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Hispanic Heritage in SWFL: Maria Palacio

We're now more than halfway through Hispanic Heritage Month, which extends from September 15th through October 15th.

So, in honor of those of Hispanic heritage here in Southwest Florida, WGCU is featuring local Latinos from across the region — from all sorts of professions, genders and backgrounds. Today, you'll hear from a Lee County librarian.

Hi, my name is Maria Palacio, and I’m a librarian here in Lee County. I work for the Lee County Library System. I’m a district manager.

Hispanic Heritage Month is a reminder of the achievements and the hard work of those who blazed trails before us, who kind of paved the way so that people like myself could now have a seat at the table.

I was born and raised in New Jersey. My parents are from Colombia, South America. My mom moved here in the ‘60s, and I was born in the ‘70s. And, I’ve been in Southwest Florida since 2000.

I definitely grew up in a poor neighborhood. It’s a small town up in northern New Jersey where pretty much everybody had the same thing, which wasn’t a lot. I mean, there were some people that maybe were a little bit better off than others, but not by much.

Being Latina growing up, everyone in my neighborhood was either Latina or Latino or African-American, so that’s just who we were. I went to a small Catholic school up in New Jersey where the teachers came in from the suburbs to teach us, and I mean, I think that was sort of a labor of love – to teach us how to speak correctly and just kind of be good kids.

My mom raised us by herself. My parents are divorced. I was born first and then my sister, and so we grew up together – just three girls. My mom just kind of, she struggled to make ends meet. She worked a lot of jobs. She did all kinds of things. She helped as a kindergarten aid in my school. Then, weekends, she cleaned homes for people or did other odd jobs and dragged us along or we were tasked with doing something else to help her out. I started working probably when I was about 14 years old, and I have not stopped since.

My childhood was difficult, but it was a very — I would say – a happy childhood, even despite the difficulties. We can kind of laugh at some of the things that we kind of went through now. Definitely built my character and made me who I am today.

I was the first person in my family to go to college. I was a very young mother, which was very surprising to my family. But, I finished all of my schooling on time, graduated college, and I’m coming up on my ninth year since I graduated with my master’s in library science.

We moved from New Jersey to Miami, and then, just, out of college, not real sure what I was going to do. I just knew I needed a job. And, in 2000, my husband and I – we weren’t married yet, but we got married that year. We came to Southwest Florida. We didn’t know anything about Lee County. I got a teaching job, and I taught at Lehigh Senior High for a couple of years. And, then, I found my way into libraries. I just kept kind of looking at libraries.

It was actually the first place we – I have to boys. So, the first place my older son and I visited when we moved to Lee County was the Cape Coral library, and we got our library cards probably within a week. And, I was just interested in coming. And, it took me about two years to get in, but I did. And, from there, things have just progressed pretty rapidly. I’m coming up on my 15th year next week with the library system.

Being Latina in libraries, there are few of us. There’s more faces that look like mine now, but when I first came here, there were just a couple of people. And, so, my first job with the library was coordinator of the multicultural program, and that was doing outreach and getting Latinos and other groups, like Haitian Americans, into the library. A lot of times, I’m looked to to kind of give sort of an answer, you know, about what Latinos want, and I always try to folks that I’m not the end all as far as that because everyone’s experience is different.

My husband – his parents are also Colombian. We grew up two miles from each other and didn’t know each other until the night I graduated college. So, his parents are from the same hometown as my own parents, so it’s just been really seamless as far as all the things that, you know, we were taught to do or not to do and all the manners and customs we have. We’ve been together 20 years and we’ll be married 18 years this December.

We’ve gone to Colombia several times – my husband and I – and we have taken the kids there just so that they know kind of where their roots are. They are aware of who they are and what their role is and how they need to work harder than other folks in order to make it. I think that they have to be examples, that they have to be role models, and especially with the position that I have and the ties to the community that we have, we do expect a lot out of them as far as how they should behave and comport themselves.

Rachel Iacovone is a reporter and associate producer of Gulf Coast Live for WGCU News. Rachel came to WGCU as an intern in 2016, during the presidential race. She went on to cover Florida Gulf Coast University students at President Donald Trump's inauguration on Capitol Hill and Southwest Floridians in attendance at the following day's Women's March on Washington.Rachel was first contacted by WGCU when she was managing editor of FGCU's student-run media group, Eagle News. She helped take Eagle News from a weekly newspaper to a daily online publication with TV and radio branches within two years, winning the 2016 Society of Professional Journalists Mark of Excellence Award for Best Use of Multimedia in a cross-platform series she led for National Coming Out Day. She also won the Mark of Excellence Award for Feature Writing for her five-month coverage of an FGCU student's transition from male to female.As a WGCU reporter, she produced the first radio story in WGCU's Curious Gulf Coast project, which answered the question: Does SWFL Have More Cases of Pediatric Cancer?Rachel graduated from Florida Gulf Coast University with a bachelor's degree in journalism.
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