Women are leading the charge for political change — this year’s Women’s March alone attracted more than 1 million protestors — and Latinas in particular are coming strong. Over the last year, Mexican-American Catherine Cortez Masto became the first Latina in the U.S. Senate while the state of Virginia elected its first Latina delegates, Peruvian-American Elizabeth Guzman and Salvadoran-American Hala Ayala. More women of color, who look like us or who’ve had similar lived experiences as us, in elected offices is reason to celebrate, but as we are cheering these political wins, it’s also important to recognize that, like our leading ladies in entertainment, they tend to be lighter-skinned. But there are several Afro-Latinas killing it in politics whose names also deserve to be known.
While there’s a serious dearth of Black Latinas in the federal government, on the local and state level, these women have proven to be some of the fiercest public leaders throughout the country. Ahead, some of the Afro-Latina politicians you should know about — because you can’t be what you can’t see.
1. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk
A post shared by Joseline Peña-Melnyk (@penamelnykformd) on
Democrat Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk has represented Prince George’s and Anne Arundel Counties as a Maryland state delegate for 11 years. Born in the Dominican Republic, Peña-Melnyk moved to the Bronx, New York as a child and went on to study criminal justice at Buffalo State College before receiving her law degree at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The dominicana worked as a defense attorney for several years before transitioning to politics, first as a member of the College Park City Council and then as a delegate in 2007. A member of of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland and the Women Legislators of Maryland, Peña-Melnyk is a major champion for LGBTQ rights, gun control, climate justice and racial and gender equality.
2. Dr. Herminia Palacio
— Herminia Palacio (@HerminiaPalacio) November 8, 2016
Dr. Herminia Palacio is New York City’s Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services. In her role, the cubana oversees the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, NYC Health + Hospitals, the Human Resources Administration, the Department of Homeless Services, the Administration for Children’s Services, the Office of Chief Medical Examiner, the Office to Combat Domestic Violence and the Office of Food Policy. If it sounds like a lot, it’s because it is — but with 25 years of experience across the health, education and social service fields, she’s well-prepared for the job. Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed the Bronx-born Palacio as deputy mayor in January 2016, making her the first Afro-Latina to hold the position in the city of New York.
3. Maria D. Quiñones-Sánchez
Democrat Maria D. Quiñones-Sánchez is a Philadelphia councilwoman representing the Seventh District. In November 2007, the puertorriqueña made history, rallying grassroots support to help her garner 80 percent of the vote and become the first Latina on Philly’s city council. She has held on to that position for three, four-year terms. Winner of awards like “Best of Philly” and “Most Influential,” Quiñones-Sánchez has proven to be a beloved leader in her community, advocating for housing rights, immigrant rights and racial equality in the workplace. Quiñones-Sánchez — who serves City Council as Chair of the Committees of Appropriations, Chair of the Committee on Licenses and Inspections, Vice Chair of the Committee on Streets and Services and Vice Chair of the Committee on Public Health and Human Services — also sits on the Board of Directors of the Pennsylvania Women’s Campaign Fund, a statewide political action committee that works to elect progressive women to the State Legislature.
4. Juana Matias
— Juana Matias (@Juana_B_Matias) January 5, 2017
Massachusetts State Rep. Juana Matias is a political newcomer taking her state by storm. The Dominican Republic-born, Lawrence-raised Democrat became the first Latina to represent the 16th Essex District when she unseated a longtime incumbent and won the election in 2016. Also one of the youngest members of her party in office, Matías has championed reproductive rights and immigrant rights, called for reforms to public schools and the criminal justice system and has fought against domestic violence, homelessness and unemployment. With this track record, the 30-year-old announced last year that she is running for the Congressional seat in Massachusetts’ District 3.
5. Julissa Ferreras-Copeland
Hearings offer the Council an opportunity to understand any proposed changes in spending, and to evaluate agency's performance over the last fiscal year. In addition, they offer an opportunity for the Council to express its priorities.
A post shared by Julissa Ferreras-Copeland (@julissa.ferreras) on
In New York, fellow dominicana Julissa Ferreras-Copeland was also a history-maker. The Queens-born Democrat served in the New York City Council from the 21st district — the borough’s first Latina elected official — from 2009 to 2017, when she decided to not seek re-election in order to spend more time with her family. During her time in office, however, she became the first Latina, and person of color, to chair the Finance Committee, the most powerful committee of the council. A champion for public education, immigrant rights, and women’s and family rights, Ferreras-Copeland was a front-runner to replace former city council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, before stepping down.
6. Aidee Nieves
— Christopher Rosario (@reprosario128) January 17, 2015
Democrat Aidee Nieves broke a glass ceiling last year, when the puertorriqueña became the first Latina to become president of Bridgeport, Connecticut’s city council. Nieves has been a member of the council since 2015, representing the predominantly Latino 137th district on the Lower East Side. Little is publicly known about Nieves, but her LinkedIn page notes that she previously worked at a charter school. In an article for the Connecticut Post, fellow council member Ernie Newton described Nieves as someone who understands that her office “is the people’s chamber” and she would advocate for them.
