Merced County Times Newspaper
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Latina Women’s Luncheon honors local standouts


As a way to acknowledge and recognize the many amazing contributions of Latina women throughout Merced County, as well as adding to the overall spirit of Hispanic Heritage Month, the Merced County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce held the 2023 Latina Women’s Luncheon at the Mainzer Theatre this past Friday.

Attendees were able to enjoy lovely meals, refreshments, a number of speeches from notable women of the area, and the company of other passionate community members.

In the preceding months, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce collected a list of nominations of notable Latinas in the community that local residents believed should be recognized and awarded for their contributions. And, after deliberation and contemplating a list of potential choices, four women were eventually selected to be honored: Martha Kelly, Guadalupe Gonzalez, Daisy Perez and Michelle Sandoval.

Martha Kelly is currently the program coordinator for Catholic Charities Diocese of Stockton Environmental Justice Program. She is a native Mercedian who, despite facing a rough upbringing laden with numerous difficulties, would successfully graduate with an AA in psychology from Merced College and later a BA in sociology, all while raising two children and working full time. After that, she then began doing work as a social advocate and as an interpreter. Additionally, she serves the community through advocating for health access and awareness, social equity, and environmental justice.

Guadalupe Gonzalez is a victim witness advocate at the Merced District Attorneys Office. She grew up around the local farming communities, and gained a variety of experience in supporting those around her. Her primary focuses are on non-English speakers, because she has a deep, and personal, understanding of the many difficulties experienced by this population of people in the local region. She also is currently serving as president for the American Legion Auxiliary Unit 83, the chair for State District 12 Auxiliary Girls, treasurer of Journey for Justice Merced, and executive board member for AFSCME Local 2709.

Daisy Perez works as a marketing representative for TransCounty Title Company. She was born in Turlock, and moved to Coalcoman, Michoacan, Mexico early in her youth, then being raised there. At 18, she move back to the states to pursue her education. She then graduated from Shasta College with a degree in marketing/business. By the time she was 25, she became the primary guardian of her younger brother, which she described as being one the hardest and most rewarding experiences of her life.

Michelle Sandoval is the executive director of the Los Banos Chamber of Commerce. She and her son moved to Los Banos from Morgan Hill in 2007 and has been a hard working community member since. She first began working in the Los Banos Chamber of Commerce in 2014 as a volunteer, eventually made her way in officially as an administrative assistant, and then up to Chamber executive director in 2018.

In addition to the awardees, the Hispanic Chamber appointed Christina “Christy” Celis Puga as the keynote speaker to share some words with the attendees. Puga is a first generation Latina from the valley, who obtained a Bachelor’s degree in biology from UC Merced, and later her Master’s in public health from Fresno State. She currently serves as the Northern California and Sierras regional program manager for the Office of Community Partnerships and Strategic Communications. Additionally, she leads initiatives that promote health equity, data-driven outreach, and collaboration among community organizations, driving positive change in 23 jurisdictions, and communities in the north state.

In her speech, she focused on discussing the lack of mental health awareness and support within the Hispanic community and showcasing some of the great resources that Merced has to offer; sharing a great deal of her own very personal experiences and how she had to face it.

“I want to showcase the importance of mental health. September is Suicide Awareness Month, in addition today is the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, so, my call to action for you is: If you know someone that is struggling, please reach out to them. I believe that mental health, unlike chronic illness, is much more dangerous. If you have something like a broken leg, or diabetes, it can be diagnosed. Mental health is something that we struggle with internally, and oftentimes we do not know how to reach out because of the communities that we come from. … Please exercise and practice self-compassion. These emotions, these feelings, these data points of turmoil are what make us human—and that is OK. We deserve to process our emotions and feelings. Because shame or judgement causes paralysis.”

Following the celebration, the Times was able to speak with Annissa Fragoso, president of the Merced County Hispanic Chamber.

“I’m so excited,” Fragoso said. “These Latina Luncheons always sell out. It’s growing for sure. We should really consider a larger venue, but I love the Mainzer. I can’t imagine doing it anywhere else. It is an honor for me to be able to do this and honor other women in the community because people work tirelessly all the time in nonprofits, volunteer work, and things they love, and this is one way to recognize that.”

Coming up next for the Hispanic Chamber: On Friday, Oct. 13, the chamber will be holding its 76th annual Awards Dinner & Installation. The selected honorees for that event include: Arturo Barajas (Man of the Year), Katarina Zambrano (Women of the Year), Sandoval Wood Creations (Business of the Year), and South Pacific Dance Company (Nonprofit of the Year).

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