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Hispanic activist Anita de Palma of Clearwater dies at age 75

CLEARWATER — Hispanic activist Anita de Palma was so full of life that she needed two names to encompass all of the things that made her special.

As Rosario Anamaria Isabel Lourdes Mendez Gregory, she became an accomplished concert pianist and actress who spoke four languages and graduated from the Juilliard School. She performed in nightclubs around the country.

As a young woman, she developed an interest in politics that would eventually lead her to become Florida director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and run for Congress twice.

De Palma died Oct. 27. The Clearwater woman had earned a reputation as a role model who lived life to the fullest and always stood up for what she believed in.

While the funeral home and a newspaper funeral notice listed de Palma's age as 85, details from previous Tampa Bay Times stories would have placed her at 75 at her death.

"Anita was an icon," said LULAC national president Margaret Moran. "She was a trailblazer. She just had all this energy and was never afraid to speak out. ... She's going to be missed by all who knew her."

Born in New York to a Mexican father and a Scottish-English mother, de Palma moved to Clearwater in 1992 because her mother wanted to be buried with her family in Tampa.

Anita de Palma, she told the Times in a 2010 interview, was originally a stage name inherited from a husband she divorced in 1977. She continued using that name as well as Rosario Mendez.

De Palma got her first taste of politics when she volunteered during John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign, but her stage career kept her from doing anything about it.

That changed when she met the late Gabriel "Gabe" Cazares, former Clearwater mayor and Pinellas County commissioner, while volunteering on Bill Clinton's presidential campaign. He introduced her to LULAC, one of the largest and oldest Hispanic civil rights organizations in the United States.

De Palma was elected in 2003 to the state director post and served four years. Moran recalls that in addition to helping migrant workers and registering Florida's Puerto Rican population to vote, de Palma was an advocate for women.

"If she saw there was a need or the possibility that another woman could rise up," Moran said, "she was there to help."

De Palma ran for Congress in 2008, but lost in the Democratic primary. In 2010, she ran for the 9th Congressional District seat held by Republican Rep. Gus Bilirakis. She defeated another Democrat in the primary, but lost to Bilirakis in the general election. Her platform in that campaign included creating a point system toward citizenship for undocumented immigrants and a ban on the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

According to an obituary on the Moss Feaster Funeral Home website, de Palma's activism also included testifying before Congress on major health care and immigration issues and sitting on various groups that sought an end to domestic violence, child literacy and the transfer of American jobs overseas, among others.

In recent years, de Palma worked as a researcher at Nielsen Media Research, said co-worker Felipe Sepulveda. About six months ago, her health began to decline. She is survived by a nephew and cousin who live in Mexico.

"Everything she wanted to do, she did it," said Sepulveda, 61, of Holiday. "She was an example for all women, and she will be remembered forever."

Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or ksummers@tampabay.com.

If you go

Visitation for Anita de Palma will be held 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. Friday at the Moss Feaster Funeral Home, 693 S Belcher Road in Clearwater. Funeral services will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at the funeral home, followed by burial at the Pyramid Crypts Inc. Cemetery, 4655 East Lake Ave. in Tampa.

Hispanic activist Anita de Palma of Clearwater dies at age 75 11/05/12 [Last modified: Monday, November 5, 2012 9:46pm]
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