By Michael P. Walsh
Special to the Voice
Iris Milagros Diaz, a civic-minded steward of West Haven known for giving back to its thriving Hispanic American community, received the city’s Hispanic American of the Year award at the second annual Hispanic Heritage Celebration on Friday.
Mayor Nancy R. Rossi and the West Haven Hispanic Heritage Committee recognized Diaz, the daughter of parents hailing from Guayama, Puerto Rico, during a late morning ceremony on the steps of City Hall.
The committee bestows the award annually on a Hispanic resident, or couple, who personifies service in West Haven’s vibrant Hispanic American community.
At the 25-minute event, Diaz, 50, a longtime Allingtown fire commissioner, honored her Puerto Rican lineage with dozens of friends and loved ones, including her mother, Nancy Cruz; her brother, John Cruz; and her children, Mark Anthony Goodwin, 21, and Jessica Goodwin, 18.
Along with descendants of folks from Puerto Rico and Latin America, she was also joined by an array of city and state officials, including Reps. Michael A. DiMassa, D-West Haven, and Charles J. Ferraro, R-West Haven, who presented Diaz, the first female recipient of the award, with a General Assembly citation on behalf of the city’s delegation.
Diaz, who won the Miss Puerto Rico of New Haven Pageant in 1988, told the crowd that she humbly accepted the honor on behalf of the entire Hispanic American community. She then thanked her mother and children and her colleagues from the City of West Haven Fire Department Allingtown, many of whom were in attendance.
“It is wonderful to see the diversity in our city and the lengths the leaders of our city go through to recognize and honor all cultures in our community,” said Diaz, the first Hispanic to sit on the Allingtown fire commission, including serving as its chairwoman in 2016-17.
A Latin-flavored lunch was provided by local restaurants after the event in the First Congregational Church of West Haven’s Fellowship Hall, opposite City Hall on the Green.
In observance of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs through Oct. 15, the city recognizes the important legacy of Hispanic Americans and the inspiring contributions they have made to the culture and history of the United States.
Hispanics have had a profound and positive influence on the civic and cultural life of America, enhancing and shaping the national character with centuries-old traditions that reflect the multiethnic and multicultural customs of their community.
Hispanic Heritage Month, which traces its roots to 1968, begins each year on Sept. 15, the anniversary of independence of five Latin American countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Mexico and Chile also celebrate their independence days during that period.
Rossi said Diaz, a city resident since 2000, epitomizes the noble qualities of serving her community and carrying on the spirited traditions of Puerto Rico.
She is a member of the Latino Haven Committee of West Haven and was the Hispanic Society of West Haven’s public relations representative from 2004 to 2009.
A member of the Yale Latino Networking Group, she has been an ambassador and a steering committee member of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven since 2015.
After her reign as Miss Puerto Rico of New Haven, Diaz was a pageant coordinator, mentor and judge for many years.
Rossi lauded the public-spirited Diaz, whom she called a woman of faith and family, for her wholehearted devotion to the city and its robust Hispanic American community.
Rossi presented her with a Puerto Rican flag and a black jacket embroidered with her new title: Hispanic American of the Year.
The mayor also read a citation praising Diaz’s good works.
“As a pioneering resident of West Haven and the first Hispanic to serve on the Board of Fire Commissioners of the City of West Haven Fire Department Allingtown, your extraordinary story is treasured by our city,” Rossi said. “You are proof the American dream is alive and well!”
The cultural event included remarks from mayoral Executive Assistant Lou Esposito, the master of ceremonies. Before a blessing from Denya McGee, pastor of Abba’s House International Fellowship of North Branford, Maribel Aguilar-Meza sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the Puerto Rican national anthem, “La Borinqueña.”
Diaz was born in the South Bronx, a borough of New York City, and moved to New Haven with her family at age 15.
Raised by her “single, strong, independent” mother, Diaz said she knew early on that she wanted to help make a difference in her community.
Her contributions to West Haven include serving as vice chair of the Charter Revision Commission.
She has also volunteered at other organizations through the years, including the West Haven Girl Scouts, the Make-A-Wish Foundation of America and the New Haven Diaper Bank.
A 27-year employee of Yale University, Diaz is a clinical trials research recruitment coordinator at the Yale Center for Clinical Investigation, a department of the Yale School of Medicine.