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PHOTO — West Haven Mayor Nancy R. Rossi presents a citation to Hispanic American of the Year Rafael Zayas, the deputy chief of the West Shore Fire Department, for his contributions to the city’s Hispanic community at the fifth annual Hispanic Heritage Celebration on the steps of City Hall on Friday, Sept. 15. (City Photo/Michael P. Walsh)
WEST HAVEN, Sept. 15, 2023 — West Shore Fire Department Deputy Chief Rafael Zayas received the city’s Hispanic American of the Year award at the fifth annual Hispanic Heritage Celebration on Friday, Sept. 15.
Mayor Nancy R. Rossi and the West Haven Hispanic Heritage Committee honored Zayas, the son of Puerto Rican-born parents, during a midday ceremony on the steps of City Hall.
The committee bestows the award annually on a Hispanic resident who epitomizes service in West Haven’s thriving Hispanic community.
Amid a partly cloudy, windy day, Zayas, who will mark his inaugural year of service with the West Shore Fire District on Oct. 1, celebrated his Puerto Rican roots with dozens of friends and loved ones at the 20-minute event.
Along with descendants of folks from Puerto Rico and Latin America, he was also joined by an array of West Haven and New Haven fire officials, West Haven employees and residents, and city and state leaders, including Milford Democratic Sen. James Maroney, the Senate’s deputy majority leader whose district includes West Haven, who presented Zayas with a General Assembly citation on behalf of the city’s delegation.
Zayas was flanked by a line of firefighters, officers and chiefs from the West Shore, West Haven and Allingtown fire departments, as well as the New Haven Fire Department, as he humbly accepted the Hispanic American of the Year award by thanking the crowd, the Rossi administration and his fellow firefighters.
“I want to thank the West Haven Fire Department for taking me in and treating me as one of their own,” said Zayas, 48, born in New Haven to Domingo and Raquel Zayas, who hail from the town of Orocovis in central Puerto Rico and the town of Hatillo on the island’s north coast, respectively.
Zayas, who lives in West Shore, was accompanied by his mother and his wife, the former Catalina Guzman, who sat in the front row holding their 1-year-old son, Ethan, and beaming with pride as her husband was feted.
“I am very appreciative of this award,” Zayas said. “I pray for the city and the government. If this city prospers, so does my family.”
Zayas was raised with his older sister and younger brother on Spring Street in New Haven’s Hill neighborhood. He graduated in 1992 from Wilbur Cross High School and later from Gateway Community College.
A Latin-flavored lunch after the event was catered by Tropical Caribbean restaurant of West Haven in the First Congregational Church’s Fellowship Hall, at 464 Campbell Ave. opposite City Hall on the Green. Two cakes were provided by Costco of Milford.
In observance of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs through Oct. 15, West Haven recognizes the important legacy of Hispanic Americans and the inspiring contributions they have made to the culture and history of the United States.
Hispanics have had a profound and positive influence on the civic and cultural life of America, enhancing and shaping the national character with centuries-old traditions that reflect the multiethnic and multicultural customs of their community.
Hispanic Heritage Month, which traces its roots to 1968, begins each year on Sept. 15, the anniversary of independence of five Latin American countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Mexico and Chile also celebrate their independence days during that period.
Rossi said Zayas personifies the noble qualities of serving his vibrant community and carrying on the proud traditions of Puerto Rico — as well as the rich tradition of Puerto Ricans in the fire service.
Zayas retired last year from the New Haven Fire Department after nearly a quarter century of service as both a firefighter and officer, including most recently as a deputy chief and a battalion chief.
While on the job in the Elm City, he received five unit citations for work at fires.
For two decades, Zayas represented his fellow Puerto Rican smoke eaters as a member of the New Haven Hispanic Firefighters Association.
As the association’s president from 2014 to 2021, he was instrumental in organizing Thanksgiving food giveaways, toy drives and Three Kings Day celebrations in Greater New Haven’s Hispanic community. He also distributed back-to-school supplies and organized a scholarship banquet for high school seniors from New Haven.
Rossi lauded the civic-minded Zayas, whom she called a man of faith and service, for his devotion to the city and its robust Hispanic community.
Zayas is also known for his volunteerism at his house of worship, Christian Community of Restoration to the Nations, or CCRN, a nondenominational Christian church in Hamden.
Rossi presented him with an embroidered “Hispanic American of the Year 2023” jacket and a Puerto Rican flag.
The mayor then read and presented a citation praising Zayas’ good works.
“Since your first day on the job with the West Shore Fire Department, you have been one of West Haven’s finest public safety ambassadors and have helped bring about progress for our great city,” Rossi said. “Your compassionate spirit and your desire to help those who need it most remind us of what it truly means to be a ‘Westie.’”
The cultural event also included congratulatory remarks by Public Works Commissioner Tom J. McCarthy, the master of ceremonies, and Joseph Rodriguez, the deputy state director of U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s Hartford office.
Before a prayer by Ana Garcia of Vertical Church of West Haven, Garcia sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the Puerto Rican national anthem, “La Borinqueña.”
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— MICHAEL P. WALSH, Public Relations Information Coordinator
West Haven Mayor Nancy R. Rossi presents a citation to Hispanic American of the Year Rafael Zayas, the deputy chief of the West Shore Fire Department, for his contributions to the city’s Hispanic community at the fifth annual Hispanic Heritage Celebration on the steps of City Hall on Friday, Sept. 15. (City Photo/Michael P. Walsh)
West Shore Fire Department Deputy Chief Rafael Zayas receives an embroidered “Hispanic American of the Year 2023” jacket from Mayor Nancy R. Rossi. (City Photo/Michael P. Walsh)
West Haven Public Works Commissioner Tom J. McCarthy, the master of ceremonies, opens the program. (City Photo/Michael P. Walsh)
A Puerto Rican flag blows in the wind as Ana Garcia sings “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Looking on is emcee Tom J. McCarthy. Garcia also sang the Puerto Rican national anthem, “La Borinqueña.” (City Photo/Michael P. Walsh)
Rafael Zayas puts his right hand over his heart as “The Star-Spangled Banner” is sung. Looking on are, from left, Zayas’ mother, Raquel, holding his son, Ethan, 1; his wife, Catalina; and Mayor Nancy R. Rossi. (City Photo/Michael P. Walsh)
The crowd applauds in front of City Hall. (City Photo/Michael P. Walsh)
Ana Garcia of Vertical Church of West Haven gives the invocation as emcee Tom J. MCarthy bows his head. (City Photo/Michael P. Walsh)
Rafael Zayas receives a General Assembly citation from Milford Democratic Sen. James Maroney, the Senate’s deputy majority leader whose district includes West Haven, on behalf of the city’s delegation. (City Photo/Michael P. Walsh)
Mayor Nancy R. Rossi delivers remarks about the honoree’s dedication to the fire service and volunteerism as emcee Tom J. McCarthy looks on. (City Photo/Michael P. Walsh)
Rafael Zayas receives a Puerto Rican flag from Mayor Nancy R. Rossi and emcee Tom J. McCarthy. (City Photo/Michael P. Walsh)
Rafael Zayas and Mayor Nancy R. Rossi hold up the Puerto Rican flag with 2021 Hispanic American of the Year Sammy Rivera, left, and 2019 Hispanic American of the Year Iris Milagros Diaz. (City Photo/Michael P. Walsh)
Rafael Zayas, with his son, wife and mother, proudly displays the Puerto Rican flag with Mayor Nancy R. Rossi. (City Photo/Michael P. Walsh)