For Wildaliz Bermudez and her younger sister Eva Bermudez Zimmerman, the political activism they witnessed as young plaintiffs in the 1989 Sheff vs O’Neill school desegregation lawsuit, along with decades of community involvement and a desire to give their generation bigger voice in government, have lead the two Latinas to become candidates for public office in two very different environments.
The two millenials, a designation for people born in the 1980s and 1990s, mostly have chosen a course focused on Hartford, their hometown and where they have pursued economic and racial equality as well as helping thousands enroll in health insurance. However, in recent years this path has branched out into more affluent and less densely populated suburbia.
Wildaliz still lives and works in mostly Hispanic and African American, low-income Hartford. Last year, she ran on the Working Families Party ticket and became the first Latina elected in more than a decade to the City Council.
About five years ago, Eva moved to Newtown in Fairfield County and now lives in the Sandy Hook section, not far from the infamous school tragedy. Like many in that suburban community, she commutes to work, in her case, to Hartford.
Eva was the first Latina to serve on the Legislative Council and is running as a Democrat to represent a town which is more than 90 percent white in the state General Assembly.
In 1996, the sisters were still very young when the state Supreme Court handed down its landmark Sheff decision in favor of equal educational opportunity for all racial and ethnic groups, but the stirrings of a political consciousness already were there.
The Bermudez sisters are the children of Pedro and Carmen Wilda Bermudez, two educators who had come to Hartford from Puerto Rico and became active in civic life, with a goal of making sure their children received the education they needed to succeed.
“They are from a pretty political family,” noted Luis Caban, a longtime Latino leader in Hartford, who knows the sisters’ father, Pedro. Moreover, Wildaliz was Caban’s co-host on his Univision television segment, “Cafe con Luis,” and, when she could not be there, Eva filled in and did very well, he said.
State Rep. Edwin Vargas also got to know Pedro Bermudez as a colleague in the Hartford public schools. “He was a teacher and I was a union representative,” the legislator recalled. Both Pedro and Carmen, who he described as a “great mother,” were very active in the community and, Eva noted, her mother still works in the schools as a para-professional.
Vargas said he has known the Bermudez sisters and their brother, who also was a Sheff plaintiff and now is an accomplished filmmaker, since they were very young. “They are all very talented,” he said.
It was not long after the Sheff decision that the sisters embarked on their career of political activism. Eva recalls that while in middle school, she campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore in 2000.
About two years later, Wildaliz and her brother Pedro, who was the second-born of the three Bermudez siblings, set up an anti-Iraq War event on Park Street subsequent to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
“We were raised with the strong belief that rather than complain, do something,” Eva said.
Wildaliz, who was born in 1982 in Puerto Rico, explained that her political involvement came out what she saw was a need to have someone on the city council who represents the city’s young people.
Moreover, she became motivated to do something about the disparities between the rich and poor, particularly on “how people access resources.”
Eva, who was born in Hartford in 1987, said that as a millenial she is concerned about the future and whether Social Security will still exist when she is ready to retire. She also is motivated by economic issues such as that people need to have food and a place to live.
People familiar with the Bermudez sisters describe them as the “real deal” and “passionate” about the causes they embrace, whether if be supporting a local candidate or opposing the use of Viequez in Puerto Rico for bombing practice.
“They take their passion and take action and do it with respect and with their hearts in line what they are working for,” said Joel Cruz Jr., a former Working Families Party members of the City Council and an unsuccessful unaffiliated candidate for mayor last year.
State Rep. Edwin Vargas, who has known the Bermudez family for decades and supports the sisters 100 percent, said that Wildaliz and Eva are “savvy enough” to realize that politics is very intrusive and that it will be in your life so that you might as well have a say.”
Both sisters has been active politically in Hartford and were heavily involved in Vargas’ unsuccessful state Senate campaign in 2010. “Eva was my campaign manager and Wildaliz was field supervisor,” the Hartford Democrat said.
He noted that Wildaliz worked especially hard in her city campaign and her effort was “a cut above even a hard-working candidate.”
Both sisters look to Vargas as a mentor and added that their role models include Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts as well as U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut.
Eva moved to Newtown about five years ago and is married to Stacey Zimmerman, a labor union activist with western Connecticut roots. She is hoping to get the Democratic Town Committee’s endorsement this week to run for state representative from the 106th District.
