Freeholders celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month

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ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — The Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders held its 2019 Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration on Wednesday, Sept. 25, at the Hall of Records. The ceremony commemorated the heritage, culture, resilience and spirit of the Hispanic community.

This year’s honorees included Josephine C. Garcia of Newark, Masiel Rodriquez-Vars of Montclair, the Naomy De Peña of Belleville; and Victor Cirilo of West Orange. Also recognized were Griselle Ponce of Newark, and the 2019 Royal Courts of the Puerto Rican Day Parade, the Dominican Parade and Festival, and the Mexican and Peruvian Queens.

Garcia is a community and educational leader in Newark, and currently works as a legislative aide for Newark Councilman Carlos Gonzalez, where she provides up-to-date research on a variety of municipal issues and serves as his official representative at conferences and engagements. She has spent much of her professional career serving the residents of the city as an aide to numerous elected officials. In April 2017, she was elected to the Newark Board of Education, and immediately elected president of the board, a position she continues to hold. 

Rodriquez-Vars has served as the executive director of the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence since 2015. Her deep roots in public school advocacy stem from her family, who first fought for educational equity by leading desegregation efforts in rural south Texas. She helped launch a foundation for the Andrus Family Fund, and helped craft its funding priorities: supporting communities in conflict, and youth who are aging out of the foster care system. In her spare time, she taught herself to film and edit short documentaries.

On May 8, 2018, De Peña made history by becoming the first Latina elected to the township council in Belleville. Since her election, she has been working on expanding recreational and educational services to her community. She grew up in the Dominican Republic and migrated with her family to the United States when she was 16. She worked as a Belleville public school teacher, working with special needs students, for more than 15 years. Presently, she and her husband own Zentai Martial Arts and After-School Program, which is a child development center that focuses on the intellectual, social, emotional and physical growth of individuals. She is also is an ordained minister and has been a humanitarian aid mission leader in Mexico, Haiti, Ecuador and Dominican Republic. 

Cirilo is the president of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials New Jersey Chapter, and vice president of the New Jersey Association of Housing & Redevelopment Authorities. Born in San Salvador, El Salvador, he and his family came to the United States when he was 9 years old. He grew up in West New York before moving to West Orange, where he has resided for more than two decades. Cirilo has spent more than 20 years in his career in affordable housing management and development. Additionally, he has served two terms as councilman and council president for the township of West Orange, and in 2012, he was named Councilman of the Year by the Boys & Girls Club of West Orange.

Ponce is an arts and entertainment director and pageant coordinator. She is a world-renowned dancer/choreographer who is known as the “Mambo Diva.” A Newark native and resident, she served as the main choreographer for the movie “Shine,” which was nominated for a Chita Rivera Award for Best Choreography. She introduced the individual members of the 2019 Royal Courts of the Puerto Rican Day Parade, the Dominican Parade and Festival, and the Mexican and Peruvian Queens, and presented them with citations from the board.

During the event, members of the Peruvian Civic Committee “La Marinera Dance” graced the audience with a special performance of a traditional Peruvian dance that exemplified the beauty of Hispanic culture.

Photos Courtesy of Glen Frieson