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Margarita DeLeón: Her life and career link Lorain with Toledo, México with Puerto Rico

By Alan Abrams
La Prensa Senior Correspondent

Latina community activist Margarita DeLeón is itching to tell a story that has rarely been told.

It is the tale of how Lorain developed a strong, thriving, and vibrant Puerto Rican community, and DeLeón agrees that it cries out to be remembered.

“I was born and raised in Lorain . My parents, Gumersindo and Eleonor Pagán DeLeón, were both from Puerto Rico . My father was part of a group of 500 men who came to Lorain in 1947-48 after having been recruited in Puerto Rico to work in the steel 

mills of Lorain . These men were the founders of the Puerto Rican colony in Lorain . Their story deserves to be preserved,” says DeLeón.

Her parents have told DeLeón how people in Lorain wondered if the imported Puerto Rican workers were even civilized. The men were recruited and brought to Lorain by the National Tube Co., a subsidiary of US Steel. The company thought the men would make ideal blast furnace workers as they would have become used to heat after living on the island.

According to an on line history of Lorain , this was not an isolated case. National Tube Co. in Lorain had already recruited approximately 1,300 Mexicans in 1923 to work in the mills.

“My dad arrived in Lorain with the others on cargo planes. Many of the men had brought their animals with them, and my dad remembers them roaming all over the plane,” says DeLeón.

She was one of 14 children, of which eight were female. They range in age today from 52 to 31. DeLeón is in the top third, as the fifth oldest.

Three of her sisters live in Lorain, as do two of her brothers—including Willie, a popular DJ. Four sisters and a brother, Sammy, live in Cleveland. Sammy is a recording artist and the leader of a successful salsa orchestra. DeLeón also has a brother in Houston, one in Kansas City, Kansas, and another in Kissimee, Florida, near Orlando.

DeLeón came to Northwest Ohio to attend Bowling Green State University, and coincidentally, that’s where her husband Sylvester Duran Jr., son of the highly acclaimed Tejano DJ, also went to school. “I tell people I’m very lucky, it [BGSU] kind of chose me,” says DeLeón.

“I really didn’t have much direction. My parents had not graduated from high school but they were strong believers in education.  I was educated in Catholic grade schools in the community.

“There weren’t any Spanish church services so someone was sent in by the missionary service and Most Blessed Trinity.  Most Puerto Ricans were Catholics and attended Sacred Heart Chapel. I grew up in the church. My parents were devout and I said the Rosary every night. I joined Catholic youth organizations and went to their summer camps. We were a very close-knit Puerto Rican community. We had our foods. We spoke Spanish. We celebrated our holidays,” recalls DeLeón.

“I was a very bright student and my counselors and teachers encouraged me along the way. I was invited to visit Bowling Green State University in my student year, and my girlfriend and I drove there,” remembers DeLeón.

That summer after her high school graduation, she went to San Diego, California with her best girlfriend María Sánchez, whose sister lived there. DeLeón stayed there for three months. Sánchez still lives in San Diego, and the two have remained close friends.

What brought DeLeón back to Ohio? She had been offered a full ride to BGSU. And she had a boyfriend back home and missed him. DeLeón did more than just meet her husband at BGSU, she graduated from BGSU with her Master’s Degree in 1981. She also earned a Master’s from the University of Toledo in 2000.

After graduating from BGSU, DeLeón went to Laredo, Texas where Sylvester’s family lived. During the year she lived there, she worked in TV and for the Laredo News as a reporter.

She came back to Toledo in 1983 where she got what she now calls her “first real job. It was at La Raza Unida de Ohio, a precursor to Rural Opportunities. I did outreach for workers and wrote the newsletter.

“I also helped Lincoln Payne create a half-hour documentary, Chicanos in Ohio, for BGSU-TV. I spent nine days in Lorain for the Novena Guadeloupe. The documentary was shown on PBS nationally. It was my first venture into the migrant population,” says DeLeón.

“Later, I found myself holding down two part-time jobs. One was at Riverside Hospital, and the other was at WNWO-TV, Channel 24, where I was one of three Latino reporters. Celso Rodríguez and Rebecca Aguilar were the others.

“Then Riverside offered me a full-time with good pay, and I moved to the health care field for 17-and-a-half years, working mainly in public relations. My employers really funded and supported my interest in community service. The CEO, Carroll Ashley, sent me to the National Leadership Institute in 1992 at a cost of $10,000 after I asked if I could attend. I’ve never been afraid to ask,” says DeLeón.

