The East End is home to skilled artists, brilliant writers, top chefs and other local celebrities known for their incredible talents and the attention those abilities have brought to the Hamptons and North Fork. Likewise, Organización Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island (OLA) Executive Director Minerva Perez is known nationwide for using her skills to give voice to the voiceless in an unwavering effort to strengthen the East End community.
Recently honored in the 2019 NBC Latino 20, a list of top U.S. community leaders, Perez always felt called to social justice. Her first foray into such work was as the head of an NYC theater company producing thought-provoking, socially conscious plays without crossing over into “soapbox theater,” as she puts it. In 2006, after moving to Long Island, she took notice of an alarming level of anti-immigrant sentiment coming from the Suffolk County Legislature and felt compelled to speak up for her community.
She began volunteering at OLA part-time and quickly rose to the role of volunteer executive director, bolstering the Latino Film Festival of the Hamptons and addressing legislators on behalf of the organization. “This is not just doing work for Latinos,” she notes of OLA’s mission. “It’s about a healthier community here, and that means we have to have equal access to protection from law enforcement; we have to have equal access to education to make sure that parents are invited in, feel comfortable and are able to engage with school districts.” She adds that true equality will create “a stronger, healthier, smarter, more vibrant, more environmentally conscious East End.”
Perez then moved on to The Retreat, a local safe haven for families affected by domestic abuse and sexual assault, working for six years as director of residential and transitional services. “Nothing can prepare you for working in a shelter, except for working in a domestic violence shelter,” she says. “It was just the most mind-boggling, beautiful, exciting, fulfilling experience I’ve ever had in my life.”
In 2016, she returned to OLA as the first official executive director, and has accomplished a great deal in a short span of time—starting with simply adding more staff to the ranks, including Associate Director Sandra Dunn and General Counsel Andrew Strong. “It shows the community that there’s this other level of strength,” she says of the additions, especially regarding human rights lawyer Strong. The organization has also hired a transportation coordinator for their vital bussing system, which drives East End residents with no other means of getting to the hospital, at no charge. While this service lightens some of the burden created by Suffolk County’s lackluster bus system, OLA is also advocating for substantial changes to the current, antiquated schedule. “We’ve got busses that end at 7 p.m.! How does half that kitchen staff get home?” she asks. “With the Latino members of our community being an essential piece to making sure it can work, it doesn’t work by chopping people out.”
Personally working with local law enforcement, Perez has offered Latino diversity training to officers and purchased 15 smart phones for the Southampton Town Police Department, one for each patrol car, to ensure that every officer has access to LanguageLine Solutions, an on-demand phone interpreting service that allows easy communication with Spanish-speaking witnesses and victims of crimes.
Circles of Strength is a mental health workshop for families that began at the Children’s Museum of the East End and has since expanded to Springs Elementary School during Perez’s tenure at OLA. At the recurring event, the organization provides dinner, childcare and access to Spanish-speaking mental health professionals to help individuals realize they have a community that cares about them. “This idea of being isolated or feeling isolated is one that destroys families, individuals and children,” Perez warns, noting that this is especially true for youth.
“This overriding sentiment that ‘I don’t belong’ is one that will never serve our town. These kids are here; they’re part of our community. If they feel like they don’t belong, then it’s the worst thing you could ever be doing. Not even just for them, but it’s the worst thing you could be doing for your town, because without that belonging there’s less accountability, less support for other kids that might be needing them.” She works to combat this dangerous thinking with Latino teen empowerment and diversity workshops at local schools, teaching administration, faculty and students to be mindful and accepting of new peers. OLA also works with the Southampton Town Youth Bureau to teach teens the power of the arts to build confidence and expand their perspective.
Under Perez’s bold guidance, the Latino Film Festival of the Hamptons, to be held this weekend, has evolved from screenings of established works to a showcase of promising filmmakers and new films that focus on controversial topics like LGBT identity and euthanasia, though she directs much of the credit to OLA co-founder Isabel Sepúlveda-de Scanlon, who created the event in 2004. “She had the vision for the film festival to use that form of visual storytelling to break stereotypes around what is and what isn’t Latino,” she says.
This year’s lineup includes two dark comedies and an animated children’s film, all spoken in Spanish with English subtitles. The first, Antes Que Llegue el Ferry, is a hyper-surrealist portrait of Havana in the whirlwind aftermath of the restoration of U.S.-Cuba relations, and it will screen at the Parrish Art Museum on Friday, November 15. On Saturday, Guild Hall will screen Amalia, La Secretaria, starring comedienne Marcela Benjumea as a secretary whose illusion of personal and professional control is undone by a technician assigned to make a repair at her office. Tickets to these events, which include live video discussions and receptions, are available at olalatinofilmfest2019.eventbrite.com. The final event is a free screening of the family film Pachamama, a beautiful homage to Mother Earth centered on a young boy who dreams of becoming a shaman, at Greenport High School on Sunday at 2 p.m.
Despite the tremendous, life-saving work Perez has done for the East End community as executive director of OLA, she remains entirely humble, preferring to see herself as an interim leader until the next generation is ready to take the reins. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to be leading OLA in 10 years or so. I feel very much like a placeholder, in the most positive of ways,” she says. “My grand purpose is going to be a placeholder for those who come after me…the next generation of leadership that has grown up out here and that understands what the benefits and beauties are of this community, and also the challenges and players.”
To learn more about Organización Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island, visit olaofeasternlongisland.org.