of what we do is the men and women of the department” and its leaderships needs to be focused making sure they have the training and the tools” to do a good job, the public works director said.
The education focus includes developing a set of practices to handle snowstorms and to make sure plow crews are fully trained, Aponte said. It is standard operating procedure, she said, to coordinate DPW’s efforts with the police and fire departments as well with the city’s parking authority.
The “scuttlebutt” around the city is that Cruz-Aponte as DPW director this winter handled her first snowstorm very well, said one Latino leader.
Snow removal has always been a challenge, Aponte said, especially since snow can create dangerous situations and each snow event is different. “Every winter we hold our breath,” she said.
When the city’s weather contractor indicates a plowable snowfall is on the way, Cruz-Aponte, who is the mother of two grown children, packs some food and gear and heads to her office from her home outside the city and remains at her post “until everything is settled,” she said, adding, “It can be tiring and take many hours,” adding that part of her routine is to go out on the road to see for herself what is happening. “I have a route I drive throughout the city.”
Accepting her new position has resulted in Cruz-Aponte getting ready to take up residence in the city. “My commitment is to live, work and play in Hartford,” she said.