Eva said she said she is passionate about Newtown’s future and that among her concerns is that education funding has been cut back during the last two legislative terms. She also said that there “are not enough voices representing the working class” and that “not everyone is wealthy in Newtown, most people are are middle class and blue collar.”
Although the two sisters now reside more than 30 miles apart, they both work in the same area of Hartford for organizations that very much embody their political principles and background.
Wildaliz, who has a master’s degree in environmental science education, is communications director for the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters. She is looking forward to the national League of Conservation Voters launching a Latino outreach designed to register more voters and get people involved in advocacy on environmental issues. She added that this advocacy is starting in Hartford.
Wildaliz is married to Ken Krayeske, a Hartford attorney who specializes in civil rights and also is a political activist, including having run for Congress as a Green Party candidate.
Eva is an organizer for CSEA, SEIU Local 2001, a union that represents 28,000 state employees. Her work involves spending time at the state Capitol as an advocate and following up on legislation affecting employees.
A major concern now is the governor laying off of state workers to help balance the budget. “The savings should not be on the back of employees, many of whom have been hard workers for years,” she said. “We need to explore other options.”
In terms of their education, by the time the Sheff decision began to seriously impact the Hartford school system, the Bermudez children were too old to reap much of the benefits. However, some elements of what would become the Classical Magnet School were set up at Hartford High School when Eva was still a student there.
Wildaliz attended Trinity College in Hartford, studying for a bachelor’s degree in applied sciences. At the highly selective private college, she was exposed to the economic and racial discrepancies among the students.
After Wildaliz graduated from Trinity, both sisters lived for several years and continued their educations in Puerto Rico. “We had visited the island each summer and wanted to reconnect with our roots,” Wildaliz said.
Eva attended the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico earning a bachelor of arts degree in pre-law studies and political science, while her older sister earned a master’s degree in environmental science education at the Universidad Metropolitana.
The sisters returned to the mainland in 2009 and Eva served as a legislative aide to U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel. She eventually began her labor career with SEIU, the service employees union. Her work included being an organizer in the gubernatorial campaign of Dannel Malloy in 2010 and for President Obama in 2012.
During the 2014-2015 rollout of the Affordable Care Act, Eva worked with Access Health CT, where she said she used her “union savvy” to supervise a team of assisters that contacted 5,000 people about the health insurance available to them.
“My sister is a bit too humble,” Wildaliz said. “She personally enrolled more than 3,000 people.”
Wildaliz’s career has touched many bases and includes working as a community liaison and in constituent services for the City of Hartford and in marketing and outreach for Access Health CT, as well as being engaged in a variety of community and volunteer activities, including being a board member of the Center for Latino Progress. A former ballet student, she also has served on the board of the Hartford Ballet.
Personal experiences have helped shaped the sisters activism, Wildaliz said. “We lived to know what not having a union meant,” she said.
“I came back from Puerto Rico with a master’s degree and not having health insurance and had to go on the state health insurance plan,” Wildaliz said.
Having worked for an insurance company while in college in Puerto Rico, she saw how difficult it is to get sick days.
Although the sisters have been involved in campaigns for Democrats, in Hartford they have had an affinity for the Working Families Party.
Vargas said the WFP’s philosophy is more in tune with their vision of public policy.”
“I believe in being very progressive,” Wildaliz said, adding that she always has been a supporter of WFP, which she called “Democrats on steroids” and canvassed for them when she was in college.
Eva said that in Newtown running as a Democrat made more sense then trying to launch an independent movement.
Wildaliz describes her sister as a joiner, going back to being a member of at least seven organizations in high School. When she moved to Newtown, Eva became quickly involved in local groups to become part of the community. “She believes in giving back and sharing with others,” Hartford councilor said.
While the sisters tend to be on the same page regarding social and political issues they do display differences.
To relax, Wildaliz says she enjoys the theater and ballet while Eva says organizing fills that role in her life.
Jason Ortiz, who was Wildaliz’s campaign manager and also assisted the entire WFP ticket, said that the older sister tends to be less establishment and “even to the left of Eva,” who he described as the more professional organizer.
“Wildy is the one with the megaphone while Eva will have the signup sheet,” he said.
While the sisters take their politics and activism very seriously, according to Ortiz “they are both fun people.”
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