Person of the Year: Minerva Perez

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Minerva Perez, photographed at the Children's Museum of the East End. Michael Heller photo.

On Tuesday afternoon earlier this month, Minerva Perez was in full work mode — which was unexpected, considering it was her birthday.

She had a technology workshop to lead that evening, one in the six-part series “Your Path to Success,” helping Latino immigrants on the East End build skills and become the best versions of themselves they can be.

And she wouldn’t miss it for anything.

This should not come as a surprise to those who know her. Her friends, co-workers and even acquaintances describe her as driven, committed and an utter powerhouse, with a signature mane of curls that matches her personality — vibrant, energetic and fierce.

But above all, they know her as a staunch advocate for the Latino community, serving as executive director of Organización Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island, locally known as OLA. The Latino community she first met on the East End almost 15 years ago is vastly different than the one she works with now.

“I found people hiding in the shadows and living good lives, but just wanting to disappear from the rest of the community,” Ms. Perez said, taking a break from gearing up for the workshop. “I just was so shocked. I was like, ‘What in the world is this?’”

Born in Manhattan and raised in Miami by her grandparents, Ms. Perez grew up surrounded by strong female mentors, who happened to be Latinas from Chile, Cuba and Colombia. They were big, loud and fun, she recalled, with endless charisma and confidence, at least outwardly.

“In Miami, Latinas, there is not a lot of backing down that goes on, so then coming to the East End and experiencing people in a very different way, that was weird enough and I had to find a way to connect with them,” she recalled. “My father was Puerto Rican, but I never even knew my father. I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish. My Spanish is not great and I apologize in front of everyone and they keep telling me, ‘Shut up, stop apologizing.’

“So OLA, it’s not an internal thing, necessarily,” she continued, though it is worth noting she was in the Spanish National Honors Society and even furthered her studies in Spain. “I think it’s about wanting to take care of people and I just don’t like bullies.”

Ten years ago, there was no bigger bully on Long Island than Steve Levy, according to Ms. Perez. Just prior to the fatal stabbing of Marcelo Lucero — killed in 2008 by seven teenagers, who hunted down Latinos as a weekly sport in Patchogue — the then-Suffolk County executive had tried to stir up white voters, spouting anti-immigrant sentiments and rousing hatred.

The community flooded the Suffolk County Legislature and even a decade later, Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman — who was a legislator at the time — will never forget Ms. Perez.

“I remember Minerva coming in and speaking, which could be intimidating, honestly,” he said. “It’s a very formal body and I remember how strongly she spoke, how passionately she spoke, and how I could see lawmakers being swayed by the arguments that she was making. It was a really tense time, and the legislature did back away from some of these laws that were being considered.

“Largely, a lot of this came after the brutal beating in Patchogue of that Ecuadorian immigrant, and I do remember how effective a public speaker Minerva was in that setting,” he continued. “I think she’s an important voice in the community for those who sometimes have very little voice.”

Ms. Perez was acting under the auspices of OLA, a nonprofit agency that promotes social, economic, cultural and educational development within the East End’s Latino and Hispanic communities, according to its mission.

“I had no background in this kind of thing,” Ms. Perez said, “but the lesson over and over again has been, basically, ‘Don’t wait for someone to give you permission to do the thing that you know you’re called to do.’ That’s an important lesson that I learned. Don’t wait for someone else. If you know you’re compelled and you know what you’re doing, what your intentions are, do it and learn as you go — and don’t completely mess things up.”

She stumbled across the organization while, initially, searching for theater funding — following her studies at New York University and a seven-year stint with her own theater troupe in Manhattan. She had noticed a dramatic lack of Latino leadership on the East End, and asked the likes of Mr. Schneiderman, New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and then-U.S. Representative Tim Bishop for direction.

They all pointed her to Isabel Sepulveda-de Scanlon, the president and founder of OLA.

“If you would have asked me then, ‘How do you see OLA in 20 years?’ I had not a clue,” Ms. Sepulveda-de Scanlon said. “The only thing we knew is we wanted to help people. We wanted to help Latinos and empower the Latino community, and Minerva does that.

“Minerva is a very strong woman and she can speak to the Anglo community with no problem — which, many of us, we do have that problem,” she continued. “I don’t know we would be here, like this, if it weren’t for Minerva. OLA has grown so much in every single aspect since then.”

