On September 17th, chairman of the Diaspora & Development foundation , an Institution that envisions an integrated world, where diaspora communities are committed to being progress entities in their country of origin, Rodolfo R. Pou held his 2nd conference and release of his 2nd book of the Diaspora y Desarrollo collection.
The conference highlighted Dominican women empowerment through the testimony of extraordinary Dominican women who have reached high ranking positions in public service in the United States. The women spoke about their personal stories; what led them to pursue their careers, and their immigrant journeys from the Dominican Republic to the United States. “The diaspora has the face of a woman,” said Pou in his opening speech:
“A little over two years ago, in this same higher education campus, Miami Dade College’s Wolfson, we presented the First Diaspora and Development Conference. We were honored with the presence of more than 300 people, who attended to hear from high officials of the federal, legislative, and municipal governments. The US Ambassador to the OAS, Carlos Trujillo; the US Congressman, Adriano Espaillat; the mayor of our beloved city, Tomas Regalado, and a humble servant, shared the stage with the most important journalist of the Dominican Republic, Alicia Ortega, serving as moderator of an exchange that presented proposals on the role of the diaspora in the economic and democratic development of their nations of origin.
The event marked a milestone and set a new reality for the Dominicans of Florida….indeed, we were more important politically, economically, and socially, than we had supposed. At that event, I also presented my first book, which bore the name of the meeting, Diaspora and Development, and is also the predecessor of the one we are presenting today. This was structured around a collection of up-to-date opinions under an independent and uncompromising vision. The book is rich in social, economic, political and cultural topics that impact the Dominican diaspora in the United States,” announced Pou.
Diáspora Y Desarrollo’s 2nd Conference focused on Dominican Women in positions of power:
“Gentlemen, for those who do not know, diasporas have the face of a woman. The statistics affirm it, as do the men who attain success and for whom these women leave their homes to unknown places, in search of well-being. I am one of those men; a product of the sacrifice of women. Four, by the way. All single mothers and women. I am the great-grandson of a peasant woman who came to the Capital from a field in Tamboril in search of a future.
She set up a little foodstand on the sidewalk of Avenida Concepción Bona. I am the grandson of a grandmother who did not finish primary school. A small business woman who resold cuts of cloth to support herself. At 45, she saw the opportunity to emigrate to America and thereby seek improvement for the next generation. This meant accepting to start from scratch, working in the factory and caring for other people’s children.
I am the nephew of an aunt who never had children, but who assured me that love and unconditional support in all my initiatives will never be lacking; neither economic nor emotional nor educational. And I am the son of a hairdresser, who, with more than one job, eternal sacrifice and demonstrations of love, prevented me from finding out that we were poor, until she knew that I had been shaped in a profile and scope according to a middle-class boy. I was unaware of my real social limits and economic scope. They made me the man I am today.
Tonight. Convened here under the theme of Dominicans in Public Service: Women in Power, I want you to actually hear the stories of the successful panelists who are here; meet them tonight, in the flesh; learn what expatriates are capable of when they do not know their limits, when they make an effort and find the foundation for their dreams,” stressed Pou.
Latina Republic attended the conference as a unique opportunity to hear the stories of achievements within our Latin family here in the United States and to bring them to light. The panelists moved the audience to tears, as those present learned about their outstanding achievements as Dominican women in positions of power. The conference was hosted in the Miami-Dade College Campus auditorium. The women presented their stories to a packed house filled with Dominicans and other members of the Latin community.
“They emigrated for us, in order to offer us a better life. Let us be responsible for that gift, for that sacrifice, for the daring of those who were willing to hit rock bottom so that others would not have to,” said Pou of the courageous women who migrated to the U.S.
The first woman to take the stand was Debbie Murcasel-Powell, United States Congresswoman, Florida 2019-2021. Mucarsel-Powell is an American politician and academic administrator who served as a US Representative for Florida’s 26th Congressional District from 2019 to 2021. Powell was the first Ecuadorian-American and the first South American-born immigrant to serve as a member of the House of Representatives and Congress of the United States.
