Meet the co-director of Jobs With Justice in Florida who’s been standing up for the rights of Latino and Puerto Rican workers for the past 13 years.
Denise Díaz knows firsthand the pain and frustration thousands of people are experiencing in the United States in light of the protests arising from the homicide of George Floyd in Minneapolis. And the need for change.
Denise has not only felt racism and discrimination as a Puerto Rican growing up in Chicago — along with her community — but also through her work as co-director of Jobs With Justice in Florida.
“As an Afro-Latina and Afro-Puertorriqueña, the first thing I see is that Black people are the target of the police. Black people face violence in this country, and it needs to stop. What we are seeing now is all the anger and pain communities have been dealing with for so many years. I think it is necessary to express these feelings, and I’m hopeful this cry becomes a call for change in our system, in our country, on how we treat Black people,” says Denise.
Through her work in Orlando, Denise also understands how Puerto Ricans suffer racism not only because of the color of their skin but also because of their nationality and Spanish language.
“Many Puerto Ricans come here and say they feel discrimination for the first time. They talk about how they can’t speak their language at work. That was another shock for me. Florida is part of the South, and racism is very present,” the activist says.
Born and raised in Chicago of Puerto Rican parents, Denise grew up with the impulse to help and work for her community.
When she was in high school, she saw a counselor and talked about her dream of becoming a teacher or cop to help her community.
“The counselor told me ‘you have the power,’ and I said, ‘oh no, I don’t.’ But he was like, ‘yeah, you really want power for your community.’ I had never thought about other ways in which I could help; the counselor recommended I study political science. I always wanted to empower people; I was always against injustice.”
Denise ended up completing a Bachelor in Political Science with a focus on race relations at the University of Illinois.
From then on she assumed a lifestyle of activism, lending support to issues affecting the Latino community.
In 2007 Denise moved to Orlando to join a division of the national non-profit organization Jobs With Justice. She met many different kinds of Puerto Ricans through her work.
“When I moved to Orlando, I thought, ‘here is my Puerto Rican community.’ There are Puerto Ricans from everywhere: the island, New York, Connecticut. Some have lived here for many years. I was amazed to understand how we can sustain many differences and similarities at the same time. We can have different political views, but when we hear ‘bomba,’ we come together” says Denise, who is also mother to three children.
As co-director of Jobs With Justice, the activist ensures workers in the Latino community receive equal treatment and pay, among other rights.
In 2013, her work as a civil-rights activist was recognized with mention by the U.S. Congress.
“My name was submitted into the Library of Congress. I was speechless. It wasn’t until I arrived in Orlando that I really connected with the community. It was an honor, not just for me, but for my Puerto Rican people. Every time I’m recognized, I feel pride in being Puerto Rican. That was one of those moments when I felt like that.”
Denise is aware of the needs Puerto Ricans have in Orlando and notices how those who arrived after Hurricane Maria experience a different kind of struggle. Among the main problems they face are expensive housing, prejudice at the workplace when they speak Spanish, and difficulties navigating disorganized bureaucracy.
“After Maria, you see more discrimination against Puerto Ricans. It’s not just a matter of Mexicans and Puerto Ricans taking over jobs. The migration of Puerto Ricans to Orlando is changing the demographics.”