Latina Leaders to Know in the Essex County Community

Across the United States, Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated from September 15th through October 15th. It’s a time to recognize the contributions made by and the rich culture of Hispanic Americans by understanding and celebrating traditions old and new. Essex County is full of the vibrancy and diversity of Latinx Americans. We are proud to highlight a few Latinas leading the way this Hispanic + Latinx Heritage Month. 

Vereliz Santana

Vice President, Newark Board of Education & Director, Lawmaker Services at Future Now

Vereliz Santana

MG: Please tell us about your field and how you got into this area of work.

VS: I recently joined an organization called Future Now as the Director of Lawmaker Services. Future Now is focused on building the power to improve Americans’ lives by winning state legislative majorities and working with them to achieve goals for the common good. I also serve as Co-Vice President of the Newark Board of Education.

I had my start in politics/government as a Senior Aide to [Newark] Mayor Ras J. Baraka. As the Mayor’s Senior Aide, I established and maintained relationships with constituents, community stakeholders, and local public officials. I also planned, developed, and oversaw programs and initiatives designed to serve and empower the city and its constituencies. I then joined the office of State Senator M. Teresa Ruiz (D, Essex), where I worked as a Director of Legislation. In this role, I was responsible for developing and driving the Senator’s legislative, policy and budget agenda.

MG: How do you celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month?

VS: I like to read novels written by Latina authors! I rarely get the time to read fiction so I make a genuine effort to squeeze some literature in during September/October. I have had Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits on my to-be-read pile for far too long but I hope to finally read it this time around. I’d also like to plug my favorite novels: Dominicana by Angie Cruz, Like Water for Chocolate by Laurel Esquivel, and Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina García.

MG: What makes you proud to be a Latina?

VS: My parents were born in the Dominican Republic and came to this country as teenagers looking for a better life. I’m the oldest of my siblings and that meant I had to learn and pave the way for my younger siblings, and at times, for my parents and relatives.

I have had many experiences that were significant to my development but I’ll share one of my earliest. I had a really difficult time with acquiring the English language in school, so much so that my first-grade teacher recommended that I repeat the year. Even with a clear lack of resources my mother advocated on my behalf and made sure I passed all of my quizzes and tests. I was able to go on to the second grade.

This experience taught me the importance of education and advocacy. It also demonstrated to me how critical support systems are. My family, and the values they instilled in me, are what drives my pride in being Latinx.

MG: What parts of your culture do you bring to your work?

VS: I am acutely aware of how challenging education and the workforce can be for students of color, especially for children who are second language learners. I did not only have issues with language acquisition as a Spanish heritage speaker, but I also had difficulties with the social-emotional aspects of learning and bonding too. It’s hard to make friends and build relationships when you don’t know the language.

Even now, as an MBA candidate, I see the challenges and disparities. You won’t find many Latinas with MBAs, and when you hone in on that statistic, you will find an even smaller number of Latinas at the C-suite level. Latina Equal Pay Day falls on October 21 this year. This means it will take a Latina until October of 2021 to have earned as much as a white man did in 2020.

Our country still has much work to do on the issues of workplace discrimination and education equity but I hope to continue to bring awareness of these issues, even if it’s as simple as sharing my experiences and lens.

MG: Who in the local, Latinx community inspires you most?

VS: There are so many to choose from! I have had the opportunity to work with phenomenal, seriously inspiring individuals, so in no particular order I would highlight the following individuals:

State Senator M. Teresa Ruiz; Aisha Glover, Vice President of Urban Innovation, Audible; Wendy S. Martinez,  President, Atabey Consulting Group; State Senator Nilsa Cruz-Perez; Rosa Farias, Deputy Executive Director of the NJ Casino Reinvestment Development Authority; and State Senator Nellie Pou.

MG: What Latinx-owned businesses do you like to support in the area?

VS: I love many local businesses including Manny Restaurant, Splash Fish Market, El Merengue Mi Ranchito Restaurant, Taino’s Kitchen, The Latin Flavor Restaurant & Lounge, Omar’s Café, and Sweets & Cortaditos. 

Read More: A Guide to Latin Restaurants in Montclair

Jessica Gonzalez

Founder + CEO InCharged, Lux Disinfect, VendX 

Jessica Gonzalez

MG: Please tell us about your field and how you got into this area of work. 

JG: I’m a founder and inventor and got into my field 12 years ago when I built my first product, which was a phone charging kiosk.  

MG: How do you celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month? 

JG: It’s Hispanic Heritage every month for me.

MG: What makes you proud to be a Latina? 

JG: My roots and culture including the other amazing Latinas doing amazing things.

MG: What parts of your culture do you bring to your work? 

JG: It’s who I am in everything I do. 

MG: Who in the local, Latinx community inspires you most?

JG: All Latina moms who are out there working and raising kids. 

MG: What Latinx-owned businesses do you like to support in the area? 

JG: As many as I can!

See More: The Best Spots to Get Tapas in North Jersey

Dr. Katia Paz Goldfarb, Ph.D.

Associate Provost for Hispanic Initiatives and International Programs; Fellow, National Council on Family Relations; Fellow, Academia de Liderazgo (HACU); Professor, Founding Chair, Family Science & Human Development, Montclair State University

Katia Paz Goldfarb

MG: Please tell us about your field and how you got into this area of work. 

KG: I have always been interested in the relationship between education, families, and communities.  My research and teaching have always focused on aspects related to this main interest with an intentional emphasis on Hispanic/Latinx students, families, and communities. As an immigrant to this country, I see it as my commitment to make sure that I provide every opportunity to the members of my community to have access to education, in particular, to higher education. 

MG: How do you celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month?

KG: In my position at Montclair State University, I celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month by having an array of events that celebrate our culture and presence in our society. There are programs geared to students by opening, developing, and implementing opportunities within and outside the university.  I bring special community-based presentations. For example, this year, Univision will share how a Spanish-speaking media helped the community during the pandemic. At the personal level, I believe in celebrating who we are every single day! 

MG: What makes you proud to be a Latina?

KG: I believe we are a resilient group committed to being part of repairing the world, society, and our communities. I find support and understanding among my comrades. It is part of who I am and one of the critical lenses that I use in every aspect of my life.

MG: What parts of your culture do you bring to your work?

KG: I believe that you bring the whole of you are to your work.  One of the main parts of my culture that have been a constant and a crucial way for me is the intentional human connection and the need and desire of embracing each other so we can work together for the benefit of all. 

MG: Who in the local, Latinx community inspires you most?

KG: My family, my colleagues, our students, and their families.

MG: What Latinx-owned businesses do you like to support in the area? 

KG: I cannot survive without the supermarket, bakeries, and restaurants that allow me to continue tasting the food that has fed my body and soul.

Happy Hispanic + Latinx Heritage Month!


Written by:

Jordan and Joelle have ties to Montclair starting even before they were born. Both of their parents are graduates of Montclair State University and they knew they would be back at some point in life. Originally hailing from down the shore in Hazlet, NJ, they are true Jersey girls at heart. Outside of their 9-5 as senior publishers in NYC, the twins can be found baking cookies, reading the latest books, or walking their yorkie-poo Chica. Like many 20-somethings, Jordan and Joelle are balling on a budget and know how to score the best deals around town!