“Servir es el modo natural de ser” is the quote by Cuban suffragist Elena Mederos that hangs on West New York Commissioner of Revenue and Finance Caridad Rodriguez’s office wall. Roughly translated, it means that service is the natural way of being, which is a more than appropriate motto for a woman whose name, in Spanish, means charity.
“The greatest fulfillment as a human being,” she said, “is to be able to fill a need in someone and see it through. The more you give, the more you get.”
This has been Rodriguez’s guiding principle throughout her life. It is also what earned her national recognition at the 2012 Annual Celebration of Latina Leaders in Washington, D.C. on March 27.
She was nominated by New Jersey Rep. Albio Sires (D-13) as one of 13 honorees whose contributions to the Latino community were honored by the Imagen Foundation during a celebration held at the legendary Kennedy Caucus Room at the Russell State Office Building in the nation’s capital.
“Even though we as women have come such a long way, we still have a long way to go.” – Caridad Rodriguez
“Any Hispanic woman who moves ahead and becomes a role model for other women of any heritage, I think, is something to be proud of,” Sires said. “We need more of that.”
The heart behind the works
“My mother raised me well, and she was a quiet woman,” Rodriguez said. “She always told me, ‘Just do well, no matter who they are. Just do good for people.’”
She began doing just that with a 20-year career as a paralegal who often dealt with divorce and family law. She saw a host of people with a host of issues, and did the best she could to help them.
Rodriguez helped with immigration issues, mitigated landlord and tenant issues, and aided seniors with their applications for housing, Medicare, and Medicaid, and much more.
“I’ve always said, if I ever win the Lotto, I would love to create a pro-bono office to help women,” Rodriguez said. “Especially battered women and children.”
In 1996, she became assistant to Sires, who was then the mayor of West New York.
“I worked very closely with Cary as a mayor,” Sires said, “and her work dealing with the issues of women and seniors then and as an assemblywoman makes her the sort of woman the Imagen Foundation wishes to recognize.”
When Rodriguez became an assemblywoman in 2007, she had to resign as Sires’ assistant to avoid conflict of interest, and began working at the Palisades Medical Center as a patient advocate. Her experience there and her experience as a West New York commissioner has brought certain demographic-specific issues to her attention.
“Women seem to have more to lose, not only in general conflicts, but in business as well,” Rodriguez said. “For cultural and financial reasons, I see a stronger need with women and children.”
She works with the entire Latino community, but she also finds that women and children often require more assistance.
“Even though we as women have come such a long way,” Rodriguez said, “we still have a long way to go. Women continue to be abused, mistreated, and bypassed in this country, and something must be done.”
The Imagen Foundation
Rodriguez received a letter from the Imagen Foundation inviting her to attend the Latina Leaders celebration in mid-March. Her first response was, “What?” and then the excitement set in.
“The foundation honored Latina women who have demonstrated tenacity in benefiting the lives of their constituents,” Sires said. “Cary fit that role.”
In addition to her work as a paralegal, with Sires, the hospital, as an assemblywoman, and for the people of West New York, Rodriguez has received the American Red Cross Clara Barton Award for Meritorious Volunteer Service, the Elena Mederos Award for outstanding commitment to the community, and the PAM’S LIST Award for Women in Power.
“It is important that we recognize the achievements of these exceptional women and their significant contributions and impact to the Latino community,” U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis wrote in the event’s program. “The women we celebrate tonight serve as an inspiration to countless young women and men nationwide.”
“As an assembly person, you want to help everybody, but you’re limited,” Rodriguez explained. “So what I envision is an office open to the public with all kinds of assistance.”
Rodriguez’s experience as a paralegal, as an assistant to Sires, and as a patient advocate greatly informs her work as a West New York commissioner.
“You have to educate people,” she said. As commissioner, she sees many, many locals who come to her with various issues similar to those she’s dealt with for years. “Many people don’t know how to proceed with legal or financial situations because they’ve never been taught.”
Rodriguez teaches them.
She says that her town’s administration is about service and the people, and through her work with the mayor and other commissioners, she hopes to continue to serve her community well.
“Giving is a woman’s heart,” Rodriguez continued. “It has been the reward of my life. You need to be among the people, like a shepherd among the sheep, otherwise you don’t know.”
Gennarose Pope may be reached at email@example.com