As a high school junior in Puerto Rico, Rita Paniagua decided to fulfill a civic engagement requirement by teaching English to schoolchildren in an impoverished village west of San Juan, where she lived.
Paniagua knew that speaking a second language could open new worlds for the children so she committed herself to spending hours with them in the classroom. She would go on to arrange field trips to Old San Juan, where the young students could interact with English-speaking tourists.
The class time and trips would take Paniagua away from her life as an aspiring dancer. But it didn’t matter. These kids had found their way into her heart.
“It’s about the love,” Paniagua said. “It’s about the love you can share because ultimately as a human being, the state that we all look for is love.”
Discovering that connection to education and helping children set Paniagua on a lifelong path of service to others. Since 2003, she’s tapped into that love as an advocate and activist in Syracuse’s Latino community. She’s had numerous roles, including a decade as the Spanish Action League executive director and more recently as a commissioner with the Syracuse City School District.
First Days in America is a set of non-narrated audio and digital stories that highlight the experiences of immigrants in a changing America. This project was produced at Syracuse University in May 2019.
All stories were produced as part of Next Generation Radio, a week-long digital journalism training project designed to teach those interested in radio and journalism the skills and opportunity to report and produce their own multimedia story. Those chosen for the project were paired with a professional journalist as their mentor, to create a non-narrated audio and digital story that highlights the experiences of immigrants in a changing America.
But Paniagua looks back at many moments in her childhood and early career in Puerto Rico as stepping stones to her civic engagement today in Syracuse.
While helping with the marketing for the Puerto Rican baseball team her father owned, Paniagua organized a promotion, for which local companies would give away free tickets to school children to see the Cangrejeros de Santurce (Santurce Crabbers). She helped shuttle the children to the 20,000-seat ballpark, handed out free hot dogs and drinks and gave them an unforgettably fun experience.
“Those were the first steps into community work, which ended up leading the rest of my career and my life,” Paniagua said.
The rest of her life started to unfold 1,800 miles away from Puerto Rico in Upstate New York, where her older sister, Tere, relocated for a job at Syracuse University. In 2003, Paniagua visited to help her sister’s family settle in for just a few weeks.
In the meantime, she started volunteering at the Spanish Action League, also known as La Liga. And within weeks, Paniagua was offered a full-time job.
“Working with the Hispanic community is how I wanted to stay in Syracuse because I felt a connection with the need of my people here,” she said. “And I just started doing things and I said, ‘Well, when I finish this, I'll go back home.’ And then 16 years later, I'm sitting here.”
Within four years, she became La Liga’s executive director, a job that spanned the next decade during a time when Syracuse’s Latino population was steadily growing. From 2010-2017, the number of Hispanic and Latino residents increased by 24 percent, including a 38 percent jump in people originally from Puerto Rico.
With that growth, Paniagua said La Liga has aimed to help newcomers transition to Syracuse by providing and connecting them with job opportunities, medical services and English language programs.
At the same time, Paniagua was helping build a sense of community for Latin Americans in Syracuse through events such as the Latino American Festival. The late summer event draws thousands to Clinton Square to share their music, food and heritage.
“[At the festival], there are people and the happiness of carrying their flag,” Paniagua said. “It's amazing. It just fills you with joy.”
Paniagua didn’t shy away from taking on more responsibilities. She joined the board of directors for New York State Council of the Arts, CNY Arts, Interfaith Works and Cancer Connects among others. In 2016, she shifted to local politics and successfully won a seat on the Syracuse City school board, despite not having the support of the local Democratic Party.
“I had to work very, very hard to get to be elected,” Paniagua said. “When we have these challenges, it just incites you to do better. It's a motivator for me.”
Paniagua left her role at La Liga in 2017 to join Molina Healthcare as a community relations and engagement manager. She said the job has provided her a new perspective on issues facing underserved populations and yet another way to push herself forward.
“Healthcare is something that is so variable,” she said. “Challenging is the word, but again, when you have a challenge, you have a motivation.”
One more challenge lies ahead for Paniagua: she’s making a bid to join the Syracuse City Common Council later this year. Her election would formalize her transformation from community activist to community leader in Syracuse.
There seems to be little that will slow down the 56-year-old from trying to make a difference in many of Syracuse’s communities. That always-on-the-go attitude is not lost on Paniagua’s older sister, Tere.
“Something that amazes me is her energy – the capacity to keep up that energy level in everything she does,” Tere said. “It's exhausting just to hear how many things she's involved with and the hours that she keeps.”