“I came to America at age 14 and made my way from working in a donut shop to fighting for you in Congress,” said Powell. “My single mom brought me and my three sisters to the United States from Ecuador in search of opportunity. At 15, I started working for minimum wage at a donut shop to help my family make ends meet, and with the help of a scholarship, I was able to go to college and eventually earn a master’s degree. Those same opportunities that helped us get ahead are disappearing for too many families across this country. That’s why I’m committed to investing in workers, who are the backbone of our economy,” recalls Powell.
Mucarsel-Powell was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador and was raised in Miami. The daughter of Imelda Gil and Guido Mucarsel Yunes, Mucarsel-Powell immigrated to the United States when she was 14 years old, with her mother and three older sisters. She started working at a donut shop and continued working to help support her family as they shared a one-bedroom apartment.
Mucarsel-Powell earned a BA in Political Science from Pitzer College and an MA in Economics from Claremont Graduate University in International Policy. She worked for non-profit organizations such as Hope Center, Zoo Miami Foundation, and Coral Restoration Foundation. From 2003 to 2007, she served as the director of development at Florida International University (FIU). She was Associate Vice President of Advancement at FIU Herbert Wertheim School of Medicine from 2007 to 2011. Mucarsel-Powell became Associate Dean at FIU’s Herbert Wertheim School of Medicine.
“As an immigrant from Ecuador and a first-generation American, I know many of the challenges that immigrants face in this country. For years, we’ve talked about fixing our broken immigration system. Now let’s finally do it by creating a path to citizenship for DREAMers, allowing TPS holders to become permanent residents, and protecting our asylum process for those who need it most, including those who have recently arrived from Venezuela and Nicaragua. Our history as a nation of immigrants makes us a stronger country, and our diversity is what makes South Florida so special,” describes Powell.
Second to take on the stage was Sofia Lachapelle who helped spotlight the stories of the women in the panel. Sofía was born in the Dominican Republic and graduated from the University of the Sacred Heart in Puerto Rico in 1995. She was a reporter for the Puerto Rican channel WAPA TV and for Univision in Miami and New York, where she covered the terrorist attack of September 11.“I was alive, and I was supposed to help,” she said.
“For many people, I did something crazy. Because I had been offered notable positions that many journalists wanted. But when you appreciate God and your life more, positions, titles, and money do not interest you. [I sought] to dedicate myself to what was necessary; which was to restore myself physically and emotionally. So, I returned to the Dominican Republic,” said Lachapelle to CDN 37.
Lachapelle returned to the Dominican Republic in 2002 as a presenter of news for Channel 27, and in 2004 she hosted her own show for Channel 13, called “Controversia.” “For me, it is a great honor to work within my country. I do feel a very high commitment to the Latin community in the United States, [which] has a lot of power, [at the same time] we have humility, values, culture,” explained Lachapelle to CDN 37.
She returned to the United States in 2005 and had her first son, Jayson and later Maximus. Her children are autistic and the source of inspiration for the foundation, “One Step at a Time,” dedicated to offering information, education, and motivation for parents with special needs children.
“I don’t call a child with a special need, a handicap. For me, the words, handicapped or incapacity do not exist. We are all capable, we are all useful. We must identify the side of us that we can best develop within this life,” said Lachapelle.
Lachapelle’s work with the foundation earned her the INCLUDE prize, which the INCLUDE NYC organization delivers to individuals, corporations and organizations that advance disability inclusion. Sofía Lachapelle is also one of the nominees to make the list of the 25 Most Powerful Women from People in Spanish in 2018. Among her many awards she was recognized by the Diario La Prensa Awards, was named Latin Journalist of the Year 2000, received the ACE Awards, was awarded, New York Reporter of the Year. She was also selected for the Cassandra Dominican Republic Awards, was nominated in 2002 for Journalist of the Year, and was nominated 3 times for the prestigious EMMYS awards. She also received various accolades and distinctions for coverage of 9/11 in New York and her bravery and professionalism.
