by Mónica Marie Zorrilla
09/27/2017 - 13:38
The Mentor The City Deserves
If cities are in need of superheroes, then Philadelphia may have discovered one. Neither sporting cape nor spandex, The Mentor prefers a suit when serving Philadelphians, offering parables from his life and career in a Southwestern twang to Latino and LGBT youth, or providing counsel to PECO for ecological and efficient energy production. A well-versed and seasoned attorney and politician, The Mentor (who goes by alias “Romy”), has been serving us since 2002 with modesty and empathy. To show our appreciation, AL DĺA News honors Romy this year with a Hispanic Heritage Award.
Outed on the front page of The Washington Post, seated in The United States Environmental Protection Agency, raised Roman Catholic in The Bible Belt… Rómulo Díaz L. Jr, also known as “Romy” has been gracefully piling on different hats and growing into the facets of his identity for over forty years.
At first glance, you wouldn’t know it: that Texan drawl, adorned with an infectious laugh, a warm smile, and a humble disposition, does not automatically associate with a man of truly extraordinary accomplishments despite circumstance: a man who served as our City’s solicitor, a man who was personally appointed by President Bill Clinton, a man who has made significant strides in energy efficiency by way of being the Vice President and General Counsel of PECO, or a man who teared up when speaking about the scholarship he created in honor of his Mexican mother, Irene Rivera Díaz.
And yet, despite his degrees and his titles, Romy is unostentatious. His ability to remain personable while being so gifted in the fields and sectors of environmentalism, law, policy, reform, and social justice, are what makes him the mentor that this City (particularly our LGBT and Latino ambitious youth) deserves, and hopefully, “a mentor that can teach people not to make the same mistakes that I did.”
Romy’s life has- so far -completed a circle that has crossed borders on State and National lines. His story begins in this City before conception, when his father immigrated from Venezuela during World War II and was recruited by Gulf Oil to work on the oil convoys crossing the Atlantic from the refinery in Philadelphia to Port, Arthur Texas. As fate would have it, one afternoon Romy’s father would walk right into the restaurant that Romy’s mother spent her time at after-school, behind the cash register and helping her abuela maintain the family business. The Diaz’s “meet cute” would lead to marriage and the birth of four children: Romy, Anna, David, and Jerry.
Childhood and adolescence in small-town East Texas had its up and its downs. Professionally, it was almost the quintessential place for someone who was interested in energy to develop curiosity and to heighten general knowledge. Being surrounded by oil refineries, petrochemical industries, and gas reserves made the gravitation toward environmentalism and efficiency natural. Romy further attributes the budding of his professional and academic enrichment to his status as a first-generation immigrant, which he claims has given him a Type A personality and some of the tools for success:
“I think when you’re first generation, and you didn’t have much money or the resources to pay your way into college, you have to find a way to make it happen. I knew I had to get the good grades in order to get into a good school, and my parents and siblings were extremely supportive. I learned how to work hard, and I was lucky to get a scholarship from my Dad’s union to The University of Texas at Austin. But, you know, [laughs] I didn’t even know how to register for classes when I first got there. I didn’t know who to turn to. I had good instincts, but I didn’t really know about the opportunities that were there for me.”
It seems that Romy did get the hang of things, though, for he remained a Longhorn well-past his undergraduate career, and received his Juris Doctorate from UT. Personally, however, the situation was a bit thornier for someone growing up young, gay, and Hispanic in mid-century America. Romy details that he often would see signs that had slogans such as “No Dogs And No Mexicans Allowed” when he longed to cool off from the desert heat in his local public swimming pool, and that, of course, hate crimes have existed then just as they continue to exist today. As a Roman Catholic, Romy felt further outcasted from the norm, as East Texas was hard-shell “Bible Belt”, or fundamentally Protestant, which made fitting in for him and his siblings even more of a challenge. “I don’t look like or act like what most people assume the person that I am does… So, I grew up with this sense of being different, and most especially, being an ‘other’. But, that created both challenges and amazing opportunities.”
Being outed on the front page of the Washington Post in 1993, in the height of the AIDS Epidemic and widespread homophobia, was one of those challenges. While his family and his close-friends knew of his sexuality, fast-forward past Port Arthur to working as The Counselor and Deputy of Staff to the U.S. Secretary of Energy, and Romy did not think (at the time) that this core part of his personhood was as integral to his professional life. And thus, he kept it a secret. Nevertheless, there he was one morning, seated in the back of a taxi cab on his way to work, as he read a headline that went something along the lines of High Ranking, Out Members of the Clinton Administration!, and his initial reaction?:
“Oh! I wonder who they are! [laughs]. And, as I started to read the story, I saw that my name was the first on the list. The first! [laughs harder]. I guess it was kind of a shock. But, once I sort of processed what happened and the feeling of public humiliation, I realized that people needed to be able to talk to people that they could relate to, and you know, feel that they mattered. And I realized, in an odd way, that it was a tremendous opportunity to really help others, and to be a representative… I wanted to show that, look, if you are a person that is decent, and contributing, and you care about the American people, what difference does it make if you’re a brunette or a blonde? Gay or straight? Right?”.
These opportunities that were formed, both by the virtue of his background and his diligence and aptitude throughout his career, made Romy more empathetic towards the differences in other people, and it gave him the ability to have a unique perspective when it came to issues that would affect his decision-making in National and Local government. Being “committed to serving everyone”, for example, made him look at the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on The Gulf of Mexico as a fiasco that had both environmental and social impacts on the region. It also made Romy want to become civically engaged- particularly by tapping into youth -thereby beginning a long running series of mentorship breakfasts through PECO and The Pan-American Association of Philadelphia, wherein Romy meets to chat and impart life lessons on young LGBT and Latino talent.
His involvement in leadership education has been recognized by, most recently, a Lavender Award and an award from The Community College of Philadelphia. “I am so proud of the sacrifices that my parents have made, you know the sacrifices the parents of us immigrants have made, and those who have helped me get to where I am. I, ultimately, want to be of assistance by offering educational support to disadvantaged Americans. I think that’s my next step, you know, what I want to do when I grow up,” he chuckles.
Romy’s fundamental piece of advice? Confidence, standing up for yourself- and a willingness to get your hands dirty in the process -is crucial for minorities to succeed and to continue making valuable contributions to our country. You can meet and become inspired by Romy’s sage-advice and charisma on October 11th at the AL DÍA News Hispanic Heritage Luncheon.