FORT BELVOIR, Va. –
Isha Mary Renta Lopez was born and raised in Puerto Rico. The threats that hurricanes posed to her homeland inspired her to become a meteorologist, but she had to leave home to pursue that dream.
She earned an undergraduate degree in mathematics and then moved to Washington, D.C., to attend Howard University because no schools in Puerto Rico offered meteorology degrees.
“In my mind, I had a plan to return to Puerto Rico. But as we all know, life never turns out the way we plan,” she said.
Renta Lopez was the keynote speaker for the National Hispanic Heritage Month celebration Oct. 4 at the McNamara Headquarters Complex. The event was presented by the Defense Logistics Agency Energy.
After years of internships and jobs with the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Renta Lopez said she was successful professionally but missed her connection to Puerto Rico.
That’s when bomba, a traditional Afro-Puerto Rican style of dance and music, entered her life.
“When you are raised in a different culture, finding a connection to home can make a big difference,” she said. “This is what bomba did for me.”
She found a bomba group in Washington, D.C., and felt connected to the local community as well as to Puerto Rico, she said.
After moving south to Fredericksburg, Virginia, she couldn’t meet with her group as often as she liked. She wondered if other immigrants from Puerto Rico felt the same way.
She founded Semilla Cultural in 2014. This non-profit organization focuses on embracing Puerto Rican culture and arts in the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia region. The group raises cultural awareness by teaching and performing Puerto Rican music and the historical events that shaped it.
Semilla Cultural has held 250 workshops reaching over 5,000 students over and performed at the Kennedy Center. They also provided relief and support to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017, Hurricane Fiona in 2022, and a 6.4 magnitude earthquake in January 2020.
“I am very thankful for all these opportunities, but I also have worked very hard. I have allowed myself to dream big, and I have been able to take risks and think outside the box,” she said.
Following her childhood dream, Renta Lopez has become the lead of NOAA’s science council and is adviser to its chief scientist.
The number of Hispanics in atmospheric sciences is low, she said. As of 2021, people of Hispanic origin made up 6% of the atmospheric and earth science workforce in the United States, yet this group represents 20% of the population.
This discrepancy can be attributed to a lack of funding for collaboration with Hispanic-serving institutions, limited opportunities due to immigration status, and limited support for international research, she said.
To bridge these gaps, programs and initiatives were created in association with the American Meteorological Society to support the Hispanic community and provide services in Spanish.
“The impacts of these programs have been able to reach broader communities that were not being serviced by having information in their own language,” Renta Lopez said. “There’s still a lot to be done, but we’re moving in the right direction by creating the programs and support systems that didn’t exist before.”
Some of this growth inspires her, she said, recalling when she first met a Latina member of the senior executive service.
“I almost had tears in my eyes when I met that lady, and it was because of the important connection I was able to make with her. I was able to see myself in her role,” Renta Lopez said.
This fall, she will release her first children’s book, called “Sofia Y Su Tambor De Bomba” (Sofia and Her Bomba Drum). As the mother of two daughters, Renta Lopez said representation matters, even in children’s books.
“I want to make sure a little Latina girl can feel hope and be inspired by her own dreams when she sees me,” she said.
DLA Energy Commander Navy Capt. Brian Anderson asked the workforce to continue learning more about Hispanic culture beyond the day’s celebration.
“I challenge each one of you to go beyond this event and look deeper into the understanding of the rich heritage and diverse backgrounds that make up the Hispanic workforce and the ethnicities which make up the family known as DLA Energy,” Anderson said. “By doing so, we uncover shared experiences that bind us together with a unique perspective, which empowers us to achieve a greater collectiveness.”
The two-part celebration started with a salsa dance performance by Eamonn Knights, a business process analyst with DLA Energy, and his partner, Glenda Thomas. Semilla Cultural performed the bomba before the ceremony and held a workshop after the keynote address.