Milagros Méndez was raised in Santo Domingo and came to New York City in 1963. Ms. Méndez completed a Master of Arts degree in Bilingual Education at The City College of New York and a Bachelor of Science in Accounting from Hunter College, as well as an Associate Degree in Applied Sciences from Borough of Manhattan Community College. "The Bachelor of Science took nine years because I was working full time and could only go part time. It was complicated to get more credits." At the same time, Ms. Méndez studied for the CPA (Certified Public Accountant) Test until she passed it. "Constant studying," she remembers.
Ms. Méndez taught ESL and mathematics to sixth and seventh graders from 1988 until 1993. For most of her adult life, she worked as an accountant. That included keeping the books at the United Nations Department of Public Information and Publications for 15 years.
I ask Ms. Méndez how the Dominican experience has informed her work. "It was more obvious when I started teaching ESL because I completely identified with the children I was teaching. I came to the country in 1963. I was in the same position they were. When I was teaching them English, I understood what their needs were. I felt like I was going through it all over again. I could teach them better because of that, and help them to get to know the city and become familiar with the culture."
A love of learning was inculcated in Ms. Méndez from an early age by her parents and teachers. "I was raised in a nuns' school from kindergarten. They were real disciplinarians. I started to learn discipline early in life, from my parents also. I learned the desire to advance and make something of yourself regardless of where your parents are from. They really inspired us to study and read in order to have a stable adulthood. I'm still studying. I've always been studying. I just can't stop. My parents' influence was crucial in my development as a young person, as an adult."
Since retiring in 2008, Ms. Méndez has kept busy. "I just finished a program at NYU to become a court interpreter. I passed the written exams for federal and New Jersey courts and the written and orals for New York State. I now have to study for the Federal and New Jersey oral exams." Not bad for someone who took up studying to become an interpreter just a year ago.
Ms. Méndez, who is qualified to do simultaneous translation between English and Spanish (and vice versa), believes anyone can do what she does, given the proper training. "Anybody can be a brain surgeon if they are exposed to the training. It's just a matter of wanting to do it and getting the training. Everything takes time. If you expose a child to an experience, it's very different from not exposing him at all. If you never expose a child to a piano, you will never know—they could be a genius at hitting those keys."
Ms. Méndez is looking forward to working as a court interpreter, where she will interpret between judges, lawyers, witnesses, and defendants. She will begin looking for work as soon as she passes the oral exams for the federal and New Jersey court systems.
"I always had that inclination that I could serve the Spanish population as a conduit in the legal process. I was always interested in that. It was the system that made me have that inclination to be an instrument.
"The challenge of being able to perform, being well-prepared is important to me. I'm very demanding on myself. I would like to know that if I'm going to take over a certain position, I will be well-prepared."
Early in her career, Ms. Méndez worked as an accountant for brokers on Wall Street. "One adjustment was getting used to people looking at you differently. Years ago, there was more of a discriminatory attitude toward minorities. I never felt discriminated against deliberately. Even if I was, I tried to do my best. Later, at the UN, it was a different environment. It was a lot easier for people to not discriminate and accept others from other races, from minority groups. At the beginning I felt there was a different attitude toward minorities. For those who are sensitive it must have been hurtful, but for me, I just let it slide. I just thought about the American Indians and what they had to go through."
I ask Ms. Méndez to tell me about her proudest accomplishment. "When I was a teacher, I felt that was a really special experience. It brought me into contact with people who had similar experiences. I became aware of the administration and the teachers' union. I had meetings with the principal and got better at controlling the classroom. I started noticing particular behaviors of the administration. I tried to question the administration and that was really when the axman came. I felt that people were offended. I was inspired to leave the system and leave the school. It was a life-changing moment. I was inspired to participate as a candidate in school board elections and was elected and stayed for three terms, from 1993 to 1999. It was a very rewarding experience. It made me more involved in the community, the actions of the board and the superintendents. I felt I had more of an influence on the decisions at that time. It was a life-changing experience because it brought me into contact with more people in the community, including different groups, neighborhood associations, parents and students. It was really rewarding to know and find out about what was going on and to be part of that group. It was very, very interesting."
Ms. Méndez's advice to the young? "The advice I still give to any young person is, I tell them to study and be consistent in their goals, to have a goal and study to achieve it. It doesn't matter what the goal is; they don't have to be astronauts, doctors, lawyers. As long as they receive training for a profession or a position that is going to help them be stable as adults, financially and culturally. They can have the freedom of being educated and having a stable financial situation. I'm also co-founder of the Asociación de Mujeres Progresistas. Most of the members are women in Hamilton Heights, Washington Heights, and Inwood. We focus on making women aware of possibilities for acquiring knowledge so they can transmit this to the younger generation. Especially young girls—we want them to know that they can become mothers and also become professionals. If they are independent, they can choose a partner with more sensible criteria. It doesn't put as much pressure on them to choose somebody who is going to satisfy their needs; they can choose based on other criteria. I don't mean that the partners don't have to also be educated and financially stable, but at least that won't be the main reason. Through this association we try to instill in women self-esteem and knowledge. We have various activities throughout the year." The organization will celebrate its twenty-first anniversary with a gala on November 14.