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Joseline Pena-Melnyk

Maryland | Maryland State Delegate

I emigrated from the Dominican Republic to the U.S. with my single mother and sister. My mom worked in New York’s garment industry and often struggled to make ends meet. There was a time when we were on welfare. But despite tough circumstances, I succeeded in school and learned English. I was an Equal Opportunity Program scholar and the first in my family to attend college. When I look back on it now, I see how much I benefited from programs that open doors for minority students.

I feel an obligation to fight for people on society’s margins – the ones who are often overlooked. One summer during law school I worked in Alabama to represent prisoners on death row. Another summer I was in Ohio farm country visiting migrant farmworkers and fighting for basic living conditions, a safe work environment, and fair wages. After I got my law degree, I took court appointments to represent abused and neglected children, and to provide criminal defense for the poor. Later I joined Eric Holder’s U.S. Attorney’s Office and prosecuted criminals; building cases by working closely with police officers, witnesses, and victims in the community.

I took the time to be a mom, having a son in 1998 and twin daughters in 2000. But the urge to stay involved in the community would not go away. I served on the board of Casa de Maryland, a community social service organization focused on immigrant issues, and ran for, and won, a seat on the College Park City Council. In 2006, I ran a long-shot, grassroots campaign for Maryland’s General Assembly, and with dedicated volunteers and modest contributions from ordinary people, I won!

What have been your struggles as a Latina?

As an Afro-Latina it has been a challenge bridging the divide between the African American and Latino communities. We have so many issues in common like the need for better health care and access to affordable education. If we pulled together, we would be a more powerful political block and get more of what is needed for our people.

What does Latina Made mean to you?

It is about the strength of Latina women and our challenge to use that power to succeed as entrepreneurs and other community leaders.

What made you who you are today?

I remember my roots and I am very aware of my community and my neighbors. I do not accept the status quo. I remember the struggles that my mother went through. Latina women are like superwomen. We’re smart, driven, funny, full of culture, and fabulous!

What advice would you give to young Latinas in our community?

Be tenacious, and do not hesitate to roll up your sleeves, do the heavy lifting, or take a controversial stand. Remember where you come from. You reflect your family. Stay grounded, humble and count your blessings.

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