Born in a thatched hut in Puerto Rico, Maria Matos endured poverty, discrimination and domestic violence. Her ex-husband tried to kill her. “To think I survived all that and then I get cancer,” says the 63-year-old executive director of Wilmington’s Latin American Community Center.
Diagnosed in 2005 with an aggressive form of breast cancer, Matos endured two surgeries and several months of chemotherapy and radiation. “The radiation was the most difficult,” she says. “The room looked like a tomb, and it smelled like burnt flesh.”
Those challenges made her a fighter, and fortified her ability to speak on behalf of those who couldn’t. Her battle with cancer reminded her that she had unfinished business. Her dream was to create a school.
Matos is working on two schools. She is board chairman for Academia Antonia Alonso, a dual-language charter elementary school opening in fall in Wilmington, and she’s launching a feasibility study for a capital campaign aimed at building a preschool at the Latin American Community Center.
Matos acknowledges that there are things she would have done differently. She should’ve finished her education and gotten married before she had kids. But those choices helped establish her identity, she says. “Everything that happens in your life makes you who you are. I’m glad I’m who I am. I have no regrets.”
If you knew you had only one year left, what would you do?
“I’m going to write my book. My story would encourage other Latina girls and it could give a boost to the entire city.”