Jessica Mayorga has not been a full-time resident of New Haven for even 14 days, but she is already serving as the voice of a mayor who has been in office for more than 14 years.
She steps into the job of mayoral spokeswoman at a critical time for Mayor John DeStefano Jr., who has drawn political heat in recent weeks following the arrest of two New Haven Police Department officers last month. The appointment of Mayorga, the 1997 Miss Cuba, may also help DeStefano win the support of Latinos in New Haven, though some members of the community expressed doubt that a new spokeswoman can change the political allegiances of neighborhoods that have not had historically strong relationships with City Hall.
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Mayorga represents an eclectic mix of cultures herself — Cuban, Chinese and Colombian — and her fluency in Spanish, Portuguese and German has given DeStefano newfound flexibility to tackle the daunting task of reaching out to communities that, in the past, have not seen the city as an ally.
“[My background] makes me very excited and interested in learning about other cultures, other people and ways of life,” Mayorga said on her fifth day on the job. “It brings me closer to my roots. Being Cuban doesn’t just mean being Cuban. It means being of African descent, it means being of Spanish descent … the mix is beautiful, and I can appreciate it first hand.”
In his press release announcing her appointment, DeStefano said Mayorga brings experience working with Latino communities and “impressive policy and communications experience that will be a valuable asset.”
DeStefano’s most recent attempts to address such cultural issues within the Elm City are perhaps best exemplified in his friendly immigration policies, which have attracted national attention but may be less familiar in the neighborhoods they are designed to help.
While John Padilla, one of the founders of the Progreso Latino Fund, said Mayorga’s appointment will help the mayor’s relationship with the Latino community, he was skeptical that she can bring about the changes truly desired by Latinos within the city, namely more jobs. He also said that the mayor should not need to rely on a Spanish-speaking spokeswoman to make strides in reaching out to Latinos.
“It could be a white spokesperson, an African-American spokesperson,” he said. “If there’s an interest in outreach to communities, it should be done … I don’t think a spokesperson in and of itself makes change.”
But Mayorga — who speaks particularly quickly in conversations about City Hall policies and appears already at home with her brand new Blackberry — thinks it can. She cites her experiences already in communicating with the city’s Spanish-speaking press, which might not otherwise hear the mayor’s message.
“I think I can help in building that bridge and breaking that language barrier,” she said. “It’s an avenue for us to better reach Spanish-speaking residents in New Haven with messages from the Mayor’s Office and the city who may not speak English and may not receive the message otherwise.”
Mayorga’s friends say she has a passion particularly for education and for the inclusion of Latinos in the political process.
A graduate of the Harvard School of Education, Mayorga has visited schools throughout the country as a spokesperson for the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. The former national president of a sorority for Latino students has also been the host of a Spanish language radio show, for which she conducted specials on topics ranging from gang violence to natural disasters.
She got her first taste of policy and communications at the age of 12, as a reporter and later an editor for the Children’s Express News Service, a national newspaper written and edited by youth.
Mayorga’s husband described the position of DeStefano’s spokesman — held by three different people since February — as a natural extension of her personality and lifelong interests.
“She’s a firecracker,” said her husband of about one year, Hector Rivera, a Harvard Medical School student who will be serving his residency at Yale-New Haven Hospital. “When you get her fired up on an issue, she will let her presence and her opinion be known.”
Mayorga’s friends said DeStefano will also benefit from her loyalty. Independently, both Rivera and a longtime friend, Leonora Hansford, described Mayorga as a “pit bull.” While short in stature, they said, she is the first to challenge anyone who threatens her close friends’ dignity.
When a man at a bar took her husband’s coat, Rivera said, she tried to pick a fight with the man over her husband’s objections.
“If anybody is bothering me in any way or she feels that they’re a threat, she’ll be the first person to come to my side at 5’ 3”, even though I’m 5 or 6 inches taller than her,” Hansford said. “I look at her like, ‘What are you going to do? You’re like 90 pounds max — how are you going to protect me? But it doesn’t matter, because that’s just how she is.”
Referring to the mayor, “He’s in good hands, trust me, he’s in very good hands.”
Being DeStefano’s spokesperson has carried a not-so-shabby career payoff lately: Derek Slap, who held the job earlier this year, is now chief of staff for the Connecticut Secretary of State, and acting spokesman and Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Smuts ’01 became Chief Administrative Officer Monday.
And as Mayorga’s husband contemplates his impending move from Boston to New Haven — and the moves that may follow — he said that she might not stop at City Hall.
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” he says, “if she takes over the country.”