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Clockwise: Erika Guadalupe Núñez, Michelle Lopez, Ana Omana, Gabriela Watson Burkett, Sara Manzano-Diaz, Joy Huertas, Johanny Cepeda-Freytiz, Rosalind Pichardo. Photo: Peter Fitzpatrick/AL DÍA News.
Clockwise: Erika Guadalupe Núñez, Michelle Lopez, Ana Omana, Gabriela Watson Burkett, Sara Manzano-Diaz, Joy Huertas, Johanny Cepeda-Freytiz, Rosalind Pichardo. Photo: Peter Fitzpatrick/AL DÍA News.

Women achieving merit through hard work and dedication

On Friday, May 19, 12 inspiring women leaders were honored as 2023 AL DÍA Women of Merit for their impact within their respective industries.

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Our society would not be able to function without the crucial contributions of women. 

With women breaking barriers and opening doors in various fields each and every day, it’s important to highlight and recognize their value.

It’s a sentiment not lost at AL DÍA and serves as the purpose of the annual AL DÍA Women of Merit Forum. 

This year’s 12 honorees each represent, in their own way, the very definition of what it means to be a Woman of Merit. 

Emerging With Power

Take Erika Guadalupe Núñez, a self-described “Mexicana, organizer and proud immigrant.”

Originally from Mexico, she grew up in the United States undocumented, and has spent more than a decade advocating for the immigrant community. 

Since March 2020, she has served as the executive director of Juntos, helping the immigrant community fight off family separation, deportation, and push for improved local policies, such as sanctuary cities and sanctuary schools.

“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 said as she accepted the Emerging Leader Award. 

Her work is guided by the mantra that only the people save the people, and for Guadalupe Núñez, being a Woman of Merit holds two distinct meanings. 

“For me, being a woman of merit means rejecting model minority stereotypes and the idea of a good or bad immigrant because none of us are disposable,” she said. “Being a woman of merit means fighting against the hold that capitalism has against our people.”

She concluded her acceptance speech by dedicating her award to the undocumented, Latinx women community and Juntos members “because they’re the ones who lead this,” she said. 

Latina Representation in the Corporate Sector

The two Women of Merit from the corporate category represent the handful of women in key executive positions within the corporate field. 

For Rebecca Acevedo, her area is banking, where she is the senior vice president and director of corporate communications at WSFS Bank.

The journey toward entering Corporate America is no easy feat, particularly for a Puerto Rican woman from “The Badlands” of North Philadelphia.

However, her success can be credited to her determination. 

“This is for all the little girls who were labeled ‘poor, quiet or from the hood.’ I know because I was one of them,” said Acevedo, as she accepted her award.

Rebecca Acevedo. Photo: Peter Fitzpatrick/AL DÍA News.
Rebecca Acevedo. Photo: Peter Fitzpatrick/AL DÍA News.

Acevedo is a representation of what a product of the Philadelphia school system and the child of parents who didn’t finish high school, but worked amazingly hard.

“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,” Acevedo concluded. 

Maria García is one of 10 children of Dominican immigrants who came to the U.S. to create a better life for their children. 

As she has thought about the sacrifices her parents have made to ensure their children have a better life than they did, Garcia has wanted to do the same for hers.

Maria García. Photo: Peter Fitzpatrick/AL DÍA News.
Maria García. Photo: Peter Fitzpatrick/AL DÍA News.

“My vision is really to pass it forward and share that,” she said. 

Education Can’t Be Taken Away

The two Women of Merit honorees in the education category can both attest to the value of an education.

Latesha Beasley has deep roots in both the nonprofit and educational sectors, having come from a family of strong women. 

As vice president of operations at Girard College, she leads all administrative, operational, facilities, and human resources functions.  

Latesha Beasley. Photo: Peter Fitzpatrick/AL DÍA News.
Latesha Beasley. Photo: Peter Fitzpatrick/AL DÍA News.

As she accepted her award in the education category, Beasley provided three pieces of advice. 

The first was to thank an educator.

“Everyone in this room has the opportunity to thank someone who has taught you,” she said. 

The second was to support education, “whether that is volunteering at a local school or providing donations,” said Beasley. 

The third was to stay educated.

“Something my mother always taught me was that no one can take away your education,” Beasley highlighted. 

With over 15 years of experience in education, Michelle Lopez commits herself to engaging and empowering students. 

“What we do at the Institute for Community Engagement and Civic Leadership is we get to work with some of the most amazing students and residents of the city of Philadelphia to empower them to feel like the leaders that they truly are,” she said as she accepted her award. 

Lopez also works with students who are experiencing hardships, and as someone who experienced her own hardships while a higher education student, she’s felt inspired to work with students and play a part in creating a more equitable education system in the city.

“It’s truly a passion of mine to work with students and to help them get their degrees and move to successful lives,” Lopez concluded. 

Entrepreneurship is About Community

The two Women of Merit honorees in the Entrepreneurship category are quite different in their backgrounds. However, their forays into entrepreneurship were both guided by a common pull — their community.

Ana Omana grew up in a small town in Venezuela, and quickly learned the power of her community.

Upon moving to Philadelphia, she immediately sought to find a way to also be a part of a community.

“Today, I am incredibly thankful to say that I have found the community,” she said. “I surround myself with friends and like-minded individuals and we work together to showcase and celebrate our Latin culture.”

She is able to do so through her volunteer work with organizations like Gente de Venezuela and Alianza Latina. 

Each day, Omana thrives to showcase the true meaning of Latin culture. 

