James Madison HS Student Writes About Celia Cruz, Being Unapologetically Black And Wins

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“Don’t bring this check to the bank,” Chaim Deutsch joked. (Photo: Zainab Iqbal/Bklyner)

MARINE PARK – Every year Altice USA (the provider of Optimum and Suddenlink) holds an essay contest. To celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, the company presents a question in the Fall and asks middle and high schoolers to “Name a Latino, past or present, with whom you would choose to spend a day and explain why.”

This year’s grand prize winner– to win a $1,500 check– in the high school category was a senior in James Madison High School. According to Jen Rivera from Altice USA, there were over 700 submissions from across the country. To honor Genesis Diaz, school officials, classmates, members of Altice USA, and Council Member Chaim Deutsch gathered at the High School’s library last week.

Genesis Diaz. (Photo: Zainab Iqbal/Bklyner)

The quiet, young woman excited to go to college (NYU is her dream school) would want to spend a day with the legendary Celia Cruz. Her essay? It was powerful.

“I exclusively surround myself with people who radiate postive energy. And who’s more positive than Celia Cruz?” Diaz read aloud her essay. In her essay, she spoke about the artist’s accomplishments. She spoke about being Hispanic and being Black.

“Black has always been seen as a color of inferiority, which is why Celia Cruz’s early critics claimed that she did not have the right look,” she said. “She wasn’t an ideal artist simply because of her African descent.”

“She carried her African roots in her heart and through her lyrics,” Diaz said. “Celia told everyone, including me, how phenomenal and majestic it is to be unaplogetically black.”

Photo: Zainab Iqbal/Bklyner

Diaz was a part of the A.P Capstone program. It is a two-year commitment and a research class where students identify cultural values that affect society today. Her teacher, Robin Kovat, had encouraged her to enter the contest. Kovat was beaming the entire afternoon.

“We have a criminal justice class and one issue we talk about is bias in the system. Somebody had made a comment [last year] and she got very upset,” Kovat said. “She decided to not get mad and made a slideshow instead. She gave a whole presentation on Latinx, and different religions, and different cultures. She felt empowered.”

Diaz and Kovat. (Photo: Zainab Iqbal/Bklyner)

Diaz felt so empowered that she decided to start her own club in school about Hispanic, Black, and Carribean cultures. Students in her club get together once a week and discuss issues facing the school and the community as a whole.

“I couldn’t believe I actually won!” Diaz told Bklyner. “I was very proud and very emotional. I feel like people take entertainment figures for granted. What people don’t realize that these figures are activists also.”

Principal Jodie Cohen spoke highly of Diaz, saying she was a “remarkable young woman.”

Jodie Cohen. (Photo: Zainab Iqbal/Bklyner)

“We are anxiously awaiting her acceptance to NYU,” Cohen said. “Having a student from our school being celebrated for writing such a remarkable essay is evidence of the students that exist in this building and how they share their opinions and use them to build our community as a whole.”

Diaz also spoke very highly of Deutsch, who she said was an integral part of the school.

“As you know hate crimes in NYC in 2018 increased by 5 percent overall, so this is why it’s more important to celebrate each other’s cultures,” Deutsch said. “Today is a very important day honoring and having that essay on Celia Cruz.”

“I happen to love salsa and we can have a salsa contest after this,” he grinned.

Photo: Zainab Iqbal/Bklyner

After Diaz read aloud her essay, Deutsch said, “For the record, I like merengue, too” and the students got a good chuckle out of that. He then presented Diaz a citation on behalf of the NYC Council and Speaker Corey Johnson.

“This essay was a part of a larger icing on the cake for her,” Kovat smiled. “We will hear more about her. I think I will be right. She’s an amazing kid. How lucky am I to be a teacher who has students like this?”

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