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Hispanic Heritage Month

Since its inception, the mission of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to protect, sustain, and, when possible, improve our environment is a cause that has united all cultures and heritages. Environmental awareness and stewardship play an integral role in many of our cultures, and the pursuit of ensuring a clean, healthy environment now and into the future remains a goal of our agency on a professional and personal level.

DEC is proud to observe Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15 to October 15 in honor of the history, culture and influence of past generations of those with Hispanic origin. The observance started in 1968 under President Lyndon Johnson's administration as a one-week celebration called Hispanic Heritage Week. Years later, President Ronald Reagan proposed extending this celebration into a month-long event. It was enacted into law on Aug. 17, 1988, officially designating Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 as National Hispanic Heritage Month.

DEC's website content is now available in Spanish and 11 additional languages. At the bottom of every DEC web page, you can find the translation section. Each language link will bring you to a mirror of DEC's website translated into the selected language.

The celebration starts on September 15 as that date marks the independence anniversary of five countries: Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Followed by Mexico's Independence Day on September 16 and Chile's on September 18, it is capped by Día de la Raza which is celebrated on October 12 and recognizes the heritage, colonization, and cultural diversity of Latin America.

From the time of the Aztecs' "zero-waste" society to modern-day, frontline neighborhoods confronting the impacts of pollution, many diverse cultures continue to recognize the need to protect and nourish our environment and natural resources. This month, we pay tribute to our Hispanic neighbors, co-workers, and environmental stewards who are making a positive difference in our lives.

Let's join with these individuals and all who are fighting for our environmental futures. See the profiles below to learn the personal stories of DEC staff of Hispanic heritage and learn how they are working to make New York a better place to live, work, and recreate outdoors. These stories reflect our agency's mission in action, highlight the value of diversity in our workforce, and illuminate our quest to build a safe, sustainable and inclusive world.

DEC Staff Profiles

Michael C. Chappell
Division of Forest Protection

Michael C. Chappell was born in Chile and came to the United States as a very young child. He works for the Division of Forest Protection as a NYS forest ranger and has served in this role for over seven years. He currently patrols in Region 7, and thoroughly enjoys the challenges that each day brings. No two days are alike, and he never knows what to expect.

Before joining DEC, Michael served in the US Army as a captain in the Military Police Corps. He is an avid outdoorsman, which made his transition to civilian law enforcement much easier.

The additional tasks of search and rescue, as well as wildfire management are an added bonus for him!

Michael earned a Forest Resource Management degree from SUNY-ESF.

Tony Colyer-Pendas
Office of Communication Services

Tony Colyer-Pendas is a first generation Cuban American. His brother is the first of his family born in the United States. Tony's family came to the US from Cuba in 1960, shortly after Fidel Castro became prime minister.

Tony works in DEC's Office of Communication Services as an assistant editor of the Conservationist magazine. He started in December 2019, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic forced state employees to work remotely. In his role, Tony reviews and edits submitted magazine articles; reviews the magazine layout and design; and writes articles, news stories, and other pieces for the magazine. He previously worked at the Columbia Land Conservancy for 14 years, serving as the director of Conservation Programs.

After surviving a near-fatal car accident, he consulted for the Open Space Institute from 2016-2019. Tony earned a Bachelor of Science degree from SUNY Albany and an Associate of Arts degree from Miami Dade Community College.

Adriana Espinoza
Deputy Commissioner for Equity and Justice
woman in front of cactus
In her free time, Adriana Espinoza
enjoys exploring NYC's five boroughs
on her bike and hanging out
with her kitten, Tortuga.

Adriana Espinoza recently joined DEC as the agency's first Deputy Commissioner for Equity and Justice. As Deputy Commissioner, Espinoza oversees DEC's Office of Environmental Justice, Office of Indian Nation Affairs, and leads internal efforts to encourage diversity, equity, and inclusion among incoming and current staff and enhance DEC's outreach to disadvantaged communities across the state. Prior to joining DEC, Espinoza served as New York City's first Senior Advisor for Environmental Justice in the Mayor's Office of Climate and Sustainability, where she directed the development and implementation of the City's Environmental Justice for All Program.

Espinoza also previously served as New York City Program Director for the New York League of Conservation Voters. She is excited to join DEC and looks forward to working across the agency to build inclusive workplace where people of diverse backgrounds can thrive and advance in their roles. Espinoza is a first-generation immigrant and college graduate, earning her Master of Science in Social Work from the University of Texas at Austin where her concentrations were policy and community administrative leadership.

Aphrodite Montalvo
Office of Communication Services, Region 1
Aphrodite Montalvo
Aphrodite Montalvo works out
of the Region 1 office on Long
Island. When not at work, Aphrodite
loves hiking the outdoors.

Aphrodite Montalvo is a Public Participation Specialist in the Office of Communication Services for Region 1, Long Island. Aphrodite has been with DEC for 17 years and originally joined the agency as an environmental education assistant. Aphrodite has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Biology from Boston University and has additional graduate course work in Environmental Management from Stony Brook University.

In her position, Aphrodite works with the public to assist with any questions or issues that arise, moderates meetings, assists with media inquiries, edits documents, photo documents DEC activities, and works with municipalities to further DEC goals and pursuits. She also assists DEC's Office of Environmental Justice for Region 1 and is the Indian Nations liaison for the region.

Her father's family is originally from Puerto Rico and they came to the US in the1920s. Aphrodite grew up enjoying nature and open spaces on Long Island. She has been back to Puerto Rico several times and appreciates getting in touch with her culture. Aphrodite enjoys kayaking, traveling, and hiking in New York, as well as around the world.

