ORLANDO, Fla. – Johanna López has dedicated half of her life to serving Latino families and students in Orange County as an educator.
“I feel very committed to the community because I want them to feel related and be more engaged in every space,” López said.
López is a native of Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, raised in a low-income community, she’s the daughter of a WWII veteran. López said her mother inspired her to do more.
“She cleaned houses for a living but she always emphasized the importance of continued education,” she said. “She always said ‘You know, I’m sacrificing myself, I’m cleaning houses but this is not for you, you have to study.’”
Her mother’s words had a profound impact on López. She went on to earn her Bachelor of Arts in Hispanic Studies from the University of Puerto Rico and then a Master of Arts in Higher Education from the Universidad Interamericana de Puerto Rico.
But López said soon after getting her master’s degree, in 1998 she took a leap of faith and moved to Orlando.
“I started working in the airport in a car wash in the airport and then after that, I moved to another job in a fast-food restaurant,” she recalled.
A year later, López landed a job at Colonial High School where she worked as a Spanish teacher for 19 years until she was elected Orange County school board member in 2018. The single mother of four said her goal is to help families and students in the Latino community succeed.
“Most of the time when we have people (where their) first language is other than English they don’t feel comfortable to contribute to this nation and they don’t feel comfortable because of the language barrier,” she said.
As women’s contributions are celebrated in March, López looks back at the accomplishments but says there’s still more to be done.
“When people talk about the month of March as a women’s celebration I think about our struggles and challenges in history but also about the achievements of our women,” she said. “The biggest challenge, I think, is the stereotypes that we are facing because people’s expectations from women are to behave a certain way to look a certain way to speak a certain way.”
As for how she would like to be remembered, she said as someone who spoke up for those who couldn’t or were afraid to.
“This is not about Johanna López. This is about my students. This is not about Johanna López. This is about my community. So, how do you want to be remembered? I think that I am the voice of my students and my community,” she said.
López is executive director of the Alianza Center, a nonprofit that serves the Puerto Rican and Hispanic communities by developing and promoting leadership, healthy living and civic engagement. She’s the founder of Familias Presentes: Estudiantes Excelentes, an online forum directed to making parents aware of different educational issues and opportunities.
Among her accolades; she is the recipient of the Governor’s Shine Award for Inspirational Teachers, the Queen Smith Award for Commitment to Urban Public Education, Macy’s Magic of Leadership Award, the Wings of Inspiration Award, Coca-Cola’s Educator of Distinction Award and the Life Changer of the Year award.