By SUZANNE C. RUSSELL, STAFF WRITER of myCentralJersey.com- June 5, 2009
Mayor Wilda Diaz grew up in a tough neighborhood — a Stockton Street housing complex, where she and her five sisters shared one bathroom.
“I never dreamed back then of being mayor,” said Diaz.
But Diaz told about 75 students in the bilingual program at the William C. McGinnis School on May 5 that many of the children she grew up with turned out to be good kids who went on to college.
“It doesn’t matter where you grow up. If you work hard, nothing can stop you,” said Diaz, the first woman mayor in Perth Amboy and the first elected Puerto Rican female mayor in New Jersey.
Her visit was part of a Hispanics Inspiring Students’ Performance and Achievement, or HISPA, Role Model program at the school. Diaz, who has been in office since July 1, 2008, is a HISPA mentor.
“I truly believe each of you are at a critical part of your educational adventure,” said Ivonne Diaz-Claisse, president of HISPA, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to providing professional Hispanic role models for young students. “You need to make the effort to make your dreams come true.”
Diaz-Claisse told the bilingual students about coming to the United States from Puerto Rico when she was 21 to pursue a doctorate degree and career in mathematics.
Like many of the students, Diaz, who was born in Perth Amboy, grew up speaking Spanish at home and English at school. She said she and her sisters helped their mother, a native of Puerto Rico, learn English.
Diaz said she had to work to get good grades in school. After graduating from high school, she went into the banking industry. Climbing up the ranks from teller to assistant vice president.
Although she had always been involved in community service, such as working with the Salvation Army, she didn’t start thinking about running for mayor until about two years ago.
“I wanted to make changes in the city of Perth Amboy,” she said. “I wanted to help my community. I had the skill and knowledge. I did it with a lot of people who helped me run for mayor.”
As mayor, Diaz said she’s gone to Washington, D.C., asking for grants for the city. Although she has not met President Barack Obama, she would like to. She also works with the city’s business community.
“This is a real tough time in our country. I have to make sure the operation of the city runs smoothly,” Diaz said.
She said the best thing about being mayor to being able to help people.
“I like this job,” she said. “Has it been hard, yes, but I still work hard. Even as mayor you still have to do your homework.”
“You can be whatever you want to be,” Diaz told the students.
Leonely Gonzalez, 13, an eighth-grader at the McGinnis School, said it doesn’t matter where you come from or where you live. If you pursue your dreams, you can do it. Gonzalez said she wants to be a criminal justice investigator because she likes helping people.
Richard Placencia, 14, also an eighth-grader, said it’s good to be mayor and take care of the city. He said he tries to help keep the city clean by throwing out his garbage and recycling.
Diaz asked the students to further assist in her clean city initiative by not painting graffiti. While she loves art, Diaz said when graffiti is painted, the parents of the children responsible can be fined and forced to attend court sessions.
“I need you to help me keep the city clean,” Diaz said.