Gelyanne Rivera
Division of Fish and Wildlife, Region 2
woman in hiking gear
Gelyanne Rivera enjoys getting
outdoors in her free time
and exploring new areas.

Gelyanne Rivera joined DEC's Fish and Wildlife Division in July 2021 as a Fisheries and Wildlife Tech 1 and is enjoying all of the hands-on projects and outreach that the position entails.

She went to SUNY Cobleskill and earned an associates in Fisheries and Wildlife and a Bachelor's in Fisheries and Aquaculture. This path of study interested Rivera because it was "out of the ordinary and not many females were enrolled in that major."

When Gelyanne isn't at work, she enjoys hiking with her dog and exploring new areas. She also likes being with her family as they cook and enjoy their time together. Rivera says that this month is a time to celebrate achievements and culture, and to recognize the ancestors that have paved the way.

Rachel Sysak
Division of Marine Resources
Marine biologist Rachel Stystak from DEC's Division of Marine Resources at a lake
Rachel Sysak is passionate
about conserving the environment.

Rachel Sysak has worked for the Division of Marine Resources for the past 13 years. She is currently the Marine Finfish Unit Leader. Her unit monitors and manages many popular recreational species of marine fish such as fluke, scup, black sea bass, and bluefish.

Rachel's heritage is Puerto Rican and Ecuadorian. While her family never spent much time fishing or doing outdoor activities, Rachel was extremely curious about nature. She was able to fully explore this curiosity in college where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Marine Vertebrate Biology.

Rachel says, "I absolutely love my career with DEC and I am fortunate to get to work not only with the natural resources I want to conserve, but the people in our communities who value those resources as well. I encourage anyone with a passion for the environment and wildlife to consider a civil service career with DEC."

Partnering for Change

DEC partners with community organizations across New York State that are serving Hispanic populations and addressing environmental issues head-on. These organizations recognize the unique challenges of their communities, and through funding provided by DEC's Office of Environmental Justice, are working to make our neighborhoods better for everyone. We are highlighting just a few of the organizations that are doing the work and making a difference.

Long Beach Latino Civic Association (leaves DEC website)

The Long Beach Latino Civic Association (LBLCA) is an organization that seeks to empower the Latino population of Long Beach, Long Island, to advocate for itself, while also embracing both the American experience and distinct Latino cultures. This organization promotes environmental justice, cultural awareness, and civic participation while addressing critical issues within the areas of education, health, environmental conservation, and socioeconomic development.

people visiting a booth near the beach
The Long Beach Latino Civic Association
uses a community impact grant from the DEC
Office of Environmental Justice to provide
education about floatables on Long Island.

LBLCA received a $100,000 Community Impact Grant from DEC in 2018 for their Project BAY AREA. The aim of this project was to improve and protect local waterways and to educate local residents on the negative effects of plastic floatables, cigarette butts, and debris. This was achieved through targeted public outreach on the risks of floatables, recommendations for alternative actions to alleviate plastic in waterways, and development of hands-on stewardship projects.


Ecolibrium: Environmental Justice and Literacy through Community Science (leaves DEC website)

Ecolibrium is a multi-disciplinary project by Loisaida, Inc. that will study, survey, and analyze airborne toxins and environmental conditions in the Lower East Side with the goal of improving public health and quality of life. This project will culminate in a comprehensive hazard map of the Lower East Side and a multimedia campaign that utilizes social media to enhance public awareness of environmental health hazards affecting us.

For the 2022 cycle of Ecolibrium we'll be implementing a one-year community science project that will enhance public knowledge on local indoor and outdoor air quality and its connections to individual and community health, while increasing environmental and ecological literacy (the ability of an individual to comprehend issues of environmental science and to understand their own relationship to natural systems) in our neighborhood of the Lower East Side.

The Ecolibrium project is supported by DEC and the Office of Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez.

Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice (leaves DEC website)

people working in a garden
Community volunteers in the South Bronx
work with Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice
in a garden funded by a community impact
grant from DEC's Office of Environmental Justice.

Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice (YMPJ) is a not-for-profit organization located in the South Bronx. The organization focuses on providing assistance to low-income immigrant communities in need of legal and social services. It also focuses on environmental stewardship, specifically education campaigns along the Bronx River.

YMPJ was a recipient of a 2018 Community Impact Grant for their Air, Water & Food Vulnerability Project. The organization used the $100,000 award to equip local youth leaders and community members with the skills necessary to address environmental issues in their community. The program trained youth leaders to collect data and mobilize residents on issues of air quality, water quality, and food vulnerability in New York City District 9 in the South Bronx. The goal of the project was to train 60 youth organizers from this community to conduct outreach and community education campaigns with 50,000 Bronx residents over the three-year period.

UPROSE (leaves DEC website)

UPROSE is an intergenerational, multiracial, nationally recognized community organization that promotes sustainability and resiliency in the Sunset Park neighborhood through community organizing, education, indigenous and youth leadership development, and cultural/artistic expression. Established in 1966, UPROSE is Brooklyn's oldest Latino community-based organization. It has continued to advocate for meaningful community engagement, participatory community planning practices, and sustainable development with justice and governmental accountability.

In 2018, UPROSE received a DEC Community Impact Grant for their Sunset Park Regenerative Energy Education Project (REEP). The $50,000 grant was used to increase awareness and support for regenerative energy and community ownership among residents, businesses, and stakeholders across Sunset Park, and to build a base of prospective subscribers who will participate in community-owned solar installations.

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