By Michael P. Walsh
Special to the Voice
Iris Milagros Diaz, a public-spirited steward of West Haven known for giving back to its thriving Hispanic American community, will receive the city’s Hispanic American of the Year award at the second annual Hispanic Heritage Celebration.
The West Haven Hispanic Heritage Committee will fete Diaz, the daughter of parents hailing from Guayama, Puerto Rico, on Friday at City Hall, 355 Main St.
The committee bestows the award annually on a Hispanic resident, or couple, who personifies service in West Haven’s vibrant Hispanic American community.
Diaz said she is proud of her new distinction as well as her civic accomplishments, saying that her family and community’s love is the driving force behind her success.
“One must lead by example,” said Diaz, who won the Miss Puerto Rico of New Haven Pageant in 1988.
Diaz, 50, will honor her Puerto Rican lineage with dozens of friends and loved ones, along with an array of dignitaries and descendants of folks from Puerto Rico and Latin America.
Committee members and West Haven officials, including Mayor Nancy R. Rossi, will escort Diaz to the steps of City Hall at 11:30 a.m. for her special recognition.
A Latin-flavored lunch provided by local restaurants will follow in the First Congregational Church of West Haven’s Fellowship Hall, at 1 Church St. opposite City Hall on the Green.
West Haven’s diversity is its strength, Rossi said, and Diaz is a testament to the American dream.
“For the second year, I am pleased to present the Hispanic American of the Year award to a well-deserving resident,” Rossi said. “Allingtown fire Commissioner Iris Diaz has a long record of community service in West Haven. She embodies the generosity and warmth that Puerto Ricans are known for.”
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 through their strong commitment to faith and family, hard work and public service. They have enhanced and shaped 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.
The term Hispanic refers to Puerto Rican, South American or Central American, and other Spanish cultures or origins regardless of race. On the 2010 census form, people of Spanish, Hispanic or Latino origins could identify themselves as Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Cuban, or “another Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin.”
Rossi said Diaz, a resident of West Haven 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 civic-minded Diaz, whom she called a woman of faith and family, for her wholehearted devotion to the city and its robust Hispanic American community.
Rossi will present her with a Puerto Rican flag and a mayoral citation for her myriad good works.
Diaz will also receive a black jacket embroidered with her new title: Hispanic American of the Year.
The cultural event will include remarks from mayoral Executive Assistant Lou Esposito, the master of ceremonies. Before a blessing, Maribel Aguilar-Meza will sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the Puerto Rican national anthem, “La Borinqueña,” followed by a greeting from Rossi.
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, Nancy Cruz, Diaz said she knew early on that she wanted to help make a difference in her community.
Diaz’s community involvement began in 1985 as a volunteer for the American Red Cross helping veterans at the West Haven Veterans Affairs Hospital.
Three years later, she graduated from The Sound School, a regional vocational aquaculture center in New Haven. She earned an associate degree in science from Gateway Community College in 1993.
Diaz, a 27-year employee of Yale University, is a clinical trials research recruitment coordinator at the Yale Center for Clinical Investigation, a department of the Yale School of Medicine. She specializes in educating area residents on the importance of increasing minority representation in clinical trial studies and protecting their privacy and rights.
Diaz’s contributions to West Haven include serving as vice chair of the Charter Revision Commission and sitting on the Board of Fire Commissioners of the City of West Haven Fire Department Allingtown. She is the first Hispanic to serve on the fire commission and was its chairwoman in 2016-17.
Diaz 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.
She lives with her mother on Tuthill Street in Allingtown and has two grown children, Mark Anthony and Jessica Goodwin.
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