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Hispanic Heritage Month: 7 NYC power players

New York City is home to some 2.4 million Hispanic residents, many who help this city tick while intrinsically linked to their heritage -- they're heads of office representing a heavily Latino district, chefs who experiment with the culinary traditions of their homeland, journalists who provide Spanish-language news, directors of Hispanic cultural centers.

In honor of the Hispanic Day Parade and Hispanic Heritage Month, we look at seven such people who are the face of Hispanic New York today.

Juan Manuel Benitez

It didn't take along for Juan Manuel Benitez
Photo Credit: Juan Manuel Benitez

It didn't take along for Juan Manuel Benitez to make a name for himself in NYC politics. Soon after starting his journalism career in the city, the native of Badajoz, Spain, was the first reporter NY1 hired back in 2003 for NY1 Noticias, its 24-hour Spanish language cable news television channel, where Benitez quickly found his beat: politics.

"For my first story, on NY1 Noticias' launch day, I remember interviewing a young Puerto Rican activist very few people had heard of; today, she's New York City Council Speaker," says Benitez, referring to Melissa Mark-Viverito (who is profiled here as well).

In 2005, Benitez cemented his role in the arena, when he and his producer, Themys Brito, launched "Pura Politica," a weekly Spanish-language political talk show on NY1 Noticias that's "become a required stop for political candidates and elected officials, here in New York and in Latin America," says Benitez.

"We want to make politics fun, we want to make politics accessible to regular New Yorkers and we want to set high journalistic standards, the ones the Latino community deserves," he says.

The audience, naturally, is mostly local Spanish speakers, though Benitez says there is interest from non-Hispanic New Yorkers and international viewers. Recent guests have included U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, former president of Colombia Álvaro Uribe and Ecuador's Foreign Affairs Minister Ricardo Patiño.

Benitez believes "Pura Politica" has helped raise the standards of Latino politics in the city.

"In the last decade, we've gone from having to wait until the end of a press conference in order to ask a question in Spanish, to having most elected public officials -- including the mayor -- at least read a few sentences in Spanish in every major announcement," says Benitez. "I do believe we had something to do with that."

Angie Martinez

Chances are you can recognize Angie Martinez by
Photo Credit: Katherine Tyler

Chances are you can recognize Angie Martinez by her voice more so than her face. The New York native has been a radio personality for more than 15 years, first as a long-time Hot 97 deejay, and, more recently, on Power 105.1.

Throughout her career, she's interviewed guests as varied as Derek Jeter, Beyoncé, Justin Bieber, Bill and Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama, during his first campaign for president.

Nicknamed "The Voice of New York," Martinez's NYC roots date back to her great-grandfather, who moved here from Cuba in his 20s and met her great-grandmother, who was Dominican. Both her grandmother and mother married Puerto Rican men, making Martinez's Hispanic heritage a mix of Puerto Rican, Cuban and Dominican.

"I've visited Puerto Rico many times and have visited the Dominican Republic and Cuba as well and feel a connection to all three places," says Martinez. "[My Hispanic heritage] was always, and still is, present in our family from the food that we eat, to the music we like. It's just who we are."

Martinez has branched out into acting and music, and now food through her website Healthy Latin Eating. She has a forthcoming cookbook of the same name coming out in January 2015, which puts healthier twists on traditional recipes.

One of her favorite dishes to make at home is empanadas, and her media noche empanadas recipe is inspired by her grandmother, Livia's, recipe.

"She makes hers with a ground beef mixture, known as picadillo, and then fries the little babies up in oil," says Martinez. "To lighten up her recipe, remix these by filling them with citrus-braised pork (a nod to the Cubano sandwich) and bake them. You still get a flaky, delicious crust, but you don't get all the grease and heaviness that comes with frying."

When not cooking for herself, you can find Martinez at Anejo in TriBeCa, whose head chef, Angelo Sosa, partnered with her on the cookbook.

"Clearly, I'm a fan," says Martinez. "And they have the best margaritas!"

Eder Montero and Alex Raij

For modern takes on Spanish cooking, Eder Montero
Photo Credit: Ned and Aya Rosen

For modern takes on Spanish cooking, Eder Montero and Alex Raij are working triple-time. The husband-wife team has quickly built themselves a restaurant empire, starting with Chelsea restaurants El Quinto Pino in 2007 and Txikito in 2008, followed by Cobble Hill's La Vara in 2012, which recently earned a Michelin Star.

Both share an affinity for exploring their unique culinary backgrounds. Raij is Argentine and Jewish, the daughter of Argentinian parents who immigrated to the United States in the 1970s, while Montero is a native of Spain's Basque country. "I grew up in a culture where good food is a right and men cook in a matriarchal society. ... I was raised by women but went to culinary school in San Sebastián so I had the privilege of eating and cooking to both traditions," says Montero. "That tension between home cooking and professional cooking is what Alex as I do."

Though all Spanish, each restaurant is distinct and has its own personality.

