LAWRENCE — Community activist Isabel Melendez was honored by the city of Lawrence when Mayor Dan Rivera dedicated “Isabel Melendez Street” on Aug. 19th.
“I think everyone understands this is a very special day as a city,” Rivera said.
Melendez beamed with pride as Rivera and Isabel’s son Sgt. Major Jaime Melendez removed the covers to show the street sign. She was surrounded by her daughter Marisa Melendez, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, cousins and other extended family members.
“I never thought this would happen,” Melendez said, referring to the street dedication. “It took me back to the beginning when I started working for the people.”
Melendez said she could easily identify with the immigrants who were coming to Lawrence, did not speak English, and were looking for work and guidance on where to get help.
She had worked as a teacher in Puerto Rico and had planned to continue her career in Lawrence, but when she went to apply for a job she was told her teaching certificate was “no good.”
“When I heard that, I thought it was bad, because it was in Spanish and there was no one to translate it,” she recalled.
“I felt so bad, I wanted to go back to Puerto Rico,” Melendez said. But she stayed in Lawrence and worked in coat and shoe factories, later opening a clothing store, Casa Melendez on Newbury Street.
As the wave of Hispanic immigrants started to come to Lawrence, Melendez remembered the tears she cried when there was no one to help her navigate the system, so she jumped in to help.
“I didn’t want anyone to go through what I went through,” said Melendez, who turns 81 in November.
Melendez was hired as a neighborhood aide at Greater Lawrence Community Action Council going to neighborhoods asking residents what they needed so the agency can provide those services. She later became Director of the Community Service Center, where she filled out applications for people looking for work, translated documents from Spanish into English, and other services.
She did not stop lending a hand when she left the office.
During the ceremony, her daughter Marisa Melendez said her mother would picket City Hall when city councilors spoke negatively about Hispanics. She has also collected food, clothing and money for victims of local fires, during the floods of 2006 and natural disasters in other parts of the country and Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Ecuador.
Marisa Melendez talked about how her mother stood side by side with the SWAT team past curfew during the riots of 1984 dressed in jeans, t-shirt and a yellow cap.
“She wasn’t afraid. She believed in her community, she trusted them and asked them to please be peaceful and make the city proud,” Marisa Melendez said.
Marisa Melendez talked about her mother’s generosity and how she would go look through her children’s closets to get clothing for needy people and even use her own money to help others pay their bills.
“I thought my mother was giving away my inheritance, but she didn’t. The inheritance my mother has given me is to love my community through actions, not words,” Marisa Melendez said, adding she also learned from her mother to be fearless and not let anything get in her way.
Marisa Melendez said when Mayor Rivera told her about naming a street after her mother, she immediately thought of the Civil Rights Leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I immediately asked God to forgive me because I shouldn’t compare my mother to Martin Luther King, then again, why not?” Marisa Melendez said. Like King, Isabel Melendez has worked tirelessly for her community.
“This recognition today is very important for my mother, our family and myself because it will be here long after we’re gone,” Marisa Melendez said.
During the dedication ceremony, George Escoto, deacon at St. Patrick Parish read a passage from the gospel which mandates loving one another. “Here, we can see a living example of that passage in Isabel Melendez who has given 95 percent of her life to Lawrence, Massachusetts,” Escoto said.
He blessed the street sign and Melendez with Holy Water. “May God grant her many more years and whoever comes by and reads the sign can see that a good woman with a generous heart worked here,” Escoto said.
Father John Medio of Corpus Christi Church also asked for prayers for Melendez.
“Send out your blessing on Isabel who so generously has devoted herself to help others,” Medio said.
One issue close to Melendez’ heart has been registering residents to vote and began a voter registration drive when “it wasn’t popular”. During the ceremony, there were tables where people could register to vote.
Mayor Dan Rivera remembers how Melendez made him a registrar and he spent a summer registering residents before going off to college. “I want to thank her for what she did to paved the way so Hispanics can become elected and appointed officials,” Rivera said.
Melendez also became politically involved managing campaigns for mayoral and state representative candidates. She decided to run for mayor herself and in 2001, was the first Hispanic to win a mayoral primary election in the city. She lost by 600 votes to Michael Sullivan, who attended the ceremony.
Sullivan spoke highly of Melendez. “It’s important to recognize her this way so when people see the sign and the name they can start a dialogue about a wonderful woman who did so much for the community,” the former mayor said.
More about Isabel Melendez
Born in Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico, one of 12 children.
Immigrated to Lawrence in 1959 a month after getting married.
Founded Semana Hispana en Lawrence Hispanic Week, which has been highlighting the culture and customs of Latin America since 1979.
Established the Roberto Clemente Little League and a Christmas party distributing toys to thousands of children.
Retired in 2012 from Greater Lawrence Community Action Council after 38 years.
Offers English as a second language, citizenship and other classes out of the General Donovan School. She is a justice of the peace.
She has three children, Sgt. Major Jaime, director of Veterans’ Services, Marisa and Ronnie. She is also mother of the late Wanda Melendez.