By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was produced as part of the 2020 Election Reporting Fellowship with NJ ethnic and community media organized by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University.
Photo: LUPE members celebrate recognition during Women’s History Month at New Jersey State House in 2019. Photo courtesy of LUPE Fund Facebook.
ATLANTIC CITY – Celeste Fernandez said she feels confident and emboldened this time around in the Atlantic County Freeholders race on Tuesday as compared to 2018 – and she has LUPE partly to thank for it.
A small busines owner living in Egg Harbor Township and running as a Democrat, Fernandez came within a handful of vote two year ago from knocking off longtime Republican Freeholder Frank Formica.
This time she and incumbent Democratic Freeholder Caren Fitzpatrick and running against Republican incumbent James Risley, an 18-year board veteran, and Somers Point councilman James Toto for the two at-large seats.
Fernandez said the training she has received from the LUPE (Latinas United for Political Empowerment) Fund and endorsement from the LUPE PAC has made all the difference in the world in not only how she campaigned but the confidence and believe in herself she now has. If she wins, she will make history as the first Latinx to serve on the Atlantic County Freeholder board.
“They have helped me so much with their support,” Hernandez said of the two organizations, which has been helping train and support Latinas running for public office and being placed on prominent board in New Jersey for nearly two decades. “They encouraged and empowered me to run.”
The LUPE Fund and LUPE PAC are two separate organizations with two separate boards. The LUPE Fund was created in 2003 by a group of Latinas in the Garden State who averaged more than 20 years of experience in fields like law, education, human services, business and public policy.
The founders – Zulima Farber, Esq., Gloria Soto, Esq., Noemi Velasquez, Maria Vizcarrondo, Griselle Camacho, Esq., Margarita Muniz, Margarita Roig and others — saw a way they could cultivate and use their skills to not only to connect but train and advocate for other Latinas.
“I have been following LUPE since its inception when my director to me to one of their events,” Blanca Rosales-Ahn, who serves as board president of the LUPE Fund, told Front Runner New Jersey/LaPrensa. “I was attracted by the idea of Latinas helping other Latinas grow overall in giving that mentorship. I was young when I first learned of LUPE and thought it was wonderful that these powerful women came together to help us.”
Today, Rosales-Ahn has added her name to that list of powerful Latinas, serving as executive director of BRAHN Career Educational Consulting Services and was the previous president for the New Jersey Career Development Association and New Jersey Employment Counseling Association.
“I’m very passionate about helping young Latinas and LUPE falls perfectly in line with my passion,” Rosales-Ahn said.
The LUPE Fund gives out scholarships annually and partners with Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics to promote civic engagement and provide nonpartisan training for those running for public office through Eleccion Latina.
The LUPE Fund 2020 scholarship winners included: Amarilis Rodriguez from Seton Hall (Zulima V. Farber, Esq. Scholarship); Viridiana Martinez from Rutgers (Gilda Morales Scholarship); Sherley Nunez from The College of New Jersey (Ana Jaramillo Scholarship); Claudia Romani from Seton Hall (Livin Medina Scholarship); Celin Hidalgo from Rutgers (Comcast Scholarship); Maria Del Cielo from St. Peter’s University (Comcast Scholarship); and Giovanna Castaneda from Rutgers (Comcast Scholarship).
“The LUPE Fund’s organizational growth is happening at a time of flux and change in our country,” said Peggy Anastos, a past president of the LUPE Fund and who has been involved since the start. “More than ever, education and civic engagement for young women is critical in building strong leaders that can advance quality of life issues for New Jersey diverse communities.
“With more than a decade of experience, LUPE is ready to move to the next chapter of its work and reach more Latinas to help them realize their potential as local and state leader. We have supported past programs such as the Young Latina Conference, the Latina Statewide Summit, and the LUPE Fund offer educational scholarships for young Latinas in need of financial assistance for college,” he continued.
Sara Pena, is another former LUPE Fund president who serves as the director of the Center for Hispanic Policy, Research and Development with the State of New Jersey. She is the cofounder with Iveth Mosquera, the fund’s current vice president, and attorney Lillian Plata, of the Young Latinas Leadership Scholarship Committee.
