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Although they don’t work together, sisters Tere and Rita Paniagua have similar missions: broadening education opportunities to younger members of the Latino community and preserving Latino culture in Syracuse.
The two do this through their work with local nonprofit organizations, such as the Spanish Action League and Syracuse University’s La Casita Cultural Center, along with Rita’s local political career.
“It’s about having a voice for our people for them to feel comfortable coming forward and trying to get (them) involved and having somebody they can relate to,” Rita said.
In 1978, Tere enrolled at the Newhouse School of Public Communications to study newspaper journalism. After graduating in 1982 she returned to Puerto Rico, where she and Rita grew up, to work for a newspaper. Meanwhile, Rita did marketing and sales for Santurce Crabbers, their father’s baseball team in Puerto Rico. Tere told herself she would never leave Puerto Rico again.
But while the Puerto Rican economy went through a 10-year recession in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Tere began thinking about moving back to Syracuse. She reached out to familiar faces at SU, such as Silvio Torres-Saillant, a dean’s professor of English, and traveled to Syracuse so she could interview for a job. In 2002, she landed a teaching position in the Spanish program.
While teaching at SU, Tere became the executive director of La Casita Cultural Center in 2012. She is the executive director of cultural engagement for the Hispanic community at SU and teaches a few classes including “Hispanic Journalism Practices” and “Conceptualization in Contemporary Verbal & Visual Arts.” Myrna García-Calderón, associate professor of Spanish, said she considers both of those courses very popular in the Latino-Latin American studies program.
Even though Tere did not come into the job with a teaching degree or teaching background, she considers herself a good fit for the job because she has experience in writing and curiosity in her topics.
“She was really a perfect fit,” García-Calderón said about Tere, who is now a part-time professor at SU.
In 2003, Rita moved in with Tere’s family in Syracuse for a year. During that year, Rita started a job at LA LIGA, the Spanish Action League, and ran the ALAS program at the Seymour Elementary School.
As the ALAS coordinator — “alas” means “wings” in Spanish — Rita ran an afterschool program with activities designed to help Latino children integrate smoothly into predominantly English-speaking schools and communities.
After about four years at LA LIGA, Rita was named the executive director. While director, Rita said she grew more in touch with Syracuse’s Latino community. One of the highlights of her positions was helping to organize the yearly Festival Latinoamericano Syracuse, she said.
In 2015, Rita pursued a new avenue for advocating for the community and ran for the Commissioner of Education for the Syracuse City School District. After serving a four-year term, she set her sights on a Common Councilor-At-Large and was elected in November 2019, a position only one other Latina woman held before: Bea González.
“Nobody else stepped to the plate until now,” Rita said. “I did this without even knowing we were going to have the results we had.”
The Paniagua sisters said that many Puerto Ricans take politics seriously in Puerto Rico, but often those who have immigrated to the mainland U.S. do not know how or where to get involved and register to vote in their new cities.
In the future, Rita hopes to bring programs to Syracuse that would benefit the Latino community. She wants to do so through literacy programs and by increasing the education on politics and how to register to vote in Spanish.
“Something that we’re beginning to see and hopefully we’ll see more the contributions of all of the many people in this community that contribute in such a positive way to a better quality of life,” Tere said.
Published on October 7, 2020 at 10:58 pm
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