Earlier this week, Shirley Rodriguez Remeneski passed away. She will be remembered for her strong leadership and decades of public service in support of the Puerto Rican community in New York City.
Shirley Rodriguez-Remeneski was born in New York City in 1939, the youngest daughter of Armando Rodriguez and Providencia O’Neill. Her parents had left San German, Puerto Rico, the decade prior in order to escape the economic hardship facing the island. The family was also joined by Shirley’s grandmother, who cared for her three grandchildren and who served as an important influence during Shirley’s childhood. Shirley’s parents, in turn, found employment in a pocketbook factory and a hotel kitchen, respectively. Tasked with keeping track of kitchen inventory, Shirley’s father often brought home extra food, which Shirley’s grandmother would cook and distribute to neighbors. This simple act of kindness and solidarity, along with lessons in Puerto Rican history and culture from her grandmother, would help to inspire a life of public service, in particular, on behalf of the Puerto Rican and Hispanic community. And like many first generation children born in the US, Shirley often served as translator and advocate for her extended family members arriving from Puerto Rico.
Having excelled academically from a young age, Shirley was awarded a scholarship to Syracuse University, though she ultimately decided not to attend the school as she was preoccupied with the burden her family would have to deal with if she became a full-time student. As an alternative, she enrolled in evening classes at City College, studying journalism as she worked a secretary job at Mills Music, Inc. during the day.
Upon receiving several promotions and pay raises, Shirley left school before leaving work to start a family. She married in 1960, the same year her first child, a son, was born. Two years later, she bore a second child, this time a daughter, though her marriage would come to an end as she moved with her two young children to the Bronx. There, she was invited by a friend to volunteer for a political campaign. Thus began her life in public service. Immediately recognizing her talents was Herman Badillo, a trailblazing Puerto Rican politician who would establish himself as an important figure in New York City politics for decades. Shirley worked alongside Badillo in a number of capacities throughout much of his long political career, first as a campaign staffer in the Bronx where Badillo launched a successful bid for Bronx Borough President in the 1965, and later, as District Administrator from 1971 to 1978 for Badillo’s Congressional Office for New York’s 21st District.
In 1980, Shirley was named Woman of the Year by the United Organizations of the Bronx, one of the many awards and honors that she would receive for her career in public service. That same year, she also served as a delegate to the 1980 Democratic Convention. Shirley went on to hold several other important titles, including Assistant Deputy to Mayor Ed Koch, Executive Director of Hispanic Affairs for Governor Mario Cuomo, and Deputy Commissioner of Housing Preservation, as well as Development and Senior VP of the office of Economic Revitalization for Governor George Pataki. In 1996, Shirley founded 100 Hispanic Women Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to the empowerment of Latina women, which would later be responsible for the creation of the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls Charter School.