As Naomy De Peña was being sworn in as the first Latina Deputy Mayor in Belleville’s history, she reflected on her journey that started during her childhood in a remote area of the Dominican Republic.
She called it a “surreal” moment to be standing in front of a crowd that included 20 or so friends and family members, several township workers and North Arlington Mayor Daniel H. Pronti.
Assemblyman Jamel Holley administered the oath at the Belleville Town Council’s annual reorganization.
From the moment this daughter of missionaries came to Belleville at 16, De Peña says she has been on a quest to serve the township with all of her heart.
“I never set out to make history,” she said at last Thursday’s swearing-in. “I never set out to be a trailblazer in any way. I am the daughter of missionaries and we’ve been taught to serve.”
And yet, she continues to make history and pave the way for other Latinas.
Although the deputy mayor position is largely ceremonial, the person who holds it is called upon to attend events the mayor cannot, participate in conference calls, make presentations, give speeches, perform marriages and even swear in other township officials.
And it didn’t take long for De Peña to do just that.
In her first official act as deputy mayor, she swore in Steven J. Martino as township attorney.
While De Peña, who came to the United States as an ESL student and is of Puerto Rican and Dominican heritage, she humbly accepted the mantle of trailblazer on Thursday as others offered praise for her leadership, dedication and character.
“Diversity is important,” Holley said. “Diversity is something we should all be focusing on because it matters who represents you. It matters that individuals who may not look like us have representation, too. And, the deputy mayor does that. Many young girls and many young boys of Latino descent need to know there are individuals who do look like them and can represent them. You are demonstrating that today by stepping into this role.”
De Peña’s parents, the Rev. Luis and Teresa Fernandez, were missionaries who volunteered to provide medical assistance and other critical help in rural, impoverished areas of the Dominican Republic, where life can be a daily struggle for survival.
They sat in the front row along with her husband, Allen, and their children, Caleb and Chloe.
De Peña and her husband are small business owners in Belleville. Through the Zentai Martial Arts and after-school program, she serves the community as a mentor for at-risk youth.
“Naomy has been a tireless champion for this township and I couldn’t be prouder that she is our first Latina deputy mayor,” Mayor Michael Melham said. “She has made history here today.”
The two previous deputy mayors, Thomas Graziano and Vinny Cozzarelli, wished De Peña luck in her new role. Both said at Thursday’s meeting that Melham often encouraged them to contribute in the best ways they could. Cozzarelli drew from his experience in planning and construction, while Graziano used his expertise to tackle several IT issues in town hall.
“A year ago, I was honored to fill Vinny’s shoes and I just want to say to the mayor that I hope I fulfilled the duties of deputy mayor,” Graziano said. “I hope I represented the township council and the town well. And, most of all, good luck Naomy.
“I know you are going to do great things.”
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Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.