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News

Despite changes, Marissa Cardona's commitment to Meriden community continues

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DAVE ZAJAC
/
Record-Journal
Marissa Perez Cardona, in the offices of the Record-Journal in Meriden, Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021.

MERIDEN — Since her husband became U.S. secretary of education, Marissa Cardona’s life has changed considerably. What hasn’t changed is her commitment to the local community.

Marissa Cardona is a family school liaison for Meriden Public Schools. She meets with families and focuses on the challenges they’re facing in the midst of the pandemic. Cardona would like to show Latino families that they have a voice and how they can use it.

While Miguel Cardona’s duties as education secretary have been incredibly demanding, family time has remained a priority. He returns routinely from Washington, D.C., to their Meriden home to spend time with Marissa and their two children, Miguel Jr. and Celine, both now students at Maloney High School.

“From the moment we were married and had children, Marissa cherished the role of wife and mother more than any other,” said Miguel Cardona. “To this day, she makes sure we are grounded in our family time. It has helped us get closer.”

“They are, to me, the all-American family, and she is the matriarch and a role model,” said Michael S. Rohde, a Meriden city councilor who has known the Cardonas for the past 15 years.

Marissa’s parents

Marissa Cardona’s parents came to Connecticut from Aguada and Rincon, Puerto Rico, in search of better opportunities.

Born Marissa Perez in 1978 in Meriden, she attended Platt High School and graduated from the University of New Haven with a bachelor’s degree in communications. Her intent was to become a news reporter. Growing up, she sang in a church choir Sundays with her mother and sister.

Marissa Cardona said the values she continues to hold dear were instilled by her mother, whom she calls Naty. Those values include faith, family, unity, and self-respect. They were imparted to Naty by a woman who adopted her in Puerto Rico at an early age. The experience also included poverty. Circumstances in Puerto Rico were so dire that Naty and her biological twin had to be separated at an early age in order to give each of them a better chance in life.

Her mother’s experience had an enduring influence on Marissa.

“I truly feel if it was not for those values, I would not be the woman or mother I am today,” she said. “I feel like her story is a big part of the reason of why I do what I do.”

Meeting Miguel

Marissa Perez was a student at Washington Middle School when she met Miguel Cardona.

He noticed Marissa in the church choir at St. Rose of Lima Church and almost joined the choir because of her.

“He and I liked each other when I was a student at Washington Middle School,” she recalled. “I wasn’t allowed to date, so we would write letters to each other and my friend would deliver them to him. He and I lost touch but we would get the butterflies anytime we would see each other at a community event or church.

“Eventually, I went to college and one weekend I went to a Hispanic scholarship fundraiser dance, which he helped coordinate,” she continued. “He asked me to dance and then we started dating. I ended up marrying my first middle school crush.”

The couple married a year after Marissa participated in the Miss America pageant. As Miss Connecticut 2001, Marissa chose alcohol abuse prevention for her platform.

The 2001 Miss America pageant, held in Atlantic City, N.J., took place shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and there was uncertainty about whether the pageant should go forward. Miguel was by her side, at the time as a supportive boyfriend.

“I was there during 9/11,” she said. “At the time, I didn’t have a cellphone and was worried for my family and friends. We were also afraid of a possible threat at the Miss America parade of states, and they had to move it indoors with extra security.”

Marissa Cardona was also Miss Puerto Rico of Meriden in 1994 and Miss Connecticut Teen USA in 1996. She went on to compete in Miss Teen USA, held in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Career

During her early career, she mentored at WTNH, interned at Telemundo, and began working in ESPN's international soccer department. She recalled being hired through her ability to speak Spanish. During her time at ESPN she did some traveling, including a trip to Milan, Italy, as part of the job.

After she married Miguel, Marissa wanted to shift her focus to starting a family and the future of her children’s education. As part of her desire to give back to the community, she decided to work as a program manager at the Community Health Center in the nurturing families network program.

During her time at CHC, she called attention to the disparities within the health care system.

“One of my biggest passions has been serving the community I grew up in and empowering our families, students, and parents,” she said. “They can have a voice — and giving them the tools to do that.”

Her next job was community organizer at the Meriden Children’s First Initiative. She said that she loved the experience and that she was able to campaign for universal health care.

Now she is a family school liaison for the school district.

“Our students need to believe, regardless of what background, they can achieve anything, whether it is college or a technical degree,” she said. “They have to find what they’re passionate about.”

Marissa has loved singing since she was 6 years old. It’s something her parents and husband have always supported. Her album “Ayer y Hoy” was dedicated to her family coming from Puerto Rico and working hard to achieve the American dream.

“One of my favorite quotes growing up was, ‘Some people succeed because they’re destined to, but most people succeed because they’re determined to,’” she said.