East Harlem Loses Beloved Community Leader

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by Megan Bungeroth

Last week, residents of East Harlem gathered at a memorial to honor Yolanda Sanchez, who passed away on June 11. Hundreds of people turned out to mourn the passing of a dedicated community activist who worked her entire life to promote local political involvement and activism.

Over a 50-year career in public service, Sanchez helped found the Puerto Rican Association for Community Affairs and became its executive director. She also helped create the Taino Towers housing, the Boriken Health Center and Casabe Houses for the elderly.

Friends of Sanchez, 80, remembered her as a tireless advocate not only for the Puerto Rican and Latino communities but for all of East Harlem.

"I met Yolanda back in 1967, when I began the Puerto Rican Association for Community Affairs. We were friends ever since," said Arnie Segara. "She was the Rosa Parks of East Harlem. There hasn't been an issue that has dealt with the Puerto Rican/Latino community in the last half-century that she did not have some kind of an input in."

Jaime Estades, who worked with Sanchez as a board member of the Latino Leadership Institute, remembers that she worked to encourage grantmaking institutions to give more grants to Latino nonprofit organizations. When she was working to open the Taino Towers, she negotiated with Republicans-including Mitt Romney's father, George Romney, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development at the time, and Sen. Jacob Javits-during the Nixon administration, using her voice to bring opposing sides together and eventually achieve her goals.

"She was an East Harlem community hero-and nationwide-due to her leadership," Estades said.

She also worked across cultural boundaries. Irish-born theater director Aedin Moloney said she struck up an immediate friendship with Sanchez when they were working on a play about the elderly. Moloney's company, Fallen Angels, donates portions of its box office proceeds to related organizations, and she was impressed by Sanchez's work with the elderly.

"Not only did she run an amazing tight ship up there in East Harlem, but she encouraged all these program for the residents'older teenage grandchildren to participate with them. She had the foresight to see that and it really did work," said Moloney.

She said she and Sanchez were working on researching how the Irish and Puerto Rican communities were historically connected, and that they became great friends in a short time.

"She was a terrific lady, an example not just to the Latino community, but certainly to all women, an example to all immigrants and all New Yorkers," Moloney said. "She had a huge appetite for improving the quality of life for those that needed it."

Local State Sen. José Serrano passed a resolution honoring Sanchez after her death.

"Yolanda was a true pioneer in the Puerto Rican community, and served as not only an example but as an inspiration to everyone with whom she came in contact," Serrano said in a statement. "Her commitment to service is what led many of our current generation of Latino leaders to get involved in social and public service."

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