By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
ATLANTIC CITY — Latino and Latina leaders from around New Jersey gathered at the Resorts Casino and Hotel last month to honor those making a difference in the community and future leaders at the Hispanic Leadership Association of New Jersey 10th anniversary Awards Gala.
On Oct. 28, the HLA held its first awards gala in three years, which had been paused because of the COVID-19 pandemic but returned with a joyous and uplifting celebration in Atlantic City. Excitement could be felt throughout the Superstar Theater during the event.
Camden City Council President and former Assemblyman Angel Fuentes said he was surprised when the board of the Hispanic Leadership Association recognized him with the Founders Award at the end of the program.
“Everyone here is like family,” Fuentes said after receiving the award from Board President Jon Diego, a prominent Atlantic County attorney and former city prosecutor.
Fuentes told Front Runner New Jersey.com before the event started that it was important to start building momentum again for the work the HLA does around the state.
“We wanted to come back with a bang,” Fuentes said. “We want to continue setting policies and providing scholarships to our young people. We want to let people know that we exist and continue to provide that support.”
Diego said the event surpassed many of his expectations and every time he faced a challenge in putting on the event, someone on the board stepped up and made a difference. In the end, the gala turned out to be an unforgettable event for the participants.
“The board has been great,” Diego said. “Every time we needed someone to step up, they stepped up. Because of their hard work and effort, we have this beautiful event. We have such amazing leaders throughout the state, whether they are elected or appointed officials. Because of that, they’ve blazed a trail for us. We don’t do it alone.”
He said he hopes the event will be a springboard locally for other Latinos to take on more leadership roles, acknowledging the current lack of Hispanics in elected positions in Atlantic County.
“I want to see more Latinos in leadership positions, from the large corporations to the wineries,” Diego said. “We want to see more Latinos involved in engagement and empowerment. I am hoping this event will help springboard us.”
Diego lauded attorney Elliott Almanza, one of the awardees, for his work in the local Hispanic community and believes that because of that work, more Latinos will become involved in the political scene soon.
He pointed out the recent redistricting that helped give Latinos and African Americans more influence in the county districts, where much of the population was lumped into a district that covered mostly Atlantic City and Pleasantville.
“We have enough numbers and power and I believe in five to 10 years we will have a Latino in District 2 on the board.”
Almanza, who grew up in Atlantic County and graduated from Mainland High School before attending Rutgers University for his bachelor’s and his law degree, said he was pleased with the honor and is determined to make a difference.
“It’s something I take very seriously advocating for the Hispanic community,” Almanza said. “Whether ensuring that their political voice is heard, making sure their votes count, whatever it is, I’m there with Jon Diego. It is a great honor to be here and to be recognized.”
Diego said there were “a lot of highs, lows and challenges” over the nine months of planning but was pleased with the results.
Along with Diego, other board members included Johnny Santiago, first vice president; Rosemary DeQuinzio, second vice president; Melissa Quiles, co-secretary and Nydia Rosario, co-secretary. Other board members include Fuentes, Atlantic City’s Mimi Nambo, Lisette Gonzalez, Jael Conde and Iris Santiago.
“We have a great board of directors who are dedicated to spreading the word about diversity and inclusiveness, and just getting involved,” Fuentes said. “I’m very happy to see that these board of directors are from all walks of life. Just to have their flavor and what they contribute in South Jersey is a blessing. We want to make sure people hear us and our issues.”
Decorated Atlantic City Police Command Officer Lt. Wilber Santiago said he was humbled being one of the awardees and felt special that what he was doing in Atlantic City was resonating with others around the state.
Santiago, a native of Atlantic City, is a fixture in the Atlantic City Police Department and long time community leader, who has led the city’s PAL program.
Selena Vazquez, an award-winning journalist for the Press of Atlantic City was recognized as well. A Hammonton native was part of the Class of 2022 30 Under 35 Top Young Latino Leaders of South Jersey by Front Runner New Jersey.
Other locals who will be honored at the event include:
- Mount Laurel band leader Edgardo Cintron, Arts and Entertainment Award
- Cooper University Health’s Maria Ruiz, Health Advocate Award
- Turnersville’s Art in Motion owner Darlin Garcia, Arts and Entertainment Award
- Rowan University Upward Bound Program Director Margarita Olivencia
- Authentic City Partners co-founder Evan Sanchez
- Pleasantville City Councilman Victor Carmona
- AtlantiCare Health Network officer Christian Ragland
Other statewide honors include:
- Army Officer Michael Arroyo, Leadership Award
- Deputy Chief Joe Garcia, Public Safety Award
- Juan Gonzalez, Nonprofit Award
- Ana Ramirez, Education Award
“We have a great group of honorees who have done a lot in our communities,” Fuentes said. “This is our chance to just say thank you for everything you’ve done and what you will continue to do to help the Hispanic community and New Jersey in general.”
Bert Lopez, president of the Hispanic Association of Atlantic County, one of the most influential organizations supporting Latinos in South Jersey, attended the event with many of his board members and supporters as well.
The association also recognized four scholarship winners, including South Jersey honorees Sebastian Mercado and Jaiden Espino. Mercado, the son of Capt. Carlos Mercado with the Vineland Fire Department, was a high school honors student and is now attending the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Mercado and his brother Dominic were named 30 Under 35 Top Young Latinos of South Jersey by Front Runner New Jersey.com in 2022.
Espino, an Eastern High School graduate in Voorhees, is majoring in psychology at Rowan University in Glassboro. Attending the gala with his parents, he said he was humbled to be honored by a statewide organization and how uplifting it was being around leaders from New Jersey.
The other Hispanic Leadership Association scholarship winners include Orlando Franqui of Rutgers University School of Law and Joshua Gonzalez-Alegria, of the Rutgers University Business School.
“I really feel proud and honored at this point,” Espino said. “As a Hispanic and to see all the people here willing to support me, it feels great.”
One of the highlights of the event was the keynote speech given by retired Atlantic County Judge Julio Mendez. Mendez, who is now working with students at Stockton University, was the first assignment judge in the history of the New Jersey Courts system.
It was not just the Latino community that shared in the celebration. Local African American civil rights attorney and community advocate Tim Alexander and Atlantic City city council candidate Geoffery Dorsey also attended the event to support local Hispanics.
“It’s an honor to be here to celebrate and show that support and unity,” Alexander said. “I can’t imagine not being here. We want to support our Latino community as much as we can. We want to make sure that no one gets left behind and that all of our communities are celebrated.
Dorsey, a local construction company owner and co-owner of the Atlantic Gambits minor league basketball team, said his support is an extension of what he does in the community and that everyone, not just the Latino community, should recognize and support events like these.
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