Myrka Gonzalez is one of three children and a descendant of six generations of educators in Cuba. Her husband, David Ochoa, is one of 15 children born to poor migrant farmers in California.
Although they grew up under very different circumstances, Gonzalez and Ochoa share a legacy of public-spiritedness, resulting in a generosity that has benefited countless Long Islanders and local causes.
Over the past 10 years the Patchogue couple has donated more than $2 million to support higher education and leadership development for Hispanics on Long Island. They continue to make annual contributions and donations to beloved causes.
About eight years ago, Gonzalez, 54, a practicing attorney, and Ochoa, 68, a former attorney who is now a consultant for nonprofits involved in higher education and research, sold two cable television companies they owned in Los Angeles and endowed scholarships for undergraduate Hispanic students at Dowling College in Oakdale and Hofstra University Law School in Hempstead.
"We both understand the value of education," Gonzalez said. "I'm a refugee. I came to this country with nothing, but my parents always taught me education cannot be taken away from you. So if I can help someone acquire that, it is of much more value than anything I could hand to you."
In addition to making annual contributions to Dowling and Hofstra beyond the scholarship endowments, Ochoa said he and his wife also make regular donations to organizations "that are important to us," which include the Suffolk County Council of the Boy Scouts of America, Planned Parenthood and the Congregational Church of Patchogue, where they are members.
Giving "is an article of faith" for Ochoa.
"I was born with the notion of giving back," he said. "You cannot give only when you have it. We all have gifts we can give. To me that's the real philanthropy. It's not a matter of money; it's a matter of heart."
The couple's benevolence springs from their upbringing. Gonzalez and her parents fled Cuba and came to the United States in 1962 when she was almost 5. She said well-off students at Catholic schools in Santiago de Cuba, her hometown, were required to "adopt" a child of lesser means.
"Your job was to pay for that child's uniform," she said.
Ochoa's father -- a Mexican migrant farmer who Ochoa said crossed the U.S. border 11 times without documentation -- raised his American-born children, 10 boys and five girls, to do for others even when they were in fields picking apricots, walnuts, grapes, prunes and almonds in California.
"My parents taught us to love our neighbors, to be helpful," Ochoa said. "We were required to help clean the church, plant the flowers, visit the sick. With 15 kids, they didn't have a lot of money, but they had time."
The scholarships that Ochoa and Gonzalez sponsor at Hofstra are intended to help Latino students earn law degrees. Gonzalez learned early the value of a legal education. When she was 6, she said, she decided to make law her career.
"I saw people who did not speak English who didn't get the same representation because they couldn't communicate with their attorney," she said, "so I was determined to be a trial attorney."
She holds a doctorate in jurisprudence from Hofstra, a doctorate in education from Dowling College and a bachelor's degree in political science from Stony Brook University. She has her own practice in Patchogue and represents clients in domestic, child abuse and neglect cases, contracts and real estate matters.
Gonzalez also teaches a class in state and local government at Suffolk County Community College. Before she and her husband moved to Long Island from California in the late 1990s, she was a college instructor and taught at four elementary schools.
Ochoa holds a degree in corporate law from the University of California at Los Angeles and a bachelor's in history from Whittier College, a private liberal arts school in California. He gave up practicing law after teaching it at a university in Lima, Peru, and after working as an attorney for General Electric in Mexico City.
"I tried law and found it boring," Ochoa said, "so I changed careers."
He was a news correspondent and executive producer for programming at NBC from 1975 to 1983 and a co-creator of the television series "Villa Alegre," which Ochoa said was an English/Spanish version of "Sesame Street." He has been nominated for seven Emmys and won two for consumer reporting. While at Dowling for two stints from the 1990s to 2003, Ochoa was a vice president and a dean.
No one in his family went to college, Ochoa said, but it was his dream "to be somebody else."
Ochoa met Gonzalez 20 years ago. She was "a young, aggressive lawyer involved in Hispanic art and culture," he recalled. "She was alert, bright, talented. We worked on a community project together . . ."
They dated for a couple of years before getting married. "She had to check me out," Ochoa recalled.
Remarking on the difference in their lineage, he noted that, "Her family is very literate. Her grandparents were college-educated. Her dad was an engineer. My guys [parents] were blue-collar farm workers, but we both have a profound sense of love for our neighbors."
The sale of the cable companies became, Ochoa said, "the first chance to give back to the community." Ochoa was the founding chief executive of the cable companies, partnering with four African-Americans and Hispanics to win a franchise from the City of Los Angeles.
As to their focus on education, in her five-page resume, Gonzalez states, "The importance of access to education as a means of improving and assuring our success as a society is a fundamental principle of my educational philosophy. My life has been dedicated to this principle. There were people who helped us through assistance of some sort, so when we had the opportunity to do something we did."
She said that in Inuit -- once known as Eskimo -- culture "a special hat is given to a person chosen not because he's the greatest leader, but because he provides not only for his immediate family and the parents of his spouse, but because he provides for the orphans and the elderly who cannot provide for themselves. That's the person they value above all others."
Over the years, Ochoa and Gonzalez have sat on many boards and committees and received numerous honors, including the 2003 Philanthropist of the Year award from the Association of Fundraising Professionals' Long Island chapter.
She mentors attorneys, lectures and writes on the law, education and social issues for Hispanic and other publications. Gonzalez served on the executive board of the Suffolk County Boy Scouts, and as a supporter of the arts she was on the chairman's council of the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington and served on the Long Island Arts Council.
Sense of community
Ochoa and Gonzalez are hesitant to talk about their impact on the Hispanic community, but Ochoa noted that "Hispanics are active in their parishes and churches, and we have men and women from the Hispanic community serving on the SCCC board. I didn't make it happen, but I'm part of it. It's no longer taking care of ourselves but becoming a caretaker of the whole community.
"We were very proud of our heritage, our language, and being part of the American experience," he added. "But while it's important that we maintain our cultural and linguistic and Hispanic roots, we have to have the audacity to grow with the greater community."
"When I was younger I thought we needed minority role models for philanthropy," Ochoa said. "We need to step up to the plate and contribute our share to the arts and culture. Our goal is not to keep; our goal is sharing. Our parents made it all possible."
And Ochoa's two grown children from a previous marriage -- daughter Chemen Rivera and son David Jr. -- were encouraged to carry on the tradition. Rivera lives in Santa Fe, N.M., and her brother lives in Alaska, according to their father, who added that they both volunteer in middle and high schools and are involved in conservation movements and community public service projects.
"Our hope," Gonzalez said, "is that others would emulate us. Maybe I can't do that sum [amounts they have given], but I can do something. It's what you're supposed to do. Don't talk about it. Just do it."