Next in the prestigious lineup was Joseline Pena-Melnyk, a State Delegate for the State of Maryland. Delegate Joseline Peña-Melnyk (MD-21) is the president of the Eastern Region of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators. Before taking up this position, she served as Chair of the Working Group on NHCSL Criminal Law and Justice and as a member of the NHCSL Executive Committee. In 2018, Delegate Peña-Melnyk received the NHCSL Legislator of the Year award from the NHCSL for her work in the Maryland State Legislature and for tackling some of the most complex resolutions in the NHCSL in many years, including cannabis and weapons policy through consensus building and innovative policies. Delegate Peña-Melnyk has served in the Maryland House of Delegates since 2007.
“I am the first in my family to study at a University,” said Pena-Melnyk.
She is currently Vice Chair of the Government and Health Operations Committee, a leadership role that follows the traditions of that Chamber. She is also the Vice Chair of the Maryland Latino Legislative Caucus, the Chair of the Subcommittee Public Health and Minority Health Disparities Committee on Health and Government Operations and serves on the Subcommittee on Government Operations and Estates and Trusts.
Del. Peña-Melnyk immigrated with her sister and their single mother from the Dominican Republic when Peña-Melnyk was a child. Her mother worked in the New York garment industry, often struggling to get to the end of the month. There was a time when the family received social assistance.
“I came to this country from the Dominican Republic at the age of 8. I arrived in New York to live in Washington Heights. My mother was a single mother; she did not study, nor did she finish elementary school. But she always said that education was extremely important. And that the day she died, she would not be able to leave us anything; so it was important that we educate ourselves. Since I was little I was instilled these values,” explained Pena-Melnyk. “ I remember that we went to the social services office where while we waited, [my mother] made me interpret for all the women in the waiting room. So, since I was little, hearing those stories, I used to say, ‘I have to study. I have to study.’ And [these early experiences] made me a leader; the voice of many people. I am the first in my family to study at a University,” said Pena-Melnyk.
But despite difficult circumstances, she was successful in school and learned English. She was a fellow in the Equal Opportunity Program and the first in her family to attend college. “When I look back now, I see how much I benefited from the programs that open the doors to minority students,” explains Del. Peña-Melnyk. She felt the obligation to fight for people who are on the margins of society; those who are often overlooked.
One summer while studying law, she worked in Alabama to represent prisoners sentenced to death. Another summer, she visited an Ohio farmland where she met migrant workers fighting for basic living conditions, a safe work environment and fair wages. Later, Del. Peña-Melnyk obtained her law degree, accepted court appointments to represent abused and abandoned children, and provided criminal defense for the underserved.
Later, she joined Eric Holder’s Federal Prosecutor’s Office and prosecuted criminals, building cases with police officers, witnesses and victims in the community. Along the way, she took the time to be a mother. She had a son in 1998 and twin daughters in 2000. But the need to stay involved in the community did not go away. Del. Peña-Melnyk has been a member of the board of Casa of Maryland, a community social service organization focused on immigrant issues, and ran for and won a seat on the College Park City Council.
As a State Legislator, she has focused on protecting consumers; reforming the criminal justice system; helping working families and advocating to expand Medicaid to Maryland residents. As part of her commitment to diversity and inclusion, she co-sponsored a bill to prohibit gender-based discrimination. She also co-sponsored legislation to raise minimum pay, expand opportunities for minority companies, the Consumer Protection Law of Maryland, crack down on mortgage fraud and create state programs for workforce development in high schools, community colleges, public employment, and housing.
From her own experience, Del. Peña-Melnyk understands that many working families, despite their best efforts, still need help to make ends meet:
“When people ask me, ‘Where do you have that passion, that motivation?’ Well, from my mother, from my Dominican mother who had been working since she was 11 years old. She instilled those values in me. We immigrants have that fire inside us, that no one has. We are driven and we have a lot of discipline,” concluded Pena-Melnyk.
Sitting next to Joseline Pena-Melynk was Sabina Matos. “It has been a great honor to be able to come and represent my Dominican community and my Latin community,” said Matos. Lieutenant Governor of the State of Rhode Island. Sabina Matos was appointed as the 70th Lieutenant Governor of the State of Rhode Island on April 14, 2021. She is the second woman to hold this position and the first woman of color. In addition, she is the first Dominican to hold the office of Lieutenant Governor in the United States.
