First female Puerto Rican lawmaker in New York was role model for others

Former Senator Olga Mendez was a pioneer as the first Puerto Rican woman elected to the New York State Legislature.

Former Senator Olga Mendez, who represented parts of the southern part of the Bronx from 1978 through 2004, passed away on July 29. Mendez was the first Puerto Rican woman legislator in New York State.

Mendez was known for reaching across party lines to work with members of the other political parties if she thought doing so would benefit the people in her district. Mendez first entered politics in 1972 as a delegate to the Democratic Presidential Convention, and had married into a prominent East Harlem political family.

Mayor Bloomberg said in a statement that Mendez not only impressed upon him the importance of bipartisan cooperation shortly after he was first elected, but also served as an inspiration for Latinas everywhere who wanted their voices heard.

“Olga’s election to the State Senate as the first Puerto Rican woman was a tremendous symbol of hope for a community that now has a seat at the table,” Bloomberg stated. “But, Olga’s life was an inspiration to countless others, because the doors that she pushed open stayed open for everyone else.”

Bloomberg added: “When I first entered public service eight years ago, Olga sat me down and impressed on me in her inimitable way – the importance of reaching across party lines and to do what’s right for your constituents.”

Mendez was diagnosed with cancer in the early 1990s, but didn’t stop being a public figure or try to hide her condition, Bloomberg said.

Borough President Diaz said that Mendez was a role model for himself and for people across the entire country.

“Olga Mendez was a great role model not only for the residents of her Bronx and Manhattan district, but also across the United States,” Diaz said. “As the first Puerto Rican woman elected in the New York State legislature, she opened doors for all who came after her, myself included.”

Mendez was born in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico and was granted a B.A. from the University of Puerto Rico. She held a masters degree in Psychology from Teachers College at Columbia University and a Ph.D. from Yeshiva University.

Mendez was unseated in the 28th District in 2004 by Jose M. Serrano. Senator Serrano’s father Congressman Jose Serrano said that Mendez was an inspiration to him when he was a young assemblyman.

“We were all so proud when she was elected leader of the Minority Conference in the State Senate in 1984,” Congressman Serrano said. “As an assemblyman, I found that she was a great partner in moving bills forward that would help improve the lives of New Yorkers.”

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