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OPINION

A new generation of Latinas takes political power in Chelsea

Powerhouse Gladys Vega has been cultivating emerging Latina politicians among those closest to her. Three of Vega’s relatives plus one of her employees recently got elected to municipal office.

Norieliz De Jesus, Kelly García, Melinda Vega Maldonado, and Tanairi GarcíaHandout

It’s no secret that Gladys Vega is a Chelsea powerhouse. The Latina community activist has been recognized with several accolades and awards. And it’s no surprise why: As the leader of La Colaborativa, Vega quickly emerged as a heroine for her outstanding leadership responding to the coronavirus crisis in this city of immigrants, which became the pandemic’s early local epicenter. Vega has been called “super woman” and the unofficial mayor of Chelsea. Many local leaders, including Governor Charlie Baker, recognize her fighting spirit and agree that to know Gladys is to fight Gladys.

Yet one remarkable narrative about Vega, who is from Puerto Rico, remains underreported. She has been cultivating emerging Latina politicians among those closest to her. And three of Vega’s relatives, plus one of her employees, recently got elected to municipal office. Chelsea voters elected Tanairi García, Vega’s niece, and Norieliz De Jesus, La Colaborativa’s director of policy and organizing, to the City Council’s District 7 and District 3 seats, respectively. Additionally, Vega’s daughter, Melinda, won reelection as District 2 councilor, while Kelly García, another niece of Vega’s, was reelected to the Chelsea School Committee.

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Gladys Vega, executive director of La Colaborativa, guides volunteers handing out boxes of food outside the Innes Apartments in Chelsea, November 2020.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

That Vega is these four politicians’ common denominator is a testament to her longstanding impact and influence in Chelsea, and to the flexing of Latino political power in a city where 67 percent of its residents are Hispanic. These Latinas, three of whom ran in contested races, represent the new generation of politicians in Chelsea.

Tanairi and Kelly are sisters, and they ran as the “García Sisters.” The four women often campaigned together and on behalf of one another. Vega’s daughter Melinda works at Neighborhood of Affordable Housing on environmental justice issues. “I was born and bred into this, right?” Melinda said. “Growing up being a Vega is being an activist.” Tanairi works at La Colaborativa as its food pantry director. “I was out in the streets feeding our community, and I saw that many city councilors were absent,” Tanairi told me. “Even though I wasn’t too fond of politics, my family was all about it. Since I was little, I don’t remember not holding a sign for a purpose or for somebody else. [During the pandemic,] I saw a huge gap and need, and I just said, ‘I’m going to run.’ ”

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Gladys played a role, of course. “I want to make sure every woman knows they have a place in society, especially us as women of color,” Gladys told me. “I give them the idea [of running for office], and then I hustle to raise money.” She laughs as she describes the long string of phone calls she makes to her many family members asking them for political donations. “Now they just answer, ‘Who’s running for office now?’ ” Gladys strongly believes in elevating Latinas. “A woman of color can conquer the world, especially Latinas. All they need is a little push.”

These Latinas’ style is to take charge and do the work themselves, which is admirable in a place like Chelsea, where the voice of Latinos can be hard to hear. Kelly, for instance, is a former special education teacher and now an administrator at Excel Academy. She said she was able to bring her classroom expertise to committee meetings and, at the peak of the pandemic, she persuaded her fellow committee members to make it optional for teachers to come to the classrooms to teach remotely.

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“We spent the entire pandemic assessing and addressing the needs of families hands-on,” said Norieliz, who started working for Vega when she was 14. “It touches you in a different way when you’re stepping into someone’s home and seeing firsthand the severity of the housing crisis on children. . . . And it was terrifying for me to think that I would miss this opportunity to take those stories firsthand to my municipality and be able to advocate for those families on a stronger level.”

Norieliz De Jesus of La Colaborativa led a March rally to protest the amount of federal aid earmarked for the hard-hit city of Chelsea in the $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus package. De Jesus was elected to the Chelsea City Council in November. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

I wondered if they had been criticized for nepotism. “If people are mad, they shouldn’t be mad,” Melinda said. “They should be scared.” Tanairi said the four women are a product of Vega’s work of 30-plus years in Chelsea.

Chelsea is still struggling: Food insecurity continues to be an issue, and the four leaders said they are worried about the rise in breakthrough COVID-19 infections. They would like to work together to open a youth center. With all of them helping shape policy decisions, it’s safe to say Chelsea is in good hands.


Marcela García can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa.