Maria Borrero, a Puerto Rican immigrant and single mother who rose to key leadership roles that would change how Latinos were treated by health care providers in Hartford and across the country, died Wednesday. She was 70.
“She just had this incredible spirit and determination. She just knew what she wanted and even though a lot of people probably told her things were impossible, she just kept forging ahead,” her daughter, Robin Decker, said. “She just kept on knocking on doors to see which one would open. She never thought ‘I’m going to give up.’ It didn’t even occur to her. Some people buckle under the pressure and choose to see the world against them, but my mom didn’t see it that way.”
In her 70 years, Borrero was a “woman who had a vision,” of change, opportunity and equity, friends and family said. Whether it was advocating against health injustices and disparities in communities of color, including publishing a study in the late 1970s that showed how Latina women were the target of wrongful sterilization without their consent, or befriending a receptionist to later mentor her to become the executive director of an organization co-founded by Borrero herself, she always had a “drive to do something in the world that meant something,” Decker said.
Psalm 46:10 hung over Borrero’s bedroom. The verse that reads “Be still and know that I am God,” was the greatest embodiment of her spirit and view of life, her daughter said.
Borrero was born on March 15, 1951, in Ponce, Puerto Rico. She immigrated to New York as an infant, leaving behind her father and older brother after being diagnosed with a tumor and needing a medical procedure that wasn’t available in Puerto Rico at the time. She later would become an older sister to three siblings, and soon a mother at 18. Less than a year later, she was the mother of two baby girls.
After moving to Connecticut, she hopped around different jobs, although staying centric to being “service-minded, service-oriented and wanting to help,” Decker said.
Borrero secured a job in the community outreach division at Hartford Hospital that would pave her road in the medical community where she met Stephen Schensul, who worked at the UConn School of Medicine and helped identify citizen action groups working against health issues, and his wife, Jean. Their work together would be the starting point of what now is over 40 years of research in health disparities, health education and health advocacy in the city of Hartford, he said.
“Nobody was paying attention to the cultural and linguistic needs of Puerto Ricans then, and the increasing amounts of Central Americans that were coming into Hartford,” Schensul said. “That Puerto Rico Health Committee evolved into the Hispanic Health Council first as an adjunct then its own independent organization. Right now I believe they’re probably at a budget of eight or $10 million over the 40 years that it’s just survived and thrived and continued on. And Maria was the first executive director.”
The Hispanic Health Council , under Borrero’s leadership and with the help of the Schensuls, would receive grants from the National Institute of Mental Health to train professionals on mental health disparities in the Hispanic community, Jean Schensul said.
The first grant the Hispanic Health Council received from the NIMH helped discover and investigate women, who were predominately Latina, who were sterilized after one or two children.
Over the course of a decade, Jean and Borrero would work together applying for grants for research, training and advocacy.
Along the way Borrero crossed paths with a woman named Candida Flores in 1981 who was working as a receptionist at UConn at the time. Borreo took Flores under her wing to different meetings that would later allow Flores to not only learn English, but build her way up in the organization and become executive director of the Hispanic Health Council after six years.
“I had somebody in front of me, who looked like me and had escalated in society and had achieved so many things at the time, which inspired me even more,” Flores said. “She was talking about equity for Latinos and collaboration in the ’70s and ’80s and she was a strong advocate for women, particularly single moms. We advocated for the same things and she taught me how to fight those battles, even though we were the same age, she was such an older and wiser soul than I am.”
After working with the City of Hartford, Borrero went on to become the director of Department of Employment Services for Human Resources in Washington, D.C., followed by the executive director position at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and later an appointed head for the mediation unit of the World Bank’s Conflict Resolution System.
Following her retirement, she became a co-pastor at the Metaphysical Church of the Divine Spirit in Washington, where she regularly led sermons.
Borrero is survived by her daughters Decker and Julie Gonzalez, her siblings Mildred Tracy, Elizabeth Gonzalez and Peter Roque Sr. as well as grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Jessika Harkay can be reached at email@example.com.