When Paola Zuniga-Tellez moved from Brooklyn to the East End in 2005, she noticed a lack of information and representation for the Latino community as a whole — a sad experience, she said.
Now, Ms. Zuniga-Tellez, who was born in Mexico and came to the United States as a teenager, hopes to close that gap as a member of the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association’s board of directors — the first Latina elected to the group’s board in its 18-year history.
FRNCA president Ron Fisher said the board is “ecstatic” about their new member, who has lived in Flanders for six years.
“When I became president, one of the goals that we talked about was diversifying the membership and the leadership and that was by race, by age, by address,” he said. “We didn’t want an organization led that wasn’t representing our neighborhood. We wanted to expand our reach and Paola is key to doing that.”
Ms. Zuniga-Tellez, a 31-year-old mother of two, said she ran for the uncontested seat with the goal of getting the community to work together. It’s about educating everyone about what’s going on in the community, she said.
“I believe I have that in my blood,” she said. “I’m eager to learn and I talked for those who don’t have a voice.”
FRNCA has been translating its meetings from into Spanish in real time, which has encouraged more people to participate, Mr. Fisher said. For a time, the organization didn’t understand why people weren’t joining and had assumed it was a lack of interest.
It wasn’t until Ms. Zuniga-Tellez began attending meetings and suggested they be available in two languages, that they realized a language barrier was making the difference in membership, Mr. Fisher said. It’s helped to close that gap already, with more members of the Latino population getting involved, he added.
This is the most diverse board the organization has seen, he said.
“For the most part, it’s always been white — and that’s not reflective of the community,” Mr. Fisher said.
Siris Barrios, community liaison for Riverside Rediscovered, who Ms. Zuniga-Tellez calls a mentor, agreed that the FRNCA board is now a better representation of the area’s population.
“There’s a desperate need for a bridge [between the] non-Latino community and the Latino community and I believe she will play that role,” Ms. Barrios said of Ms. Zuniga-Tellez.
Martha Maffei, executive director of SEPA Mujer, said Ms. Zuniga-Tellez exemplifies her organization’s mission to empower immigrant women on Long Island to become active leaders. Ms. Zuniga-Tellez is active in SEPA Mujer, which organized a march in Hampton Bays for February’s “Day Without Immigrants,” a nationwide movement powered through social media that encouraged people to boycott work for a day to emphasize the importance of the immigrant population in the United States.
“I cannot describe how happy I feel, how emotional I feel,” Ms. Maffei said, adding that SEPA Mujer is proud of Ms. Zuniga-Tellez’s accomplishment. She said it’s important for immigrants to be persistent and consistent in getting engaged in the their communities.
Seeing her on the FRNCA board will help motivate and inspire other women to get involved, Ms. Maffei said. Other SEPA Mujer members have also engaged by joining the Parent Teacher Associations at their children’s schools, she added.
Ms. Zuniga-Tellez said she and her family love the area where they now live.
“It’s a calm neighborhood,” she said. “It’s welcoming to everybody.”
Mr. Fisher noted, too, that all are welcome at FRNCA meetings and the group would love to see more diversity.
“I know there some things to be done but I’m ready to step up and help for the good of all,” Ms. Zuniga-Tellez said. “I know there are a lot of Latino people interested in joining. We just need to get the word out to inform them about what’s going on in the community.”