BELLEVILLE, NJ — Naomy De Pena was sworn in as the first Latina deputy mayor in Belleville’s history on July 1. De Pena, who spent her childhood in a remote area of the Dominican Republic, called it “surreal” to be standing in front of a crowd of friends, family members, township employees and North Arlington Mayor Daniel Pronti to take the oath of office from Assemblyman Jamel Holley at the Town Council’s reorganization meeting.
From the moment this daughter of missionaries came to Belleville at age 16, De Pena has been on a quest to serve the township with all of her heart.
“I never set out to make history,” she said at the meeting. “I never set out to be a trailblazer in any way. I am the daughter of missionaries and we’ve been taught to serve.”
Although the position is largely ceremonial, the deputy mayor is called upon to attend events the mayor cannot, participate in conference calls, make presentations, give speeches, perform marriages and even swear in other township officials.
And it didn’t take long for De Pena to do just that. In her first official act as deputy mayor, she swore in Steven J. Martino as the township attorney.
“Diversity is important,” Holley said, recalling how De Pena came to the United States as an ESL student and is of Puerto Rican and Dominican heritage. “Diversity is something we should all be focusing on because it matters who represents you. It matters that individuals who may not look like us have representation, too. And the deputy mayor does that. Many young girls and many young boys of Latino descent need to know there are individuals who do look like them and can represent them. You are demonstrating that today by stepping into this role.”
De Pena’s parents, the Rev. Luis and Teresa Fernandez, were missionaries who volunteered to provide medical assistance and other critical help in rural, impoverished areas of the Dominican Republic, where life can be a daily struggle for survival. They sat in the front row along with De Pena’s husband, Allen, and children, Caleb and Chloe.
De Pena and her husband are small business owners in Belleville, running the Zentai Martial Arts and After-School Program.
“Naomy has been a tireless champion for this township and I couldn’t be prouder that she is our first Latina deputy mayor,” Mayor Michael Melham said. “She has made history here today.”
The two previous deputy mayors, Thomas Graziano and Vinny Cozzarelli, wished De Pena luck in her new role.
“A year ago, I was honored to fill Vinny’s shoes and I just want to say to the mayor that I hope I fulfilled the duties of deputy mayor,” Graziano said. “I hope I represented the Township Council and the town well. And, most of all, good luck, Naomy. I know you are going to do great things.”
Photos Courtesy of Belleville Township