Yoel Camayd-Freixas, 62, driven advocate in Hispanic community

By Gloria Negri
Globe Staff / May 9, 2011

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When President Jimmy Carter took on the challenge of opening up travel by Americans to Cuba in 1977 after family reunification visits had been banned for two decades, he sent a group of Cuban-Americans there to promote his cause.

Among them was Yoel Camayd-Freixas, who had been flown out of Cuba as a child with others in Operation Peter Pan in 1962. (In the early ’60s, Cuban children were sent to the United States because their parents feared for their children’s future under the Fidel Castro regime.)

Yoel Camayd-Freixas would become a distinguished academic dedicated to making life fuller for the Latino and underserved populations.

He worked to bring new life to listless educational systems and new hope to dying communities. “Yoel always had a passion for social justice,’’ said his wife, Ana.

“He was a rebel in the best sense of the word,’’ his younger brother, Erik, professor of Hispanic Studies at Florida International University in Miami, said in his eulogy. “As a youngster, Yoel rebelled against adversity and fate and became a self-made man. Later, when he rebelled against injustice, he became an activist. When he rebelled against poverty, he became entrepreneurial in leading economic development initiatives in poor communities. When he rebelled against ignorance, he became an educator. And, in the end, he rebelled against death through his generous acts of love.’’

Dr. Camayd-Freixas, a social psychologist who excelled in education, community development, and public administration, died of pancreatic cancer April 28 at the University of Miami Hospital. He was 62.

“Yoel was a father figure to the Latino community, a friend to the cause of justice,’ said Diana Lam of Milton, a friend and former Chelsea school superintendent. “He always used his sharp intelligence to bring evidence to build his case. A formidable advocate, Yoel sided with those struggling for greater democracy.’’

He was a former assistant professor in the Urban Studies and Planning faculty at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a former professor at the School of Community Development at Southern New Hampshire University, joining its staff in 2002.

Author and coauthor of books and monographs, on subjects ranging from weeding out crime to workforce opportunities for people with disabilities, he was recently appointed tenured professor of research methods at Florida International University’s College of Education.

Dr. Camayd-Freixas and his family lived in several Boston neighborhoods and for the last six years in Weston.

His work ranged widely — “from survey and multimethod research, educational reform, parent and community engagement, to adult education and workforce development,’’ Lam said.

He was at MIT in 1982 and with Boston Public Schools in 1985, assigned to create an office of research and development.

In 1988, he was key in the election of Nelson Merced as Massachusetts’ first Latino member of the House of Representatives. “Yoel was the chief negotiator of the Latino Democratic Committee, and he negotiated an agreement with the Black Political Task Force in Boston that ensured support for a viable Latino candidate,’’ Lam said. “Through negotiations with Republican state legislators and a lawsuit against the Democratic-led House of Representatives, he was successful in creating the Fifth Suffolk District.’’

“Yoel was an expert in statistical analysis and convinced me I could be a viable candidate,’’ Merced, now of West Orange, N.J., recalled.

Also in the 1980s, Dr. Camayd-Freixas worked with others on development of Alianza Hispana’s “overall strategy for the development of the Dudley Street neighborhood,’’ Lam said.

He was born, Yohel, in Holguin, Cuba, a town about 400 miles east of Havana. He later removed the “h’’ in his name to make pronunciation easier.

His mother, a pharmacist, died when he was 9. When Castro seized power in 1959, his father, like others fearing what the new regime would do to their children, sent Yoel, 13, and a brother to America as part of a US-sponsored program operated with the collaboration of the Catholic Church.

He had an aunt living in Miami, where he graduated from Miami Edison High School in 1966, his wife said. Doing construction work days and attending classes at night, she said, he earned a bachelor’s degree with highest honors from Universidad Mundial in Puerto Rico, majoring in psychology and sociology in 1970. He came to Boston that year with a scholarship to Northeastern University, where he achieved his master’s degree in health education in 1972. In 1978, he was awarded a master’s degree in social psychology from Boston College. He earned his doctorate degree in the same discipline from BC in 1982.

In 1978, he founded the Hispanic Outreach Team in Jamaica Plain. Miren Uriarte of the Mauricio Gaston Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy at UMass-Boston, credited Dr. Camayd-Freixas with “expanding the reach of this program to the growing Latino population of Jamaica Plain by bringing together Latino Mental health providers from different local community health centers and coordinating their services to the Latino population.’’

She said the JP Hispanic Outreach Team was “one of the first community-based professional mental health services available to Latinos in Massachusetts.’’

In 1980, he was cited by the National Institute of Mental Health.

In 1982, he married Ana (Perez Uncal), whom he had met in 1978 while he was at BC and she was a graduate student at Boston University. Both were volunteering to set up a conference for health care officials for underserved populations.

“I was really thrilled when he asked me for my phone number,’’ she said. “But he was all about work, and it turned out to be for a database he was compiling.’’

In education, Uriarte said, Dr. Camayd-Freixas “was the person who developed the in-house research and evaluation capacity of the Boston Public Schools in the late 1980s . . . From my view, this predates subsequent efforts in Massachusetts and across the nation to provide accountability in public education.’’

From 1984 to 1988, he served on the Massachusetts Commission on Hispanic Affairs for Governor Michael S. Dukakis.

In a telephone interview, Dukakis recalled the key role Dr. Camayd-Freixas played during his term as governor from 1983 to 1991, when he appointed him cochairman of the commission and later in his run for the presidency. “When I was elected in 1982, the Latino community was just coming into its own and facing problems like housing, jobs, job training, and education,’’ he said. “The commission came up with some impressive recommendations. It set up town meetings across the state where solutions were recommended. Yoel was a brilliant man.’’

In 1990, he joined the administration of David Dinkins, New York City’s first African-American mayor, to oversee municipal health care.

From 1992 to 2001, he and his wife lived in Florida, where he was a consultant to nonprofit organizations and universities.

In 2002, he joined the faculty of Southern New Hampshire University, where he was associate dean in the School of Community Economic Development.

Dr. Camayd-Freixas had a lighter side, Lam said, and “a classy sense of humor.’’

He was “a great cook of Cuban food,’’ said José Massó, a longtime friend who has the “Con Salsa’’ program on WBUR. At family urging, he recently wrote a cookbook.

In addition to his wife and brother, Dr. Camayd-Freixas leaves a daughter, Christina of Cambridge; another brother, Alberto E. of Puerto Rico; and a sister, Soraya Camayd-Torres of Paris. A memorial service is planned in Boston.

Gloria Negri can be reached at