“My goal as the first Latina and the first Dominican is to make sure that the door is open so that I am not the only one,” stressed Matos. Before being named Lieutenant Governor, she served on the Providence City Council from January 2011 through April 2021.
During that period, she was elected as the first Latina to hold the position of President Pro Tempore of the City Council in 2015, and in 2019 she was elected president of the City Council for her companions. She has the distinction of being the first Latina to hold both positions in the history of the city. Vice Governor Matos was born in the province of Barahona in the Dominican Republic.
In 1994 she emigrated to the United States. She is a proud graduate from Rhode Island College, where she earned her BA in Communications and Public Relations in May 2001. She also graduated from the Latino Leadership and Leadership Institute for a Future. Matos also graduated from the Aspen Institute’s Rodel Scholarship Program, a scholarship program for elected officials in the United States.
“I came here when I was 20 years old, and it was very difficult. There are different experiences when you arrive as a girl or when you arrive as an adult without knowing the language. It was very difficult at first. But just like Joseline, our parents had instilled in me and my sister that they wanted us to study. Education was very important to them,” said Matos. In my case, I came here with my parents and they paid the bills so that my sister and I could go to college. And that’s why I was able to go to college at Rhode Island College.”
The lieutenant governor served as former president of the ECAS-Educational Center for the Arts and Sciences, the RI Latino Civic Fund – Leadership Training for Latinas and the Rhode Latino Political Action Committee Island. She has also served as Secretary of the Board of the Housing Corporation of Olneyville and on the boards of the Univocal Legislative Minorities Advisory Council and the Latino Policy Institute. Lieutenant Governor Matos lives in Providence, Rhode Island, with her husband, Patrick Ward, and their two children, Diego and Annemarie.
Sitting in the middle of the panel was Lourdes Ventura. New York State Supreme Court Justice Lourdes M. Ventura is currently serving as a Justice of the New York State Supreme Court in the 11th Judicial District (Queens County) and is in the Civil Territory. In 2019, Judge Ventura served as a judge in the Civil Court of the City of New York in Queens County.
“I was not an immigrant. I was born and raised in New York City in Queens County. There I grew up and studied in public schools. My parents immigrated from the Dominican Republic; they met in Queens. And as you can see, they did a good job with me because I can talk to you this evening in Spanish,” said Ventura.
Judge Ventura was previously a partner at the law firm, Ahmuty, Demers & McManus and served as a former Deputy Attorney General for the Office of Civil Rights of the Attorney General’s Office New York State General, was a former Queens District Attorney, served in the New York State Senate in various capacities, including Special Advisor to the State Senate Majority Conference of New York, Latino and Immigrant Affairs Advisor and Deputy Chief of Staff who oversees the departments of Politics and Finance.
“A sixth-grade teacher said to me ‘Lourdes, it’s nice that you are a lawyer and have returned to your community in Queens, but you have to get involved politically and also in your community.’ And I was connected to politics there,” said Ventura.
Judge Ventura currently serves as an official of the Association of Latino Judges and the New York City Supreme Court Justices Association, has served in various colleges of lawyers, was the first Latina to serve as an official of the State Women’s Lawyers Association of New York and was the first Latina to serve as president of the venerable Association of Women’s Lawyers of Queens County,
“I was also the first Hispanic to serve in that Women’s Lawyers Association in 81 years,” added Ventura. Judge Ventura was also president of the Latino Lawyers Association of Queens County. Under her leadership, Latino Lawyers received the 2005 Award of Merit for the colleges of local attorneys from the New York State Bar Association for their work with the Street Program Law in Spanish. Judge Ventura has received numerous state and local awards and commendations for her community service and exemplary and outstanding citizenship.
“I did everything for my mother and for my father. They always instilled that education was very important. To which my mother added, ‘There is education at school, Lourdes, and there is education at home. And I give you what I can give you at home, and you work hard to make an effort at school,’ said Ventura.
