NEWARK, NJ — As part of the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders’ 2019 Hispanic Heritage Month celebration in September, West Orange resident and former township council member Victor Cirilo was among those honored for their history of giving back to the Hispanic community.

“Victor Cirilo worked hard for decades to develop his reputation,” West Orange Mayor Robert Parisi said of the former council member’s accomplishments. “He embodies all that is great about America: coming here as a small child, without speaking English, to pursue a better life and through shear hard work, earned a master's and became the executive director for the largest Housing Authority in the state.

Parisi added that in addition to being hard working, Cirilo is “friendly, easy to work with and affable" and that it's "rare that anyone would have anything but nice things to say about him.”

Sign Up for West Orange Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

“He was instrumental in organizing the Hispanic community in our town and in giving them a real voice for the first time,” the mayor said. “He did what all elected officials aspire to do: he left the town better than he found it.”

In addition to serving two terms as councilman and council president for the Township of West Orange, Cirilo was named Councilman of the Year by the Boys and Girls Club of West Orange.

Cirilo and his family came to the United States from San Salvador, El Salvador when he was 9 years old. He grew up in West New York before moving to West Orange, where he has resided for more than 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’s Newark campus.

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.

Cirilo currently serves as New Jersey chapter president of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials and vice president of the New Jersey Association of Housing & Redevelopment Authorities.

During the celebration, which commemorated the heritage, culture, resilience, and spirit of the Hispanic community, the freeholders also honored Josephine Garcia of Newark; Masiel Rodriquez-Vars of Montclair; Naomy De Peña of Belleville; and Griselle Ponce of Newark. Also recognized were the 2019 Royal Courts of the Puerto Rican Day Parade, the Dominican Parade and Festival and the Mexican and Peruvian Queens.

In his welcoming remarks at Newark’s Hall of Records, Freeholder President Brendan Gill celebrated Essex County’s diversity and recognized the contributions of Hispanic Americans and Hispanic culture to the county.

Freeholder Carlos Pomares of District 5 and Freeholder Robert Mercado of District 1 led the program, citing the successes of each 2019 honoree. Information on each honoree can be seen below, courtesy of the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders. 

Josephine Garcia, a community and educational leader in Newark, currently works as a legislative aide for Newark Councilman-at-Large Carlos Gonzalez. She has spent much of her professional career serving the residents of the city as an aide to numerous elected officials.  

In April 2017, Garcia was elected to the Newark Board of Education and was immediately named its president—a position she continues to hold. She also serves as the chair of the governance committee and vice chair of the legal committee.

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 also 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, Rodriquez-Vars taught herself to film and edit short documentaries, producing such works as “Our Schools, Our Town” about the history of the Montclair magnet schools and “Inside Montclair High,” a series of films that highlight Montclair High School from the perspective of diverse students.

Naomy De Peña made history May 8, 2018 by becoming the first Latina elected to the Belleville Township Council. Since her election, she has been working on expanding recreational and educational services to her community.

De Peña 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 then worked with special needs students for more than 15 years as a Belleville public school teacher.

Currently, she and her husband are currently the owners of Zentai Martial Arts and After-School Program, 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.

Griselle Ponce, a Newark native and current resident, is an arts and entertainment director, a pageant coordinator and a dancer/choreographer known worldwide as the “Mambo Diva.” She served as the main choreographer for the movie “Shine,” which was nominated for a Chita Rivera Award for Best Choreography.

During the celebration, Ponce introduced and presented board citations to 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.

Also during the event, embers 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.