Recapping AL DÍA’s biggest and brightest Women of Merit yet
The ceremony, held on Friday, May 19, honored 12 women leaders from all walks of life, leading fights to better society as we know it across industries.
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AL DÍA’s Women of Merit has always been about uplifting the best and brightest women leaders in Philadelphia and beyond for work that is often overlooked, and the ceremony held on Friday, Mat 19, 2023 was no different.
Kicked off by 2023 AL DÍA Women of Merit Advisory Board Chair Raquel Arredondo and emceed by Telemundo 62 anchor and reporter Valeria Aponte Feliciano, the ceremony honored 12 women — 10 across five industries along with an emerging leader and lifetime achievement winner.
Before the awardees each had their times at the podium, the ceremony also included a keynote address from Ana Valdez, the CEO of the Latino Donor Collaborative and a panel discussion led by Arredondo all about women carving their own paths in any industry.
Latinas are an “engine”
At the end of that path is a seat at a table of power, but as Valdez said in her keynote address that also included a presentation chock full of data about U.S. Latino representation and economic power, there’s still very little representation.
“Latinas, specifically, are becoming an engine,” she told the crowd, “but at the same time we don’t have yet our seat.”
To attain those seats in higher numbers, Valdez drove home the point of changing the narrative around Latinos in the U.S. and for the sake of the ceremony — women, especially Latinas, in the workplace.
“Calladitas [quiet] no more,” was her message. “We need to raise our voice. We need to stand out. We need to speak up. We need to speak up for our kids, for our daughters, for our sons, for our future.”
Following up on Valdez’s call to action was further empowerment from a panel discussion of four women leading in their respective industries. Guided by Arredondo, the panel featuring Dr. Cynthia Estremera Gauthier, Lisette Martinez and Jacklyn Isasi, talked through each of the panelists’ personal experiences and offered some tips for those hoping to follow in their footsteps.
Remaining “authentic” was at the top of the list, but the discussion also broke down the common thought that women, especially those that aren’t white, have to be perfect in the workplace.
“You can be imperfect,” said Estremera Gauthier.
“We learn more from our mistakes,” added Arredondo.
Martinez pushed the women in attendance to strive for leadership spots in at their organizations and take full advantage of the opportunities that fall to them.
“If not you than who?” she said. “Look forward and lean into what you want to do.”
Beyond the empowering messages and breaking down common misconceptions, all of the panelists also agreed on the importance of women surrounding themselves with other like-minded women in the workplace. In their words, it creates a “sisterhood” that is there to support, nurture, but also hold one another accountable.
“Sisterhood has always been my north star,” said Estremera Gauthier.
Sisterhood is what one could say was built on the night of May 19, 2023 among the 12 new AL DÍA Women of Merit honorees.
Leading off the night was the Emerging Leader winner, Erika Guadalupe Nuñez, the current executive director of Juntos.
In her role, which she’s held since March 2020, she stands up and fights for the city and state’s migrant communities. It’s also something Guadalupe Nuñez has done since growing up in Arizona.
“I have been fighting this fight since I was in high school, showing up unapologetically and protesting against an immigration system that has always been unjust,” she told the crowd.
In receiving the Women of Merit recognition, Guadalupe Nuñez dedicated it to the undocumented women of Juntos.
“Because they’re the ones who lead this,” she ended.
Following Guadalupe Nuñez were the two Corporate honorees — Rebecca Acevedo and María Garcia.
Acevedo is the senior vice president and director of corporate communications at WSFS Bank, but she made clear the crowd knew her roots.
“This is for all the little girls who were labeled ‘poor, quiet or from the hood.’ I know because I was one of them,” she said as she accepted her award, citing her North Philadelphia roots. “For all the Brown and Black girls who are told you can’t or you won’t, I am the proof that you can and you will.”
The story was very similar to Garcia, who is one of 10 born to Dominican immigrants who came to the U.S. so their children could have a better life.
Now, Garcia is the vice president district manager at Kohl’s, so mission accomplished.
Her message to the crowd was to continue passing that success down the generational line.
“My vision is really to pass it forward and share that,” said Garcia.
The next pair to take the stage were education honorees Latesha Beasley and Michelle Lopez.
