College student helps start new community based effort

Caroline Aguirre

Stephanie Portillo

Stephanie Portillo was just 17 when she orchestrated her first march: to protest the closing of St. Ignatius School. As a high school senior in 2013, she helped rally students and graduates to walk around Hunts Point and inform the neighborhood of the potential closing of the school, which was struggling to manage costs.

“We walked around and brought awareness that this safe haven for kids was closing down,” Portillo said.

Now 21 and a student at Manhattanville College, Portillo has just joined a new community-based effort known as Hunts Point Speaks/Habla, which will allow residents to share their ideas and suggest improvements for the community. Hunts Point Habla was launched in 2016 by the organization Makers Point, which seeks to put national models of economic development in place with local partners here.

As the project director, Portillo will recruit and pay local young leaders and provide them with leadership training. They will then attend community events and speak to residents about their concerns. Her duties will also include getting in touch with established community leaders, getting her group to events, collecting the ideas residents have proposed, and managing the organization’s social media accounts.

Starting at a young age, Portillo considered herself an activist. As a witness to her own mother’s immigration process, she was inspired to stand up to injustices. Portillo’s mother came to America from Mexico as a 12-year-old. But it took her 15 years to obtain her residency and she just obtained her U.S. citizenship this past year. She never attended high school or college – opportunities that would have allowed her to contribute much more to both her family and the community, Portillo believes.

“Back then there was a stigma placed on being undocumented. It created a barrier. Today people are coming out and are not afraid of saying they’re undocumented,” Portillo said. “She wasn’t able to speak the language and ask for help.”

It was hard on her mother, Portillo said, when she could not help her own children with the college application process.

“Even though I had to learn on my own, she was willing to learn about the process,” said Portillo, who then helped her younger brother with his applications. “She always encouraged us to go to school.”

As part of Portillo’s independent senior project, while she was still in high school, she decided to focus on the Dream Act and joined the non-profit organization The New York State Youth Leadership Council. In 2013, the council hired buses to bring the young activists to Albany.

Portillo is now double majoring in international studies and sociology, with a concentration in political and economic relations, and is on track to graduate in 2017. She plans on joining the Peace Corps for two years and then applying to law school. As a college student, she has also spent time volunteering in Port Chester at a nursing home and soup kitchen that serves immigrant workers.

During Portillo’s junior year of college, she found herself wanting to contribute to the neighborhood she has lived in since birth. She had been a part of the Hunts Point Alliance for Children but had not really kept in contact with the organization while in college. So when Maryann Hedaa, the founder of HPAC and co-founder of Hunts Point Speaks as well as Portillo’s principal when she attended St. Ignatius middle school, reached out about Hunts Point Habla, Portillo jumped at the chance to help.

“You have to look for certain qualities — the willingness to work hard and dedication to education,” Hedaa said. “She displayed a sense of service and wanting to give back.”

The fact that Portillo was inspired to activism by her mother’s experience is no surprise to Hedaa. She believes that Portillo’s story is also about the resiliency of her family and a very strong mother.

“I don’t think single mothers are given enough credit for the strength that they show when going through poverty. She always worked very hard to provide a stable environment for her children,” Hedaa said. “When you see the face of the daughter, you see the face of the mother.”

Portillo has lived in the same building in Hunts Point since her birth. She believes that children who live in Hunts Point are forced to grow up a lot faster, since they are exposed to drugs and prostitution. As a child, Portillo’s mother did not allow her to visit the recreation center on Manida Street due to safety concerns.

But, she says, it’s time for those kinds of concerns to end. Hunts Point must create a safe space for its youth, she says. Recently, Hunts Point Habla wrote a proposal for the City Council to renovate two garages and create a gathering space for young millennials, ages 17 through 24. The hope is that for young adults who might not have the nurturing household that Portillo had, the community can help them along.

“I don’t want anyone to get left behind because they don’t have resources or access to networking,” Portillo said. “We are stronger together.”

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