(Newark, NJ) – The Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders held its 2019 Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration on Wednesday, September 25, 2019, at the Hall of Records. The ceremony commemorated the heritage, culture, resilience, and spirit of the Hispanic community.
Freeholder President Brendan Gill began the program with welcoming remarks, celebrating Essex County’s diversity and recognizing the contributions of Hispanic Americans and Hispanic culture to the County. Freeholder Carlos Pomares of District 5 and Freeholder Robert Mercado of District 1 also led the program, citing the successes of the Board’s honorees and their history of giving back to the community.
This year’s honorees included: Josephine C. Garcia of Newark; Masiel Rodriquez-Vars of Montclair; the Honorable Naomy De Peña of Belleville; and the Honorable Victor Cirilo of West Orange. Also recognized were Griselle Ponce of Newark, and the 2019 Royal Courts of the Puerto Rican Day Parade, the Dominican Parade and Festival, and the Mexican and Peruvian Queens.
Josephine C. Garcia is a community and educational leader in the City of Newark, and currently works as a legislative aide for Newark Councilman-at-Large Carlos M. Gonzalez where she provides up-to-date research on a variety of municipal issues and serves as his official representative at conferences and engagements. She has spent much of her professional career serving the residents of the city as an aide to numerous elected officials. In April 2017, she was elected to the Newark Board of Education, and immediately elected president of the board, a position she continues to hold. She also serves as the Chair of the Governance Committee and Vice Chair of the Legal Committee. She takes great pride in her three children, Donavin, Brandon and Michael, who are now young men.
Masiel Rodriquez-Vars has served as the Executive Director of the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence since 2015. Her deep roots in public school advocacy stem from her family, who first fought for educational equity by leading desegregation efforts in rural south Texas. She helped launch a foundation for the Andrus Family Fund, and helped craft its funding priorities: supporting communities in conflict, and youth who are aging out of the foster care system. In her spare time, she taught herself to film and edit short documentaries, producing such works as Our Schools, Our Town a short film on the history of the Montclair magnet schools and Inside Montclair High, films highlighting Montclair High School from the perspective of diverse students. As a mom to four Montclair Public School students, she is grateful that her path led her to Montclair.
On May 8, 2018, the Honorable Naomy De Peña made history by becoming the first Latina elected to the Township Council in Belleville. Since her election, she has been working on expanding recreational and educational services to her community. She grew up in the Dominican Republic and migrated with her family to the United States when she was 16. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Special Education from New Jersey City University, and worked as a Belleville public school teacher, working with special needs students, for over 15 years. Presently, she and her husband Allen are the owners of Zentai Martial Arts and After-School Program, which is a child development center that focuses on the intellectual, social, emotional and physical growth of individuals. She is also is an ordained minister and has been a humanitarian aid mission leader in Mexico, Haiti, Ecuador and Dominican Republic. She is the proud mother of two children and committed to making Belleville a better community for young families.
The Honorable Victor Cirilo is the President of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials - New Jersey Chapter, and Vice-President of the New Jersey Association of Housing & Redevelopment Authorities. Born in San Salvador, El Salvador, he and his family came to the United States when he was 9 years old. He grew up in West New York before moving to West Orange, where he has resided for over two decades. Following the example of his mother Maria, who worked in the embroidery factories of Hudson County to create better opportunities for her children, he graduated from Montclair State University and furthered his education by receiving a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Rutgers University Newark. While at Montclair State University’s Cooperative Student Program, he took on an assignment working with the Dover Housing Authority. This experience led him to a 20-plus year career in affordable housing management and development. Additionally, he has served two terms as Councilman and Council President for the Township of West Orange, and in 2012, he was named Councilman of the Year by the Boys and Girls Club of West Orange.
Griselle Ponce is an Arts & Entertainment Director and Pageant Coordinator. She is a world-renowned dancer/choreographer who is known as the “Mambo Diva”. A Newark native and resident, she served as the main choreographer for the movie Shine, which was nominated for a Chita Rivera Award for Best Choreography. She introduced the individual members of the 2019 Royal Courts of the Puerto Rican Day Parade, the Dominican Parade and Festival, and the Mexican and Peruvian Queens, and presented them with citations from the Board.
During the event, members of the Peruvian Civic Committee “La Marinera Dance” graced the audience with a special performance of a traditional Peruvian dance that exemplified the beauty of Hispanic Culture.