On May 15, 2003, Congressman Charles Rangel read the achievements of Judge Ventura in the Congressional Record and on March 6, 2020, Judge Ventura received a Medal of Merit awarded by the President of the Dominican Republic in celebration of the International Day of the woman. Judge Ventura graduated from SUNY Buffalo Law School and is a member emeritus of the Advisory Council from the Dean. She was admitted to the state bar association in both New York and the District of Columbia. She was also admitted to the federal bar in the southern, eastern, and western districts of the state of New York and is admitted to the Supreme Court of the United States.
“And like Joseline, my mom, as a Dominican, used to say, ‘Go Lourdes, translate,’ and she left me there to do my job. In that, my mom taught me to help others, and she always said, even when we didn’t have much in the house, she always cooked more, and said, ‘just in case someone comes hungry, we will give them food.’ Everyone ate at my house when they entered that house,” added Ventura.
The mic is then given to Digna Cabral. Through her record of service, Cabral has learned that leadership in government is imperative for the welfare of the constituents. Cabral is a devoted mother of three wonderful children and she has worked as a senior associate researcher for the Department of Neurology of the University of Miami for more than a decade. Throughout her career she has been able to collaborate with various national and international universities. She has served as a member of the Board and former president of the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine of the United States (AIUM).
Cabral believes that the principles of honesty and humility are stronger than any commercial contract. These values were instilled by Cabral’s parents and led to the desire to advocate for the Doral community. “I learned about service, not as something I was told. It was the example taught to me by two women (her grandmothers) in particular,” said Cabral.
Cabral’s service to Doral did not begin with a political campaign. She is a diligent member of the Rotary Club of the City of Doral and has served as a partner of Las Damas del Doral, an organization that aids the families of the Ronald McDonald House at Jackson Memorial Hospital. She served as ex vice president of the 4Kids Committee on Parks and Police, as president of the Master Association in Coronado of Doral, was a former president in Coronado in the Doral Community Development District and a secretary of the Coalition Community of Doral.
Cabral has also served as president of the Preparatory Academy PTA and a member of the Family and Community Engagement Board at the Florida State Parents / Teacher Association (PTA). She is currently on the School Health Medical Advisory Committee of the County Public Schools, Miami-Dade, serving since November 2018, as well as a member of the Hispanic Initiative.
“In my case, there were two things that I knew I wanted to be. I wanted to be a mother. And the second thing is that I wanted to be was a judge…Education really opens doors. And I believe that we are an example of that. That it really does not matter where you arrive from or where you are, education opens doors,” said Cabral.
As a Miami-Dade resident, Cabral is very familiar with the devastation caused by hurricanes. She has spearheaded initiatives to serve people affected by the destruction of Hurricane Irma. During these difficult times, she personally helped the residents of her city and was actively involved in the process of cleaning not only her community, but other Doral neighborhoods as well. With the support of residents of the city, she participated in several initiatives that collected water, non-perishable food, clothing, and other items and distributed them to displaced persons and their families affected by Hurricane Maria (including from Puerto Rico). Digna Cabral is an active member of the City of Doral community who is dedicated to serving others. Her longstanding commitment to the City of Doral has provided her with the opportunity and ability to understand the needs and concerns of fellow residents.
Finally, the final panelist to speak was Marisol Chalas, Lieutenant Colonel of the United States Armed Forces. “First of all, I am so proud to be here with you leaders. Second of all, I see children in the audience, and I want you know that I hope you can see yourselves in any of us, be male or female,” started off Chalas. Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Marisol A. Chalas was born in Bani, Dominican Republic and moved to the United States with her family to Massachusetts at the age of nine. She began her military career as an enlisted soldier in July 1990.
In 2001 she received her commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Aviation Branch of the Georgia Military Institute Officer Candidate School. “I am in the position that I am because of all the support that many people have given me. I had no plan to go to college. I wanted to be an air hostess and also enter the army. It was my high school teacher who saw my potential and said, “You must study and be an engineer.’ Yes, that’s how I finished college,” stressed Chalas.
Chalas is also the first Hispanc woman in the U.S. armed forces to be a pilot for the Black Hawk. LTC Chalas has operational and strategic experience in the United States Army Forces Command (FORSCOM) and Headquarters, Department of the Army (HQDA). Her international experiences include, Battle Captain and Platoon Leader during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Aviation. Liaison in the Dominican Republic under a Combined Joint Task Force. Other assignments include, Lean Six Sigma Advisor, Force Management and Exchange Officer serving with the Canadian Forces in Kingston, Ontario, Canada and two rotations as Company Commander.
