By Michael P. Walsh
Special to the Voice
Dr. Ralph L. Padilla, a respected Puerto Rican veterinarian known for giving back to West Haven and its proud Hispanic American community, received the city’s first Hispanic American of the Year award Friday at the inaugural Hispanic Heritage Celebration.
Mayor Nancy R. Rossi and the new West Haven Hispanic Heritage Committee recognized Padilla, who has owned and operated the West Haven Animal Clinic at 959 Campbell Ave. for 33 years, during a midday ceremony on the steps of City Hall.
The committee plans to bestow the award annually on a Hispanic resident, or couple, who personifies service in West Haven’s thriving Hispanic American community.
At the half-hour event, Padilla, 65, honored his Puerto Rican lineage with dozens of friends, staff and furry clients, as well as loved ones, including his wife of 34 years, the former Yvette Solomon, and his sister.
He was also joined by an array of dignitaries, including state Rep. Michael A. DiMassa, D-West Haven, City Clerk Deborah Collins and Tax Collector Dorothy Chambrelli, along with descendants of folks from Puerto Rico and Latin America.
As the award’s first recipient, Padilla told the crowd that it was fitting he received the honor from the city’s first female mayor. He then thanked his wife and late parents, his staff, his brother and sister, and the residents who have entrusted his care of their pets.
“I also want to thank the Hispanic community,” Padilla said. “I am deeply honored for the award.”
Before the ceremony, he said: “I have always taken pride in my heritage and my profession, and I have tried to give back as much as I have received. West Haven has been very good to me and my family.”
A post-event, Latin-flavored lunch was catered by culinary arts instructor Andrew Randi and students of the culinary arts program at Gateway Community College 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 ended 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 service. They have enhanced and shaped the national character with centuries-old traditions that reflect 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, Chile and Belize also celebrate their independence days during that period.
The term Hispanic, or Latino, 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.”
West Haven’s diversity is its strength, Rossi said, and Padilla is a testament to the American dream.
She said he epitomizes the noble qualities of serving his community and carrying on the spirited traditions of Puerto Rico.
Padilla’s good works practicing veterinary medicine include aiding the West Haven Animal Shelter in times of need. Working for the shelter pro bono, he has been its go-to veterinarian for dealing with the prevention and treatment of diseases and injuries in animals, both domestic and wild.
A mentor to many young, aspiring veterinarians who have interned in his office, the humble, casually dressed Padilla lives by the Golden Rule: Treat others how you want to be treated.
Rossi lauded the civic-minded Padilla, whom she called “a man of integrity and wisdom,” for his wholehearted devotion to the city and its vibrant Hispanic American community.
She presented him with a Puerto Rican flag and a black jacket embroidered with his new title: Hispanic American of the Year.
Rossi also read a mayoral citation praising Padilla’s “enduring contributions.”
“As a Puerto Rican business owner and resident of West Haven, your remarkable story is treasured by our city,” she said. “I am grateful for your contributions in shaping the tapestry of our Hispanic American community and the narrative of our city.”
The cultural event included remarks from mayoral Executive Assistant Lou Esposito, the master of ceremonies. Before a Hispanic blessing by Victor M. Borras of Gateway Christian Fellowship, Maribel Aguilar-Meza sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the Puerto Rican national anthem, “La Borinquena.”
Padilla was born in New York City in 1953 to Ralph L. Padilla, a World War II veteran who served at age 16 in the U.S. Army Tank Corps in the Philippines, and the former Adelaide Rubino, a homemaker.
After the war, his father, a native of Naranjito, Puerto Rico, was one of the first Puerto Ricans to serve on the New York City Police Department, retiring after a decorated career of 28 years.
Padilla is a graduate of Archbishop Stepinac High School, an all-boys Catholic school in White Plains, New York. He earned an associate degree from the State University of New York at Farmingdale, a bachelor’s from Cornell University, and a doctorate in veterinary medicine from the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
After receiving his veterinary license in 1981, Padilla worked at Fairport Animal Hospital in Bridgeport until 1985. In March of that year, he moved to West Haven and purchased the West Haven Animal Clinic, across the street from the Veterans Affairs Hospital.
He is a longtime member of the Connecticut Veterinary Medical Association, the New Haven County Veterinary Medical Association and the Fairfield County Veterinary Medical Association.
Padilla and his wife live on Ocean Avenue in West Shore. They have three children — Kurt L. Padilla, 33, Anna L. Padilla, 32, and Gregory J. Padilla, 27 — and a 2-month-old granddaughter, Neave M. Padilla.