7. Juana Rosa Cavero
— Juana Rosa Cavero (@PWR4L) April 13, 2017
Los Angeles-based Juana Rosa Cavero is an elected official with the Mid-City Neighborhood Council, where she addresses hyper-local issues that have direct and immediate impact on the lives of about 50,000 LA residents with the city council. The Afro-Peruvian was first elected for a two-year term in 2014. Additionally, Cavero, who is also the executive director of the California Coalition for Reproductive Freedom, is a fervent reproductive justice activist.
8. Sabina Matos
— Providence Journal (@projo) June 29, 2017
Rhode Island’s Sabina Matos is Providence’s City Council President, the first Latina to hold the position. Born in the Dominican Republic, she moved to New York City as a teenager and soon relocated to Providence, where she would later study communications and public relations. After working as president of the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee, the Latina was elected to the city council, representing Ward 15, in 2010. During her time in office, she has been dedicated to improving schools, cleaning and repairing streets, and creating economic opportunities.
9. Marisol Alcantara
So pleased to welcome @AFLCIO president Mario Cilento to the inaugural Labor Committee meeting of 2018! The bills passed through committee today will make life a little easier for working men and women. #solidarity @NYSAFLCIO pic.twitter.com/66faDkwLqj
— Marisol Alcantara (@NY31Alcantara) January 22, 2018
Also hailing from the Dominican Republic, Marisol Alcantara is the New York State Senator for the 31st District. While a Democrat, the Washington Heights native is a member of the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of eight members of the New York State Senate who were elected as progressives but are in a majority coalition with Republicans in the chamber. Chair of the labor committee, Alcantara is a longtime labor organizer who advocates for working communities and affordable housing.
10. Cynthia Mota
ENDORSEMENT ANNOUNCEMENT: I am honored to accept an endorsement from Cynthia Mota (Allentown City Councilwoman) pic.twitter.com/l8nZZupKEx
— Basilio A Bonilla Jr (@BasilioBonilla) April 26, 2015
Pennsylvania-native Cynthia Mota is a member of the Allentown City Council. In January 2012, when she was first elected, she became the first Latina and woman of color to hold the position. Also born in the Dominican Republic, she moved to Allentown when she was middle school-aged. With bachelor’s degrees in sociology and Spanish as well as a master’s degree in human development, Mota spent years working as a counselor, for both youth and families, as well as a case manager and clinical director before stepping into politics. As a councilperson, she’s chair of Parks and Recreation, Budget and Finance, Human Resources and Administration and Appointments.
11. Bethaida “Bea” González
Really proud of my mentor and colleague, Dean Bethaida Gonzalez! Such an inspiration and luchadora! Felicidades ? pic.twitter.com/p8O2nRB1Tc
— Valeria J. (@MzValeriaJ) May 23, 2014
Bethaida “Bea” González is an Afro-Latina politician based out of Syracuse, New York. Born in Puerto Rico, she moved to New York when she was three years old, becoming the first in her family to receive a high school diploma. She went on to study political science and Latin American studies at Binghamton University and later obtained a Master of Public Administration from Syracuse University. In 1991, she was a member of the Latino Task Force, where she caught the mayor’s attention. He would later nominate González to the school board. The first Latina to hold a citywide position, she went on to break another barrier in 2001, when she was elected to the common council. She served two four-year terms before announcing her candidacy for mayor of Syracuse in 2008, a race she would later withdraw from because of her mother’s ailing health. In 2016, Gonzalez became the vice president at her alma mater, Syracuse University.
12. Grace Diaz
— NWHP (@officialNWHP) October 5, 2016
Democrat Grace Diaz is a State Representative from Rhode Island representing District 11 in the city of Providence. In 2005, she became the first-ever Dominican-American woman elected to state office in the U.S. Since then, she has taken on issues like education, public health and racial, gender and disability discrimination. Democratic Caucus Chair, Diaz is also a member of the House Committee on Finance Member, the House Finance Subcommittee on Public Safety Member, the House Finance Subcommittee on Human Services Member, the House Committee on Rules Chairwoman and the Legislative Commission on Child Care. Additionally, Diaz is Providence’s Minority Women Business Enterprise outreach director and the first vice chairwoman of the Rhode Island Democratic State Committee.
13. Rosa Clemente
Rosa Clemente is a New York-based community organizer. In 2008, former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney named the puertorriqueña her running mate. On July 12, Clemente, a fierce advocate for Black Lives Matter, criminal justice and the decolonization of Puerto Rico, was confirmed as the vice presidential nominee of the Green Party, a major first for Latinas. On Election Day, the pair received 161,797 votes (or 0.12 percent of the popular vote).