A Q&A with Lucía Nuñez

Civil rights leader address challenges in Madison
A Q&A with Lucía Nuñez
Lucía Nuñez

Describe yourself in one sentence.
I am a short Cubana with a passion for life and a love of people.

Where did you grow up?
Caimanera, Cuba; U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay; and St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.

In 2006, your job was to head up a newly created (and controversial) Department of Civil Rights. What was your initial approach to that challenge, and how have things evolved since then?
Take things one day at a time. This work is both difficult and relentless so we have to pace ourselves. We have to take the time to support each other.

What are the top three civil rights challenges Madison is facing?
The single most pressing civil rights challenge in Madison is in the education of our children. It is imperative that we reverse the disparity in reading and math for African American children. Academic achievement in third grade has an impact on economic achievement. Lastly, we need to reduce the disparities in the criminal justice system.

What is the most common misconception about civil rights in Madison?
The most common misconception is that we are not a racist community. That somehow we have evolved more than other communities. We first need to acknowledge that we have biases and start working on understanding how those impact our actions, our words and our interactions with others.

How would your family and friends describe you?
That I am reliable, that I have integrity and that I am thoughtful. And that I am shrinking as I get older.

What do you wish you could tell your sixteen-year-old self?
I reread my journals from when I was fifteen and sixteen to remember what I was thinking about at that age. I had just read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, I signed everything “Lucy Nunez” without accents and tildes and I wrote about how my parents didn’t understand me and how embarrassed I was by their accents and all things Cuban. So I would say to “Lucy Nunez” that it is okay to be Lucía Nuñez, to take time to thank her parents for speaking Spanish at home and for celebrating all things Cuban. I would tell her to be proud of her parents, however “old fashioned” it was that they chaperoned her at school dances. And I would tell her to slow down and enjoy her youth. Life is just too short.

Are there any more nuanced lessons we can apply from the current high-profile debate about gaping disparities for local African Americans, in hopes of extending or elevating the conversation to include other potentially marginalized groups (such as the Latino community or people with disabilities, for example)?
Absolutely we need to apply some of the same principals in approaching the racial inequities in education, employment and in the criminal justice system to all groups. As Dr. King said, an injustice to one is an injustice to all. Having said this, though, we need to concentrate our collective efforts on those disparities that have a deep and lasting impact on a human being. Early education is critical.

Do you have a hidden talent?
Extreme calligraphy and doodling.

What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?
In February, I will celebrate seven years as a pancreatic cancer survivor. I was lucky in that my tumor was operable so I had the “Whipple” surgery, and then was able to participate in a clinical trial to test a vaccine to hopefully (not a scientific word) prevent the cancer from returning.

What has been your greatest life’s challenge so far?
Losing my brother to pancreatic cancer and not two years later receiving the same diagnosis was the most difficult back-to-back events to deal with and recover from in a short time period.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Know yourself.

What’s top on your bucket list?
To find time to be creative is highest on my list. I want to write, to draw, to learn to paint. My list is long.

What were you like as a child?
I was quiet and shy. I learned English in kindergarten, after we arrived at the U.S. Naval Base on Cuba, because I believe this made me sit back and watch. I remember pretending to speak English.

What is the most common misperception that you personally encounter regularly?
That I am older than I really am so, because of this, people think that my kids are my grandchildren. Sometimes it is amusing because I get senior discounts all the time.

What are your three most prized possessions?
I think I would change the question to three most important people, and then I can answer that: Mateo, my son; Carina, my daughter; and Heidi, my partner.

Where or when were you happiest?
Professionally, I was happiest in the classroom teaching high school. It was by far the most creative and challenging job I have ever had. Personally, I was happiest holding my children when they were babies.

How do you unwind?
Knitting lowers my blood pressure, focuses my thoughts and quiets my soul.

What goal are you currently working on?
Trying to exercise every day.

How do you work to network with local nonprofits, churches, businesses or advocacy coalitions to extend your reach and work toward civil rights for all of Madison?
In the course of my career, I was the director of Centro Hispano, I was deputy secretary for the Department of Workforce Development, I wrote educational materials at Stanford University and I was a high school teacher. I felt the greatest power and ability to have an impact on others as a teacher. Not that I could change my students, but rather that I could challenge them to think about the world in a new way.