Paola Zuniga-Tellez had already spent more than half her life in America by the time she moved from Brooklyn to the East End, resettling in Flanders with her husband, Jose. A native of Mexico, she had the advantage of being bilingual, yet still felt like an outsider in her new home.
One night, Ms. Zuniga-Tellez began to question whether she wanted to raise her two young children here. It was a shock to go from the diversity of the city, where the vastness of multiple cultures allows for easier assimilation, to what she found on the East End. She felt as if people didn’t want her here, she said.
Her husband, who works as a handyman, had sought out the Flanders area because it felt more like home than living in the city. He reassured her, encouraging her to not give up.
“Things are not going to change if we don’t make the change,” she said.
Ms. Zuniga-Tellez, who works as a house cleaner, moved to the United States as a teenager with two siblings and her single mother, who struggled to find a job that paid well enough to support her family back in Mexico. They lived in a small room that never felt like a home. Her mother dreamed of providing a real home for the family in America.
With a renewed sense of purpose, Ms. Zuniga-Tellez, who is now 31 and has lived in the U.S. for 18 years, set out to better herself and find a way to dive headfirst into her new community. Through the organization SEPA Mujer (Services for the Advancement of Women), which has worked with immigrant women on Long Island since 1993, she discovered that opportunity in a leadership training program. SEPA Mujer partnered with Riverside Rediscovered, a community-driven revitalization project formed under the developer Renaissance Downtowns, to offer the program to local women, specifically those living in the Flanders and Riverside area. It’s designed to strengthen women’s self-esteem and help them build a bridge into their communities. A similar program has been run in Hampton Bays.
Fifteen women, including Ms. Zuniga-Tellez, were honored Friday at Southampton Town Hall for graduating from the 25-hour training program, during which they learned about the history of government, the electoral college and local government as well as how to organize meetings and navigate educational opportunities.
“We feel more confident about ourselves and we feel we can become more involved in our communities,” Ms. Zuniga-Tellez said during the ceremony. “We’re not enemies — we’re friends. We are allies.”
Siris Barrios, community liaison with Riverside Rediscovered, helped spearhead the project.
“We’re really proud of being a partner with SEPA,” Ms. Barrios said. “We feel that they’re in alignment with the type of leadership we want to see in the community.”
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The SEPA Mujer Riverside, Flanders, Riverhead Chapter will hold its next meeting Wednesday, Feb. 22, at 9:30 a.m. at the Riverside Rediscovered office, 108 Peconic Ave., Riverhead.
Each of the women, many wearing black blazers over pink shirts, was honored with a certificate presented by members of the Southampton Town Board and county Legislator Bridget Fleming (D-Sag Harbor). The Town Board also presented a proclamation to SEPA Mujer director Martha Maffei, a native of Peru who has worked with the organization for nine years.
“In this training we want to bring up the voice of immigrant women,” Ms. Maffei said. “Don’t be afraid to understand how the government works. It’s so different than how it is in our country.”
The recent program graduates represent a wide array of nationalities — Guatemala was most represented, with six — and range in age from 22 to 56. As part of the program, they were tasked with identifying key issues in the community, such as housing and transportation, to discuss in presentations. Five of them spoke Friday to provide an overview of a project centered on the lack of educational opportunities. It was titled “Opening Doors and Changing Lives.”
The women took turns at the podium, giving details about what they had accomplished. They all spoke in Spanish, with Ms. Barrios translating into English.
Among the challenges they identified for immigrant women were a lack of financial aid and programs that fail to meet the needs of immigrants and undocumented workers. As a short-term goal, they sought to identify workshops and other types of training that meet the needs of women, including BOCES programs. They discovered they can expand resources by securing donations and building strategic alliances, such as with the state or SUNY schools.
“Women have the capacity to create change,” said Yuliana Andrea Navarro of Hampton Bays, as translated by Ms. Barrios. “Regardless of nationality or gender, we have a capacity to have an impact.”
The Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association helped fund the program. FRNCA president Ron Fisher addressed the graduates, speaking in Spanish, which drew a laugh from the crowd.
Sean McLean, vice president of Renaissance Downtowns, said the leadership program is a great start to bring awareness to the community — “in particular the women as the backbone of the community.”
“I don’t believe the rest of the county is doing enough to promote this type of education and leadership within the community,” he said.
Many immigrant women face an uncertain future under Donald Trump’s presidency. Ms. Maffei said she’s seen a greater anxiety among many women in recent months. It’s what make this type of program so important, she said.
“There won’t be change if we don’t act,” she said. “There won’t be change if we don’t participate.”
Ms. Zuniga-Tellez said she’s hopeful the president can see the good in Latina women and ultimately change his vision.
“This is my home,” she said. “I keep fighting.”
Top photo caption: Graduates of the leadership program pose with their certificates at Southampton Town Hall last Friday. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)