On her desk sits the painted eye of Frida Kahlo, yet another strong Hispanic woman, staring back at any who sit across from the executive administrator for the Department of Pharmacological Sciences at Stony Brook University who worked her way through discrimination and humble beginnings to sit on the other side.
Her name is Rosalinda Perdomo-Ayala, but she goes by Lynda, inspired by Lynda Carter, the original Wonder Woman. Born and raised in the Bronx with parents who immigrated to the United States as teenagers, she has often been referred to as “Nuyorican.” But living in New York did not stop her from embracing and taking pride in her roots, despite any discrimination she would face.
“My mother would joke that I knew more about Puerto Rico than she did,” Perdomo recalled.
At an early age, she got involved in her community and her heritage. She joined organizations like Aspira, a nonprofit devoted to Puerto Rican and Latino youth. She has since been involved in a number of Latino groups including the Latin American Student Organization, Hispanic Heritage Month Committee and the National Conference of Puerto Rican Women. The list goes on.
“Going there felt like home,” Perdomo said of her involvement in Latino groups.
Perdomo, like many other Latino children, grew up closely connected to her family. Her childhood home was referred to as the “cafeteria” by her mother.
“Everybody would come by for coffee or conversation,” Perdomo said.
She recalls translating “I Love Lucy” to her grandmother, who lived with her family.
“I thought she didn’t understand,” Perdomo said. “In retrospect she understood everything. She was laughing about the situation well before I translated it.”
Perdomo said her grandmother ran the household, refused to allow her to speak English and was integral in keeping her culture alive. This is a trend that has followed throughout her family.
Having an undercover narcotics New York Police Department and Drug Enforcement Administration officer for a husband forced her to move her life and family. They went to Port Jefferson, a community that is only 6.45 percent Hispanic, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
“It’s an uncomfortable place to be,” Perdomo said.
This was not the first or the last time Perdomo would feel like an outsider. She almost passed up the opportunity that would eventually lead her to be an executive administrator. Perdomo was offered a job at the university and rejected it, worried that office politics would leave her in an uncomfortable position.
She then received a call that would lead her on the track to her future. It was from the woman offering the job, an African-American. She wanted to know why Perdomo was rejecting the position and gave her the chance to change her mind. She did.
“Had there not been this woman of color in a position of authority that stood her ground, I probably wouldn’t be in the job that I’m in,” Perdomo said.
Now, she holds an executive position but says she is one of only two Latinas in her meetings. Hispanics made up 17.1 percent of the population in 2013, according to Pew Research Center. But only 4.7 percent of Hispanics hold chief executive positions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“There’s gotta be people out there,” Perdomo said. “Why aren’t they being hired?”
Perdomo earned a master’s degree in social work from Stony Brook University and certificates in conflict resolution and divorce mediation from Cornell University. She was also the 2013 recipient of the State University of New York Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Professional Service.
“If I were to apply now for this job now, I don’t think would get it,” Perdomo said. “Because they would say ‘Well you don’t have an MBA’ or ‘You don’t have a this.’ ” In reality, she said, her job is about “human behavior.”
In the professional world she was discriminated against.
“It’s the little incidents,” Perdomo said. Being called “aggressive” instead of “assertive” or hearing “how now brown cow” while she was pregnant with her son. These incidents extended beyond her and her profession into her family life.
Her daughter, Diandra Ayala-Peacock, also experienced what is was like to be different.
“She was called ‘mud-face’ and ‘kinky-hair’ and all these names,” Perdomo said. “I would, at night, sit and think about it and say ‘What am I doing here? Why am I subjecting my kids to this?’”
Even in Puerto Rico, Perdomo felt as though she didn’t fit in. There, she was considered too American. Here, she was too Puerto Rican.
“I’m like a nomad,” Perdomo said. “I don’t really have an island because wherever you go people have something to say to make you feel uncomfortable.”
For her family, heritage became home. There was no longer a “cafeteria” home, but an extended family.
“Even though I didn’t have my real Spanish-speaking aunt in my house every day, I had another ‘aunt’ who lived in Central Islip,” Josef Ayala, Perdomo’s son, said. “She’s not a blood relative, but she is my family.”
Josef and his sister both recall attending countless Hispanic heritage events and other cultural meetings. Their time spent in an “assembly line stuffing envelopes” to help their mother with her involvement in various Latino groups became a loving memory. Diandra went on to be the 1999 Puerto Rican Day Parade Queen. Josef received the W. Burghardt Turner Fellowship, a graduate fellowship for minority students.
“Those are all things we wouldn’t have found on our own if our mother hadn’t been so in touch with our culture and instilling those kinds of values in us,” Josef Ayala, Perdomo’s son, said.
Josef and Diandra have grown up to be successful in their own right. Josef now holds two master’s degrees. Diandra is now a happily married assistant professor of radiation oncology at Vanderbilt University with a newborn son.
“That work ethic is what she gave them most,” Joe Ayala, Perdomo’s husband, said.
“We’ve had an evolution in our family,” Diandra said. “Each generation, the focus has been on education and we’ve just pushed on and pushed on.”
Diandra’s son, Brandon Peacock, was born in Tennessee and is half Scottish. This has not stopped him from experiencing his Puerto Rican heritage. At ten months, Brandon has already attended a Hispanic Heritage Month event, heard Latin music and tasted his mother’s pasteles (a traditional Puerto Rican dish).
“She taught me to be ambitious, never compromise, work hard and be proud of who you are,” Diandra said of her mother. “She’s gonna be really great as a resource for us to teach Brandon the importance of who he is.”
Holding on to and passing on the pride in Perdomo’s culture is something she says she deals with daily.
“As you get older you get exhausted of having to claim and reclaim your space on the planet,” Perdomo said. “We are humans first.”
Correction: Oct. 22, 2015
A previous version of this story was published with the headline “Professor wins SUNY Chancellor Award.” The headline has been updated, as the subject, Lynda Perdomo-Ayala, won the SUNY Chancellor Award two years before the publication of this story.