“We have the opportunity to remove some of the financial hardships many of our young women are faced with when earning their degree,” Pena said. “To date, we have awarded close to $73,000 and it is something we are extremely proud of. These young woman are doing amazing things and remember to give back to the organization by volunteering at events or serving on our board. We are a sisterhood of strong, like minded women who rise up and take action on the issues that affect us and our families.
“As a woman, but most importantly an Afro-Latina, the work LUPE does motivates me to ensure I am doing my part to get civically engaged, advocate on the issues affecting women and get more women who look like me elected to office,” Pena continued.
Veteran educator and labor expert Dr. Patricia Campos-Media said LUPE organizers soon realized there was a greater need for their involvement with sister Latinas, particularly with those attempting to navigate the political minefield, beyond training. LUPE PAC, thus, was started in 2009.
“We saw we needed to advocate for them politically and get them to run for office,” said Campos-Medina, a former president of the political action committee. “What we wanted to do is to build the bench of Latinas in public office at the local level so when legislative positions open up, we will have candidates who know how to run for office, raise money and build networks.”
LUPE PAC backed Fernandez in 2018 and is supporting her again this year. The political action committee also endorsed Cary Amaro for a Morris County Freeholder seat and Perth Amboy Mayor Wilda Diaz for another term.
“I do see people starting to take notice (in LUPE PAC),” said current PAC President Laura Matos. Matos, the New Jersey general manager of the strategic advisory group Kivvit and has served on the staff of three New Jersey governors. “I think the 2016 election caused elected officials to realize they can’t ever take anything for granted – just because they think a group should support them doesn’t mean they won’t.
“So I have seen that change in ways campaigns speak to the electorate and how they lay out their platforms and think about how all core issues affect all groups, instead of assuming what different communities may find important,” she said.
Matos said she decided to get involved in LUPE PAC because of her experience in state government and seeing the need for representation for the Latinx community and specifically among Latinas.
“Even in a few short years, we have seen an uptick in the number of Latinas getting involved in the political office,” Matos said. “The more we are involved at every level, the more we will be successful.”
Campos-Medina, co-executive director of The Worker Institute at Cornell University, said her involvement came as the result of her immigrant parents, who often worked long hours to support her family often without the encouragement or resources available to others.
“My parents had to work two or three jobs just to keep us going,” Campos-Medina said. “I tell people my mother is one of the smartest people I know, but she didn’t have access to an education. I believe if women have the opportunity we can great things. I believe can build power together.”
She added there is a more practical reason politicians need to pay closer attention to Latinas politically.
“When women vote, their kids vote, their parents vote, their sisters vote,” Campos-Medina said. “They bring everybody along. We needed to be educating Latina voters to engage in elections and advocate policies that favor our community.”
Campos-Medina is now president of LUPE Action, a nonprofit C4 that advocates for policy solutions that improve the lives of Latinas and our families through policy innovation, voter education and voter engagement to advance the social and economic welfare of Latinx families in New Jersey.
Mosquera, director of marketing, public relations and development at Matheny Medical and Education Center in Peapack, said the growth and success of LUPE and its sister organizations has been spreading around the state. When Gov. Phil Murphy started his administration less than four years ago, LUPE Fund was one of the groups he called upon to help identify people to serve in his administration along with state commissions and boards.
“We starting to get calls local legislators and state legislators, too,” Mosquera said, who praised working relationships LUPE has established with organizations like the League of Women Voters. “I am expected to see more of those calls after the election. Those type of partnerships that are growing as oppose to 15 years ago. Now people are taking note. They need to have diverse board members and they are reaching out.”
In time, Mosquera said she sees LUPE growing to a possible national organization, but for now the group continued to establish their influence and advocacy in the Garden State.
For Fernandez and her quest to become an Atlantic County freeholder, she is grateful.
“As a Latina running for office, there is no representation. Without them, this would have been very difficult. The fact that (LUPE) is here, it means a lot,” she said.
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