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Richmond Times-Dispatch


By Ellen Robertson

August 9, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Richmond Times-Dispatch. All Rights Reserved.

Puerto Rican Yvonne Engleson Rodriguez Benner won an islandwide essay contest in the eighth grade with a piece titled "The Importance of Learning English" and later worked as a student reporter for the newspaper that sponsored the contest.

In those days, she laid the groundwork for Virginia's first Spanish-language newspaper and for a career devoted to human rights.

In 1992, she established El Sol, the state's first Spanish- language newspaper, which was circulated monthly throughout Virginia until late 1999, when she became ill with cancer. Mrs. Benner gathered much of the news herself, published her paper at home and delivered it with the help of her daughter. The paper became an important forum for issues affecting the Hispanic community.

On Saturday, Mrs. Benner, who was first diagnosed with cancer in 1997 and with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2000, died in a local hospital. She was 47 and lived in Midlothian.

"She started the paper to give a voice to a growing Hispanic population in the state of Virginia," said former colleague Gina Cavallaro. "She was always fascinated by the silent role of Hispanics in construction of things we see every day in the community.

"She wanted to champion them and give them news in their own language; news about politics, American culture and their neighborhoods. She brought in a lot of sports news, like soccer, and news from abroad."

Mrs. Benner promoted Hispanics as an upwardly mobile, hard- working labor force and strove to build cultural bridges between Hispanic and non-Hispanic communities in Virginia.

The San Juan native earned her bachelor's degree in English at the College of Notre Dame in Maryland. She was working on a master's degree in English and public policy at Virginia Commonwealth University at the time of her death.

From 1975 to 1992, she worked for the Office of Personnel Management, the U.S. Department of Education, the civil rights office of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare and in the private sector.

In 1997, she became the first Hispanic member of a Virginia university board when she was appointed by Gov. George Allen to the board of visitors at VCU. She served as vice chairman and then chairman of the student affairs committee and as a member of the board's finance and investment, audit, and academic and health policy committees. She was reappointed by Gov. Jim Gilmore.

"Yvonne was passionate about Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans ' rights as U.S. citizens. She was totally devoted to human rights," Cavallaro said.

From 1997 to 2000, she was the legislative director and chief speech writer in the office of Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero Barcelo, D- Puerto Rico . She spearheaded Romero Barcelo's efforts on health care issues, social policy, veterans' affairs, housing, Puerto Rico 's right to self-determination and the Navy's operations on the island of Vieques .

Mrs. Benner also was a key adviser on the Allen 2000 Steering Committee during Allen's successful campaign for a Senate seat.

Survivors include her husband, William A. Benner Jr.; a daughter, Danielle Benner of Midlothian; her mother, Amalia "Marge" Rodriguez of Annandale; and a sister, Pamela Novick of Fairfax.

A Mass of the Resurrection will be said Sunday at 2 p.m. at St. Edward Catholic Church, 2700 Dolfield Drive. A private service will be held in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico .

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