DeLeón co-started Image of Northwest Ohio in 1986. That came about because DeLeón had a friend in Cleveland. The city had a large chapter and the national organization was holding their convention there. So DeLeón attended with her friend. “I knew we needed Latino organizations so it really appealed to me,” says DeLeón.

This was DeLeón’s first venture into the national Latino picture. The experience she gained from a national perspective was put to good use when she brought nationally known speakers, such as Henry Cisneros, to Toledo. “I learned that everyone is approachable, you have the right to approach them and ask them anything,” says DeLeón. In fact, this trait soon became her trademark.

“I believe in tenacity. The secret is asking more than once, asking the right way, asking at the right time and not being afraid to ask,” she explains.

DeLeón helped launch the first Diamante Awards in 1989—the same year that La Prensa was established. “Mario Martínez of OBES was president of Image at the time. They’ve always had strong leadership on through to Robert Torres serving as president. I proposed that we do some recognition. Sandy Barrientos of the University of Toledo came up with the name. And it really evolved from there,” says DeLeón.

It wasn’t long before DeLeón realized that if the scholarship program was going to succeed, it needed partnerships. UT and BGSU were committed to giving $5,000 per three year scholarship for three years. “But we needed bigger collaboration and bigger money. Now we have five institutions at the table: Lourdes College, the Medical College of Ohio, BGSU, UT, and Owens Community College. And we have $123,000 from all five in combined scholarships. And on the private sector, Owens Corning and National City have given $75,000 each for a total of $150,000,” says DeLeón.

The 2005 scholarship dinner will be held at Lourdes in September.

But DeLeón has much more to be proud about. This year will mark the fifth LatinoFest, which will be held June 11 and 12. DeLeón credits Consuelo Hernández of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library and Celso Rodríguez for their leadership roles.

“Northwest Ohio is Tejano Country, so LatinoFest attendees will celebrate Tejano Sunday this year,” says DeLeón, who admits that before she net her husband, she had never been to a Mexican dance. Also, now will be the participation of the Sofia Quintero Art & Cultural Center, says DeLeón.

Another cause dear to DeLeón’s heart is the Youth Summit, now in its third year. “The Youth Summit has grown constantly. Attendance started at 500, reached 600 last year, and now we’re hoping for 700. UT has been supportive as has been Michelle Martínez, who is in charge of curriculum for Latino kids in the 7th to 12th grades. This year we’ll have engineering projects, and acting. The date is May 10 at UT with Parent’s Night on May 9,” says DeLeón.

She has also been encouraging younger professionals, such as those who started the LUACC chapter [See related story.]

DeLeón’s term on the city’s Hispanic Affairs Commission has just ended. She credits President David Ibarra for many of the positive changes, which have also been stimulated by Robert Torres as director.

She has been a member of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority for a year-and-a-half and feels she’s made a difference in the areas of economic empowerment as well as in opening bids and construction for Latinos.

DeLeón’s magazine ¡Bravo! is now in its eighth year, its third as a magazine. DeLeón admits it has been an uphill challenge but she continues to persevere.

DeLeón and her husband have been married for 20 years, but have been together for 28, They have three children. The oldest, Sylvestre Roberto, 18, graduates from St. Francis HS in June and is currently deciding what college he’ll attend. He is a member of the National Honor Society and LASSO, maintaining a 4.0 average. That’s not at all surprising when you remember that DeLeón’s consuming passion is education.

Their other children are José Antonio, 15, a freshman at St. Francis HS, and daughter Elija Mercedes, 14, who, after she graduates from Gesu, will attend Notre Dame Academy next year.  DeLeón said the three enjoy all the benefits of DeLeón’s Puerto Rican heritage along with the Mexican culture of their father.

But above all is Margarita’s loyalty to Mayor Jack Ford. “He has done so much for the Latino community. He has supported and encouraged Latinos to run for office by his counsel and often his money. Jack Ford has enabled us to have representation at the table that no other mayor has. He has opened the door for Latinos to bid on contracts and be part of the purchasing procedure.  He is always looking for ways to support us,” says DeLeón.

Editor’s Note: Gene Rivera and the late Frank Jacinto, both of Lorain, have spent time and energy reporting the exodus from México to Lorain in the 1920s or from Puerto Rico to Lorain during the late 1940s, to work in the Lorain steel mills.






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