Spending a few minutes cruising through La Colaborativa’s website and you’ll quickly notice this is an organization that operates on two speeds: fast and done.
La Colaborativa leads community-based COVID testing and vaccinations as Hispanics-Latinos continue to struggle with inequities in Massachusetts’ health care system. The organization provides reliable, healthy, and culturally familiar food distributions five days/week – did you see the line down the street and around the corner for free Thanksgiving meals? It provides emergency housing placements, rental assistance support, and more to a community that disproportionately has been hit hard with evictions as a result of forced mitigations due to the pandemic.
The list of assistance and resources goes on and on in fulfilling La Colaborativa’s mission of “empowering Latinx immigrants to enhance the social and economic health of the community and its people, and to hold institutional decision-makers accountable to the community.”
Vega was recently recognized by the Eastern Bank Foundation with the 2021 Social Justice Award. The award recognizes community leaders who have made an outstanding impact in addressing critical social justice issues.
“Gladys has inspired us all through her grit, determination, resilience, and leadership, especially as she was working at the epicenter of the worst COVID-19 outbreak in Massachusetts and New England,” said Nancy Huntington Stager, President, and CEO of the Eastern Bank Foundation. “She is an extraordinary leader and community trailblazer who leads by example and continues to be a social justice champion. She empowers individuals to realize they can affect change and make the difference they seek and achieves so much because of her deep and trusting connections to the people in the communities she serves. We are honored to present Gladys with the 2021 Social Justice Award.”
“During the pandemic, immigrant communities became hot spots for the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus, revealing gross inequities in our safety net systems, and the team at La Colaborativa does all that we can to ensure families and individuals are not left behind or left alone,” said Vega in accepting the award. “We are especially honored to receive the 2021 Social Justice Award from the Eastern Bank Foundation because it understands all too well that relationships and trust in the community are always necessary to create justice, equality, and opportunity and especially during a pandemic.”
Vega’s multipronged approach to serving Hispanics-Latinos includes shaping its future leaders. “She has been cultivating emerging Latina politicians among those closest to her,” writes Marcela Garcia, Boston Globe columnist. “And three of Vega’s relatives, plus one of her employees, recently got elected to municipal office. Chelsea voters elected Tanairi García, Vega’s niece, and Norieliz De Jesus, La Colaborativa’s director of policy and organizing, to the City Council’s District 7 and District 3 seats, respectively. Additionally, Vega’s daughter, Melinda, won reelection as District 2 councilor, while Kelly García, another niece of Vega’s, was reelected to the Chelsea School Committee.”
“I want to make sure every woman knows they have a place in society, especially us as women of color,” Gladys told Garcia. “I give them the idea [of running for office], and then I hustle to raise money.”
Vega moved with her family from Puerto Rico to Chelsea when she was nine years old. The experience of witnessing first-hand the challenges facing Hispanic-Latino residents in the United States as gentrification displaced residents, economic opportunity bypassed her neighbors, and deportation destroyed families inspired her to bring justice, equality, and opportunity to her community.
In 1990, Vega joined the Chelsea Collaborative, later renamed La Colaborativa, as Office Manager. She wore many hats, working as a receptionist, tenant organizer, and immigrant rights advocate. In addition, Vega served in whatever capacity the moment required, fighting for residents’ rights, creating positive connections between law enforcement and residents, and helping Chelsea youths find summer jobs.
In 2006, Vega became the organization’s executive director. In her tenure, she successfully urged the City Council to make Chelsea the third sanctuary city in Massachusetts. She helped found Centro Latino, the only direct service for Hispanics-Latinos in Chelsea at the time. Vega gave her time to the Chelsea Board of Health, United Way Committee, and served as a Democratic delegate for the National Convention in 2000. In 2007 and 2008, she was named as one of Massachusetts’ one hundred most influential leaders.
It isn’t difficult to understand why Chelsea residents, a city where 67 percent of its residents are Hispanic-Latino see Gladys Vega as their woman of steel.
Cover Photo Credit: Eastern Bank Foundation
Publisher’s Note: Gladys Vega’s biography was curated from Models of Courageous Citizenship.