However, when she thinks of her status of being a Woman of Merit, she credits her two boys — husband and son — for supporting and inspiring her.

As an entrepreneur and community member, she prides herself on being a part of a team. 

“I couldn’t have done any of the work I have done without [them],” Omana said. “I’m happy that Philadelphia is our playground. We always want to be here, and showcase the Latin culture as it should be because we come here to work, to succeed, and to try.” 

When Gabriela Watson Burkett does her work as a filmmaker, producer, and multimedia journalist for Presente! Media, she often does so through the lens of working toward social justice. 

During her acceptance speech, she took the time to remember her grandmother who passed away two years ago at 94, after running a textile factory for over 40 years. 

“She is the biggest image of leadership,” Watson Burkett said of her grandmother during her speech. 

For Watson Burkett, she has felt that her voice as a Black woman and immigrant has often been silenced. 

However, she realizes how blessed she is to call herself an entrepreneur today, where she is able to support diverse and marginalized individuals from her community in telling their stories.

“Stories that show that we are not anonymous,” she highlighted, adding that the value that diverse immigrants bring to the U.S. cannot be overstated. 

For her, building toward the American Dream is a team effort. 

“It takes a village to build a team,” Watson Burkett concluded. 

Creating Positive Change

The nonprofit sector is crucial to improving our collective society. 

That’s something Leslie Patterson-Tyler has dedicated herself to.

“I spent my entire life’s work uplifting and shining a spotlight on others,” she said as she accepted her award. 

Leslie Patterson-Tyler. Photo: Peter Fitzpatrick/AL DÍA News.
Leslie Patterson-Tyler. Photo: Peter Fitzpatrick/AL DÍA News.

While her impact is being recognized, she took the time to dedicate her award to the women she works with every day at The Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Center, Inc. 

“They are smart, creative, and do everything with style and grace,” said Tyler-Patterson. “I stand today on your shoulders.” 

Rosalind Pichardo is an activist, educator, and survivor whose work revolves around demanding change and supporting other survivors through her nonprofit, Operation Save Our City. 

“This is a movement I started through blood, sweat and tears, and even my own life,” said Pichardo. “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.” 

Her work seeks to address both the gun violence and drug epidemics plaguing the city. 

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Pichardo works to calm the hearts of those who have been affected by those and various other challenges facing the city, and nation. 

“I believe that everyone has a role to play in this country when it comes to gun violence,” she noted.

As someone who has witnessed close family members lose their lives from gun violence and suicide, Pichardo is aware of how her reality can be shared by many others.

She concluded her speech by leading a moment of silence for those who have been lost. 

Communication is Key

Public service is about serving and advocating for others.

Johanny Cepeda-Freytiz has strived to do so throughout her career.

However, prior to becoming a State Representative in Reading — and Council President prior — it’s safe to say that she hated politics.

“However, when I moved to the city of Reading, I realized the importance politics play in our daily life,” said Cepeda-Freytiz during her acceptance speech. 

In a city like Reading, with a 70% Latino population, the lack of Latino representation was alarming to her, so she decided to step up. 

“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,” said Cepeda-Freytiz. 

That mindset is what led her to become Reading’s first Latina state representative and the only Democrat representing her district. 

Joy Huertas, senior Deputy of Communications for the City of Philadelphia, prides herself on using honesty and transparency to provide critical information to Philadelphians.

“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.” 

Huertas understands that being a public servant isn’t about words, but rather is about working tirelessly for people. 

As the first and youngest Latina to ever be appointed senior deputy of communications for the City of Philadelphia, it isn’t lost that it took the city 99 administrations to have this distinction.

“Representation matters and we need it at all levels — in government, in tech, education and sciences,” Huertas said.  

She closed her speech by highlighting the importance of never underestimating the power of being seen. 

Achieving a Lifetime of Merit

As she looked around the room, Sara Manzano-Diaz was excited to see so many other women and Latinas.

After a decades-long career where she was oftentimes the only woman or woman of Latina, seeing a room full of other Latinas and women of color shows just how far we have come. 

“Growing up in a situation when you were the only woman or Latina, or person of color, it really touches my heart to see all of you,” Manzano-Diaz said as she accepted her Lifetime Achievement Award. 

Growing up in the projects of Harlem to parents from Puerto Rico who came to the mainland to make a better life for their children wasn’t without its many challenges.

Her parents did not have the opportunity to obtain their higher education, and therefore were unable to read or write. 

However, their support was paramount as Manzano-Diaz went through with her dream of becoming an attorney.

“Nobody believed I could do it,” she reflect. “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.”

With her career at both the state and federal levels — including working for two U.S. Presidents — Manzano-Diaz has developed a strong observation. 

“A life service is worth doing, and you can make a difference wherever you are,” she said. 

Whether it was her work as Pennsylvania’s Executive Deputy Attorney General for Public Protection; representing 72 million working women Director of the Women’s Bureau at the U.S. Department of Labor, or her current role as Commissioner of the $5 billion a year Pennsylvania Gaming Board, her impact has been felt. 

As a piece of advice, Manzano-Diaz encourages the other women in the room to be unafraid to take risks and not allow fear to be a hindrance. 

For her, it has been about more than just opening the door. She always wants to ensure that the door remains open.

“The reason that we fight is for the generations coming behind us,” she said.

Manzano-Diaz closed her acceptance speech by dedicating her award to heavenly departed, Elizabeth Guaracao “for being such an incredible role model and leader in our community.”

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