WIMAUMA — In her hometown of Caguas, in the mountainous and central region of Puerto Rico, Ileana Cintrón learned the value of work and the need for opportunities to improve one’s life.
The lessons came from her family.
Her father, Amilcar Cintrón, was a respected endocrinologist who worked up to 18 hours a day caring for patients. Her mother, Ana Hilda Aguilu, was a physical and occupational therapist dedicated to her profession.
The couple met in the late 1960s in Colombia while studying and working in their fields.
“They never let the opportunities go by,” said Cintrón, 48. “For me, that meant from a very young age to appreciate things in a different way.”
Since October 2018, Cintrón has been the deputy director of Enterprising Latinas, a nonprofit organization founded a decade ago by Liz Gutierrez. The group develops and manages opportunities for Hispanic women to improve their lives in Wimauma, one of the most impoverished areas in the region.
More than 75 percent of people in Wimauma are Hispanic. Average annual income is $12,290 for women, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That compares with $19,550 for men and $31,173 per capita countywide. Nearly one in four people here live in poverty and 44 percent of those 25 and older lack a high school degree.
To close gaps and open new doors to opportunities, Enterprising Latinas organizes workforce and business development courses, food service management and other training, including computer basics, financial literacy and technology initiatives.
Last year, the organization launched a program to provide free Wi-Fi in the community by installing nine antennas to serve, at first, businesses along State Road 674 — Wimauma’s main road. The businesses, in turn, make the free service available to customers and about 25 neighboring families.
A month ago, the program expanded the service to 450 families after three local institutions — Reddick Elementary School, La Estancia Apartments and The Groves at Wimauma apartments — okayed the installation of more towers and antennas on their property.
“The opportunity is here in Wimauma because there is so much to do,’' Cintrón said. “In that sense, our growth has been extremely positive. That makes me very happy and we know we are heading in the right direction.”
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The nonprofit operates on annual revenues of $1.5 million. About three-fourths comes from private contributions and one-fourth from government grants.
Cintrón graduated with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Latin American studies from Yale University in 1994. She also earned a master’s degree in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Her leadership, high academic standing and expertise are driving changes in the community to educate and raise awareness among the women of Wimauma on issues such as disparities in wages and wealth.
In Puerto Rico, Cintrón graduated with honors from Notre Dame Catholic High School, founded in the early 20th century by the Redemptorist Missionaries and the Sisters of Notre Dame. There she learned to take responsibility and action for the improvement of the living conditions of the poor.
Cintrón graduated from high school in 1990 and enrolled at Yale. Later, she headed back to Puerto Rico. On the island, Cintrón went to work with the older of her two brothers, Amilcar, a historian and university professor, and sister-in-law Lourdes Lara in the founding of Corporation for the Support of Educational and Community Programs.
The group operated from 1998 to 2010. It provided consulting and training to community organizations, government and private entities. The focus was community development, civic participation and alternative education, Cintrón said.
“There were many other projects of social scope that we now see here, in Wimauma, and that are focused on supporting the family and the social economy,” Cintrón said.
In 2007 Cintrón decided to explore new options in her career. She accepted a job in Boston to work at the Community Training and Assistance Center, where she met Gutierrez. Under her four-year tenure, Cintrón administered small grants programs and technical assistance for at least 15 community organizations per year across the northeast.
Cintrón held various leadership positions in social and educational outreach groups and organizations in Cambridge, Mass., including Access Strategies Fund and Jobin-Leeds Partnership for Democracy and Education between 2011 and 2018. In both groups, Cintrón led initiatives to promote the participation of more women of color in politics.
In 2014, Cintrón was accepted at Harvard to study for a Master’s degree in public administration.
“The experience at Harvard was extraordinary. I learned a lot from colleagues doing interesting work in politics, business and activism,” Cintrón said. “I also learned a lot from the latest research on the field of cultural and racial diversity and inequality, which we see framing the Black Lives Matter protests.”
After Harvard, Cintrón faced a new challenge: She was hired to help improve the performance of the Holyoke Public Schools in western Massachusetts, where more than 79 percent were Latino students.
There, she promoted community and family engagement initiatives on early literacy, attendance and parent leadership. She also launched an initiative to deepen community participation, equity and diversity of voices in public education. Finally, Cintrón developed assistance programs to support the students and their families who arrived from Puerto Rico after Hurricane María in 2017.
“In this school district I was faced with a unique reality, but above all with generational poverty and marginalization,” Cintrón said.
Her work in Wimauma is similar to the challenges she has encountered in her career before, Cintrón said, but nothing quite like the coronavirus pandemic. Now, Cintron coordinates Enterprising Latinas’ health programs to help people in Wimauma.
Teresita Matos-Post, executive director of the Beth-EL Farmworker Ministry in Wimauma, said Cintrón has made invaluable efforts to keep the community informed and proactive in containing the spread of coronavirus.
“She has been relentless and thorough in keeping all of us community leaders well informed about the COVID-19 trends in our area,” Matos-Post said. “Her work has made it easier for me to acclimate to the hard realities our families face.”
Cintrón said that despite the difficulties, Wimauma will get ahead.
“Hope is cultivated here,” she said. “That is what we live on.”