Cecilia Jimenez-Weeast, Executive Director of LALDEF: “A Woman Who Loves Challenges”
By Donald Gilpin
Cecilia Jimenez-Weeast, executive director of the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund for just over two months, has deep roots in serving the Latino community and an enduring commitment to the thousands of immigrants she has worked with.
“I’m passionate about working with the community,” she said in an interview earlier this month. “Coming from El Salvador I’ve seen the reason why people want to come to the United States. They just want to come here and they want the American dream. They want to be able to sustain a family, to provide for their kids, because those opportunities are not available in their country.”
She added, “That’s what keeps me going and that’s how I ended up with LALDEF.” The director of Latinas Unidas for about 20 years, Jimenez-Weeast sees her new position as carrying on in pursuit of her passion. “Becoming executive director of LALDEF is continuing what is so close to my heart,” she said.
Her early years in El Salvador, her work with her father in the cause of social justice, and his subsequent death in the civil war in the early 1980s were formative experiences for her, establishing the path that Jimenez-Weeast would take in her career and her life.
“My father has been my inspiration to continue working for people’s rights,” she said, explaining, “I come from a family that has always been very involved in social justice. He was a well-known community activist in El Salvador. All his life he fought for the rights of workers.”
Her father was a member of the International Labor Organization, a U.N. agency headquartered in Switzerland with a mandate to advance social and economic justice. “I used to go help my father at union rallies, basically fighting for workers’ rights in El Salvador,” said Jimenez-Weeast, “and at the same time I would go volunteer in the schools in small towns. I continue to do that. Every time I go to El Salvador I visit the little schools in some of the villages and spend time with the kids. They are humble schools where having a computer is not even in their dreams.”
Her father paid a high price for his involvement in politics, she explained. “I lost my father as a result of the chaos that El Salvador went through. He was murdered, but he left a legacy in that country.”
Jimenez-Weeast grew up in San Salvador, the capital city of El Salvador, where she went to school then began working in the American embassy, where she advanced to the position of assistant to the U.S. ambassador and where she met her husband, who is from New Jersey.
In the late 1980s they moved to New Jersey. “When I came here I thought about what I was going to do that was going to continue the legacy that my father left,” she said. “For me that was getting involved and serving the community, so my first job in the United States was working for Planned Parenthood Association of the Mercer Area (PPAMA). I was the first Latina health educator hired by PPAMA. Back in the 1980s the Latino community was very small. It became my mission to serve the community as interpreter promoting health education.”
Jimenez-Weeast worked with PPAMA for about 12 years, educating women and developing many connections with the Latina community. “I enjoyed that part of my job very much,” she said. “We Latinas put our kids first, then our husbands, then our parents, but we have to take care of ourselves in order to take care of our loved ones.”
In 2001, Jimenez-Weeast took advantage of the opportunity to take over the Latinas Unidas program, which was offering ESL classes and other services at the Trenton YWCA. “That program was close to my heart because the mission of Latinas Unidas was to empower the community to self-sufficiency and connect them with resources in the community.”
She noted that some of the proudest moments in her life have come in seeing the results of her work helping people from the community. A few years ago a young man and his fiancée came into her office. He was signing up the young woman for an ESL class for Latinas.
“He said, ‘Hi, Ms. Cecy. You don’t remember me, do you?’” She recalled. “No, I didn’t. He goes, ‘I am that little kid from years ago who came into your office with my mother who was a single mom and she was having trouble taking care of me after school. I will be forever grateful for the help you provided for my mother.’ I mentored his mom from the moment they came into Latinas Unidas. He said to me, ‘Don’t you remember? You took me to the high school and signed me up, and I ended up going to a vo tech school and I became a mechanic. But I’m not just a mechanic, I have my own shop now.’”
She continued, “These are the reasons why my heart has always been with the community to see the outcome, to see the results. To know that you have made a difference in somebody’s life is what matters to me.”
Under Jimenez-Weeast’s leadership Latinas Unidas grew and evolved into what she called “the main research center for the Latinas community in Trenton,” offering classes in language and leadership, job placement programs, high school equivalency programs, citizenship classes, and short-term counseling and referrals.
“To me the key to delivering services to that community is trust,” she said. ”They knew that if they needed something, they could go see miss Cecy. They knew if there was something they needed and I could not provide it from my program, that would not stop me. I would go out and research for them.”
Now at LALDEF, Jimenez-Weeast sees some similarities to Latinas Unidas. “LALDEF is wonderful. We offer crucial services, and it’s my intention to grow and take it to the next level — to grow throughout Mercer County. I see our education programs growing, adding more classes. We have services in Trenton and Princeton, but we should make those services available in all Mercer County.”
She mentioned the successes of the Futuro program, a mentoring program for first- or second-generation Americans to support students academically, physically, personally, emotionally, and professionally through high school and on into college. She also commented on the strength of LALDEF’s legal department and its other educational and support services.
Near the top of Jimenez-Weeast’s agenda is taking the Futuro program to the next level by involving whole families. “I think we can do amazing work involving the families and bringing families the support they need,” she said. “Some families might be in need of guidance, or getting referrals, making doctors’ appointments, getting a library card or other resources.”
Futuro and providing ID cards through the Princeton Public Library are the two main components of LALDEF in Princeton now, but Jimenez-Weeast is excited about developing a much-needed Futuro Familias program as a resource for any immigrant families in Princeton. “Futuro Familias is the way I would start to provide additional services to the community,” she said.
Jimenez-Weeast expressed optimism in discussing the current situation for immigrants. “Hopefully things will start to change with the new administration in Washington,” she said. “Coming from El Salvador, I’ve seen what people go through to make it here. This country was founded on immigration. I think about immigration and the families that come. Immigration to me means families, being
together, living in a safe environment and fulfilling their American dream. Those are all goals of LALDEF. That’s who we are. That’s our mission.”
Jimenez has been familiar with LALDEF for a long time, often sending clients to LALDEF from Latinas Unidas. “LALDEF is fantastic,” she said. “The staff has a passion for what we do, and they’re dedicated to our mission.”
She continued, “What I love about this job is that I’m executive director but I’m an executive director who’s going to be involved in the community. That one-on-one with the community is my passion. I’m a woman who welcomes challenges. I’m a go-getter. For now it’s settling into the new job, and then I’ll take it from there.”
Jimenez-Weeast lives in Burlington County with her husband, their two sons, who were born in the U.S. and recently graduated from college, and their dog. When she’s not at home or working with LALDEF, she’s likely to be found at the Jersey Shore, surf fishing with her husband.
“I love surf fishing,” she said. “I cast my line out there and I don’t know what I’ll get. I’ve reeled in some big bass — 25 pounds. It’s very exciting. I enjoy the experience, throwing out my line and seeing what I get.”
A couple of times a year Jimenez-Weeast visits El Salvador, where her mother still lives. On every visit she continues to spend time with the children in schools in the rural villages.
The legacy of her father lives on.
Last month, on her most recent visit, Jimenez-Weeast met up with the vice president of El Salvador, who is a family friend and was actually mentored by her father. “I had a visit with him, and I wanted to share with him that I’m with LALDEF and tell him about the wonderful services we offer,” she said. “It was very touching to me because he remembered coming to visit my dad, and he said to me, ‘Part of your father is here with me.’”