For El Quinto Pino, that means a bar in the "true tapas tradition" that "marries traditional dishes and ingredients with signature snacks of our own invention like the Uni Panini," says Raij. Across the street, Txikito offers tapas as well as main dishes like whole fish, suckling pig and cider house steaks and is "designed to cast a wide net over the many ways one can eat throughout the Basque Country." La Vara is the youngest and most improvisational, as it explores the Jewish and Moorish legacy in Spanish cuisine. "It is a Spanish-Jewish love child of sorts," says Raij.

Beyond running three restaurants, the chefs are also working on a cookbook, "Welcome Basque," published by Ten Speed.

"We want to write a definitive Basque cookbook that also is deeply personal," says Raij.

Dascha Polanco

Photo Credit: Nina Duncan

"Orange Is the New Black" is a break-out factory for actresses of all backgrounds, among them Dascha Polanco.

The Dominican-born, Brooklyn-raised actress has stood out on the Emmy-nominated show in her role as Dayanara "Daya" Diaz, an inmate who becomes pregnant during an affair with a guard.

Before the show and becoming famous, Polanco didn't follow the typical actress route, attending Hunter College where she studied psychology and working as a hospital administrator. But the acting bug was there, and after an appearance on an episode of the TV show "Unforgettable," Polanco landed herself a spot on the hit Netflix show.

She credits her upbringing with her success.

"Professionally it contributes to my assertiveness and how to deal with other cultures in job settings as a customer, client, in the media, and in portraying many roles," says Polanco.

She has spoken publicly about being proud to represent Latina women on TV, especially those whose bodies are curvier than what's usually depicted.

"[My heritage] has shaped me as I now embrace my differences and realize that they are what make me a unique individual," says Polanco.

Since "Orange Is the New Black" debuted on Netflix, Polanco has made her feature film debut in the 2013 drama "Gimme Shelter" and has appeared in Spanish Old Navy commercials. She also recently turned heads at New York Fashion Week.

Next on the big screen, she's in the comedy "The Cobbler," with Adam Sandler, Steve Buscemi, Dustin Hoffman and Method Man, which debuted last month at the Toronto Film Festival. And, of course, she's currently filming season three of "Orange Is the New Black" and enjoying the ride.

Jorge Daniel Veneciano

Jorge Daniel Veneciano has almost come full circle.
Photo Credit: El Museo del Barrio

Jorge Daniel Veneciano has almost come full circle. As executive director of El Museo del Barrio, he's back in Harlem, where he previously worked as a curator at the Studio Museum.

Veneciano started the post back in March, leading an institution that had been without a director for several months and saw cutbacks in its hours and staff. But with the museum financially stable and expanding its staff and hours, "This is a very good time for El Museo," says Veneciano, who was born in Argentina and moved to Los Angeles when he was five years old.

Veneciano is impressed by the history of the museum, the first Latin American museum in the country, which began as an education initiative focused by Puerto Rican artists in the city's public schools in the 1960s, "instead of other museums, which began from private collections."

Today, El Museo has expanded beyond its Puerto Rican roots, covering broader Latino culture. Its collection contains more than 6,500 objects spanning 800 years of Latin American, Caribbean and Latin art and growing.

Veneciano hopes to grow the museum to include other aspects of art, such as fashion, architecture, industrial design, cinema, performing arts, maybe even the culinary arts.

"I really just want to expand what can count as an art form in the museum," says Veneciano. "Latinos are engaged in so many arts and are really geniuses at so many arts that could be part of our responsibility to showcase."

For now, Veneciano is focused on two big shows at the museum. First up is "MARISOL: Sculptures and Works on Paper," a retrospective of the Venezuelan sculptor's work that opened this week -- "That's going to be our big blockbuster for the year," says Veneciano -- followed by an exhibition of Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa's art and film this February. Due to the strength of its programming, the museum has also expanded its hours by a day, back to five days a week.

"This is just our beginning," says Veneciano. "These are going to be really spectacular exhibitions, it signals the new era for El Museo -- our return to prominence."

Melissa Mark-Viverito

Melissa Mark-Viverito is knocking down firsts for Hispanic
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Melissa Mark-Viverito is knocking down firsts for Hispanic women in New York City.

When the former activist and union organizer was elected to the City Council in 2005 representing the 8th District, she became the first Puerto Rican woman and Latina to represent that district. Then, earlier this year she became the first Puerto Rican and Latina to become the speaker of the New York City Council.

Breaking barriers is just part of the immigrant experience, says Mark-Viverito.

"Puerto Ricans had to break through barriers in a city that was often hostile to them," says Mark-Viverito, who was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico and attended Columbia College at Columbia University and Baruch College here. "I know the history of that struggle and am deeply humbled by the incredible resilience of this community and the shoulders I stand on."

Mark-Viverito cites housing, immigrant and economic issues among her chief concerns.

One of her latest initiatives involves the revitalization of La Marqueta, a market space in East Harlem.

"We wanted to revive the important legacy of La Marqueta as a space that nurtures and validates our collective history in the neighborhood by having cultural programs in la placita so that it can be a place where people can gather," says Mark-Viverito.

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