Her military education was shaped by the Basic Aviation Officer Course, UH-60 Aviator Qualification Course, Aviation Captains career course; Intermediate Level Education (ILE), the Army Force Management Course, the Advanced Operations Course (AOC) and the Strategic Fellows Program at the World Policy Institute in Washington DC. LTC Chalas received her bachelor’s degree in Marine Engineering from Academia Marítima de Massachusetts, a Master of Business Administration from Georgia State University, and a Master of in Legislative Affairs from George Washington University. LTC Chalas is a certified Lean and Six Belt black Sigma. LTC Chalas has an extensive business trajectory with vast international experience. She worked for GE where held various senior management positions. She has also worked in Asia, Latin America and Europe.
“I am very proud of my parents because my parents made many sacrifices for us. My father did not finish elementary school. But he did have a dream of giving us the opportunity that they did not have in the Dominican Republic. [Growing up] they always asked us, ‘Please don’t get into trouble, either at school or at home. Because if you get into trouble at school, you could get into trouble at home,” said Chalas.
LTC Chalas graduated from GE’s Nuclear Technical Leadership Program. LTC Chalas also worked for Booz Allen Hamilton as process improvement consultant. Her awards and decorations include Meritorious Service Medal (3 clusters of bronze oak leaves), Army Air Medal, Army Commendation Medal (2 Bronze Oak Leaf Clusters), Army Medal Army Achievements (3 Bronze Oak Leaf Clusters) Reserve Component Achievement Medal Army (4 groups of bronze oak leaves), National Defense Service Medal (Service Star of Bronze), World War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, World War on Terrorism Service Medal, Armed Forces Reserve Medal (Silver Hourglass / Device M), Outstanding Military Volunteer Medal, FORSCOM Ironwoman Award, George J. Hearn GEN Trophy, Senior Airman and Army Staff Nameplate. Received the Propeller Club Academic Award Port of Boston.
LTC Chalas was named Maritime Person of the Year by the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in 2016. She is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. LTC Chalas received the USCIS Outstanding American by Choice Award in 2017. In March 2021, she received the Merit of the Dominican Republic via President Luis Abinader. “I have been in the army for 31 years, I am young….I am especially proud of my experiences in Baraona, where for 6 months we helped teach pilots of the Dominican force to learn to fly,” explained Chalas.
LTC Chalas was also declared a Distinguished Citizen by the Dominican Senate and House of Representatives. LTC Chalas served as a Legislative Member for Congresswoman Betty McCollum, Minnesota District 4, in the United States House of Representatives. Later she served as Budget Liaison for the Congress of the Army in the Office of the Undersecretary of Comptroller and Financial Management of the Army (ASA-FM & C), where she was responsible for the Aviation, Missiles and Chemical portfolios. LTC Chalas served recently as Legislative Assistant to the 37th Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army, Pentagon. She now serves as Head of Schools for the Reserve Branch of HRC, Fort Knox, KY. LTC Chalas is a student in the U.S. Army War College (USAWC) Distance Education Program (DEP), member of the Class of 2023. As the evening concluded, Chalas had the following words:
“I want to tell the children, I hope you were able to see yourselves in us and that you can say, ‘I can be Marisol, I can be Digna, I can be Lourdes, I can be Sabina, I can be Joseline.’ Be it male or female, know that you can. You are going to have challenges in your careers, but keep going.”
Vanessa Campa is a Senior student at Florida International University majoring in English and minoring in Psychology. Vanessa grew up with a huge Latinx community in Miami, Fl where the majority of the population is Hispanic, and was raised by two amazing immigrant parents. She has a passion for art, photography, humanitarian issues, human rights issues, and telling stories that have an impact on shifting perspectives and educating audiences. She hopes to get into the journalism field to continue her love of storytelling. In her time with the Latina Republic, Vanessa wants to contribute to change the stereotypical narrative of her people and tell inspiring unrecognized stories that need to be brought to light.