‘It’s changed me to see that there’s progress, even through some very dark times for East End Latino immigrants.’
“I majored in theater at NYU, and after graduating started a nonprofit theater company with my then-husband. I was always interested in combining theater and social justice work, so we produced plays about race, immigration and other social issues. I feel like that landed me in a great place to work with OLA of Eastern Long Island [Organización Latino Americana] because as you bring your different experiences to bear, you develop great empathy.
“After moving to the East End, I noticed the tremendous anti-immigrant diatribe from the former county executive, which shocked me. So I started reaching out to see who was working with Latinos out here.
“I began volunteering for OLA in 2007, and then I accepted a position at the Retreat [ an East End shelter], where I focused on domestic violence for six years. I started meeting all these really amazing advocates and got connected, finding a place for my energy.
“I was always interested in what we can be doing to move the dial forward and to have really honest, brave conversations. Then in February 2016, I became the first full-time executive director at OLA. But that same year, the November election happened, which made anti-immigrant sentiment even more visible.
“This was a game-changer for our organization and the needs of Latino immigrants and families that we suddenly had to respond to. It’s changed me to see that there’s progress, even through some very dark times for East End Latino immigrants.
“I draw a lot of parallels between some of the work I’ve done in domestic violence and the work that I do serving Latino community members. Just seeing that there’s traction means for me that there’s a reason to stay focused, to keep my heart in this work. And it’s not about fighting. It’s about loving, but loving extra hard with a kind of fierceness, like that of a wild animal.
“I think the biggest change in me has really been the moment that we started working more with youth because I see them as our collective light. We’ve now grown to 13 staff members. I love getting to work directly with community members and with our team on all our projects.”
What energizes me every single day is knowing that there’s so much potential.
“We recently launched Youth Connect, a mental and emotional health initiative that focuses on middle school and high school students. We acknowledge five main entities that can support youth: parents, schools, houses of faith, peers and professional mental health providers. If these relationships are strong enough, then youth have a chance to overcome challenges and thrive.
“Youth Connect includes a 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. crisis counseling helpline in Spanish and English. That’s just one part of what we do. The rest of OLA’s work focuses on advocacy, education and the arts. Part of our role is to celebrate Latino artistic production and make sure it gets the visibility it deserves.
“Our annual OLA Latino Film Festival of the Hamptons, for example, brings Spanish-language film to different East End arts venues. We also produce two LTV shows: ‘Conversations with OLA,’ where we interview advocates and experts on various topics in Spanish or English, and ‘Sabor con OLA,’ a cooking show that features community members who love to cook sharing a recipe and a story.
“What energizes me every single day is knowing that there’s so much potential. Our team is so positive and thoroughly connected to this work, and there is so much good in it that it doesn’t feel like a job.
“A good day is when we’ve brought clarity or a path forward to someone who was hurting. I’ve felt this need to help others since I was a child. When I was in third grade, I assigned myself to be the bodyguard of two girls who were being bullied. A lot of what made me who I am is my mother’s mental illness.
“I grew up with her volatility and her being in and out of institutions. So my grandparents raised me, and from an early age I realized that I had to take care of myself in a lot of ways. But it was also my job to take care of my mother.
“I had no choice but to develop survival skills, which has allowed me to become someone who knows how to reach out to key people and marshal the resources at hand to make a situation right. I feel like in OLA I’ve found a place to do this work.”