Beasley is the vice president of operations at Girard College and Lopez heads the Institute for Community Engagement and Civic Leadership at the Community College of Philadelphia.
In her speech, Beasley offered three pieces of advice when thinking about education — thank an educator, support education and always stay educated.
“Something my mother always taught me was that no one can take away your education,” Beasley said after the last point.
Lopez spoke of her inspiration thanks to the students she interacts with on a daily basis. Some come from difficult backgrounds, but it motivates Lopez more to create a more equitable education system.
“It’s truly a passion of mine to work with students and to help them get their degrees and move to successful lives,” she said.
Ana Omana, one of two entrepreneurship winners on the night and co-founder of Philly’s Latin American Book Fair, is a native of Venezuela, but spoke of the community she found upon moving to the city.
It’s one that embraced her and allowed Omana to pursue her entrepreneurial dreams.
“I surround myself with friends and like-minded individuals and we work together to showcase and celebrate our Latin culture,” she said.
Gabriela Watson-Burkett, founder of ¡Presente! also directed her praise at her community. Just like them, she’s an entrepreneur, but dedicates the time to tell their stories.
“Stories that show that we are not anonymous,” Watson-Burkett said.
In nonprofit, Leslie Patterson-Tyler, vice president of communications and partnerships at the Kimmel Cultural Campus and The Philadelphia Orchestra, led the speeches by dedicating her award to the women she’s surrounded with in the workplace — all dedicated improving our collective society through the arts.
“They are smart, creative, and do everything with style and grace,” said Patterson-Tyler. “I stand today on your shoulders.”
For Rosalind Pichardo, her work at Operation Save Our City, which she founded, and at CeaseFire PA is about supporting the victims of gun violence.
“This work is heavy,” led Pichardo.
“This is a movement I started through blood, sweat and tears, and even my own life,” Pichardo continued. “I do it with all that I have in hopes that people will take note and follow some of the work that I’ve been doing across the country.”
She uses her story to relate and inspire others to join that same movement.
“I believe that everyone has a role to play in this country when it comes to gun violence,” said Pichardo.
Her time at the podium ended with a moment of silence for every victim of gun violence.
When it comes to making a change, like Pichardo, Rep. Johanny Cepeda-Freytiz also threw herself into the mix of politics to make a change.
“I thought, in order for me to make change, I’m going to have to get into politics. I’m going to have to be that change that I seek, and I’m going to have to make sure that people support me, that I can empower people, and also be empowered by people,” she said in her acceptance speech.
In the process, Cepeda-Freytiz not only became the first Latina City Council President of Reading, PA, but also in 2022, rose to be the first Democrat and Latina to ever represent Pennsylvania’s 129th District in the PA House of Representatives.
Representation was also core to the message shared by fellow public service honoree Joy Huertas.
Currently, she’s the senior deputy of communications for the City of Philadelphia, and Huertas was also sure to highlight her own history as the youngest and first Latina to ever serve in the role.
“I help departments reach those who do not have internet, those who may not speak English, those who may need access to critical information like how to pay for their water bills,” she said.
“I, in fact, bring hope in times of despair when there’s a crisis or an emergency,” Huertas added. “I keep the media up to date so they know that they have a government that is working for them."
Speaking of history, that’s also steeped in the career of Lifetime Achievement winner Sara Manzano-Diaz, the first Latina to ever be appointed to Pennsylvania’s Gaming Control Board. That’s also just the latest glass ceiling she’s broken in her career.
As Manzano-Diaz told the crowd, she had to get used to being the only Latina in the room in almost every workplace in her career.
“Nobody believed I could do it,” she reflected. “But guess what? I believed in myself, my parents believed in me, and I became the first in my family to become a college graduate and I’m still the only attorney in my family. So, my parents’ hard work paid off.”
Like many said before her, Manzano-Diaz also said her continued work is for the next generation to see more success than she did.
“The reason that we fight is for the generations coming behind us,” she said.
Manzano-Diaz ended by honoring the late Elizabeth Guaracao, who exemplified that message more than most for AL DÍA and all the lives it’s touched and continues to touch through its work.
The 2023 AL DÍA Women of Merit ceremony was just the latest example.