First a volunteer and now OLA’s first-ever paid executive director, Ms. Perez has quadrupled its staff — recently adding its first human rights attorney Andrew Dunn, to the mix — and has kept longstanding traditions alive, such as the annual Latino Film Festival.

Chief among the organization’s new initiatives were successful reform to the Suffolk County bus route in Springs and East Hampton — which was initially met with doubt by the Latino community, who had been advocating for 20 years — and a free medical van service.

Perhaps the largest victory is working with Southampton Town to implement LanguageLine, an on-demand, telephone-accessed translation service that police can access to communicate with non-English speakers, Mr. Schneiderman said.

“It’s a big deal, and OLA actually raised the money to help implement it. Typically, we’re the ones giving grants, but not this time,” he said. “It shows that Minerva is very passionate about protecting people and working in the public interest.

“She’s driven. She can be intense. We’ve sat across the table and we don’t always agree on some tense issues, but she fights very hard for the things she believes in and she understands the role of government, the limitations, and that we can’t always do the things she is requesting,” he said. “But she seems willing to compromise.”

Ms. Perez fundraised to purchase all 15 iPhones, which will be placed in patrol cars, though the town is still ironing out the details. Nothing is more valuable to someone in crisis than being understood, she said, which she learned as director of The Retreat, a domestic violence shelter in East Hampton — a post she held for six years before returning to OLA as an employee.

“I remember talking to this one woman who was in a friend’s basement hiding from her husband. He was trying to find her, he had a machete and she had her child who was severely handicapped,” she said. “She only spoke Spanish and, not only any Spanish, she spoke with a very strong dialect from another country that was very hard for me to understand. And she was in full panic mode.

“The fact that I was able to communicate with her and get her to safety, connect all the right pieces with my terrible Spanish, I was like, ‘You know what? I don’t care. I’ve got to get out of my own way with this prideful thing,’” she continued. “If my Spanish can potentially save a life, then it is good enough.”

With a foundation of trust, Ms. Perez has kick-started a privately funded series called “Circulos de Fuerza,” or “Circles of Strength,” led by three healthcare professionals to help take some of the stigma away from mental health, combat stress and fear among the Latino community, and discuss struggles in a safe, appropriate environment, she said.

“Seeing people leave with a little bit of relief in their face, that’s everything,” she said. “They see that they’re not alone — because the self-isolation aspect is huge and really damaging to people. Some people exchange numbers, which is great, because they’ve made connections with people they felt comfortable with.”

Each workshop regularly brings in 50 participants — and half are typically children. Across the East End, the average student body is 45 percent Latino, Ms. Perez said, fluctuating from school to school.

“We have a sizeable Hispanic population here in the Hamptons and they’ve been under threat recently, of all sorts of kinds — particularly deportation,” artist and OLA supporter April Gornik said. “It’s a moment in our nation’s history where each locality, no matter how small, needs to help safeguard their own and every member of their community. Minerva represents safeguarding that community for us out here on the East End.

“I consider her a model of excellence, in terms of commitment and community,” she continued. “And I’m really, really grateful that she is here and doing the work that she does.”

Canio’s Books co-owner Kathryn Szoka has worked closely with OLA on numerous projects, dating back nearly 20 years when she co-chaired the South Fork chapter of the Long Island Progressive Coalition. Now a member of Progressive East End Reformers, she too recognizes the importance of OLA at a time that is more critical than, arguably, ever.

“In the last several years, we have entered a very dark period in our country’s history with regards to immigration,” she said. “I would say that prior to 2016, immigration issues were problematic — they were not being well addressed — but we were not at the moment we are now where it’s a crisis and immigrants, once they open the front door and walk on the street, they’re potentially at grave danger. That’s a big difference from where we were three, four years ago.

“I admire and have deep affection for Minerva as a person and also as a community leader,” she added. “She’s a force of nature and she is indefatigable. I mean, she just has always got more energy than pretty much anyone in the room. This is Minerva. The organization seems to have grown considerably in the last several years and she has been at the helm, guiding that.”

Ms. Perez sees a future where OLA moves past sole crisis management and toward an East End that thrives as a hub for Latino culture and a “treasure trove,” she said.

“The people who are suffering in our community — who are some of the heart of our community — it makes me really, really sad,” she said. “But at the same time, the only thing that keeps me going is knowing that I see help coming by way of other community members, both Latino and non-Latino,” she said. “A healthy OLA is a healthier East End, and there’s no other job in the world I could be doing than this. I couldn’t do a damn other thing.”

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