Sonia Palacio-Grottola, a retired mental health social worker, was a loving mother and grandmother whose life balanced joyous fun with committed advocacy on behalf of the growing Latino population on Long Island, family members said.
"She was a short woman, small in stature, but she had a deep passion for community, especially in her work," daughter-in-law Teresa Palacio of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, said in an interview.
"She helped young Latina families that didn’t speak English. She would help them understand what was available to them, as far as opportunities for work … If they had children with special needs, she would explain to them where to go for financial, medical and educational support."
In a statement to Newsday, Teresa Palacio and her husband Paul, Palacio-Grottola's son, said: "In her private life, Sonia was the happiest spending time with family and friends. She was not one to stay still! She loved traveling, going to Broadway shows, dining out and most of all — salsa dancing! She will be remembered for her vibrance and joy of life."
Palacio-Grottola of Commack died Dec. 7 in hospice care of complications from COVID-19, her son said. She was 87.
Palacio-Grottola was born and grew up in New York City's Washington Heights neighborhood, her son said. Her parents were originally from Puerto Rico, he added. She would later become instrumental in championing the needs of Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics on Long Island and across the tristate area, her family said.
She was a founding member of the National Association of Puerto Rican Hispanic Social Workers in 1983, and a one-time president of the organization, which honored her with a lifetime achievement award in 2019. She was still involved in the group, serving as treasurer up until a week before her death, a friend noted on the website, which paid tribute to Palacio-Grottola with many reminiscences.
One from Vilma Matos described Palacio-Grottola as a "passionate social worker changing lives for the better no matter where she went or what she did."
Matos said her friend's "profound legacy" was fighting the "English only" bills in Suffolk County proposed in 1988 and again in the 1990s making English Suffolk's official language. They were never enacted.
In several Newsday articles, Palacio-Grottola was described as a leader in organizing opposition to the bills. She told Newsday in 1996: "We don't need to legislate language. What they're doing is giving an official OK to the average bigot on Long Island to be a bigot openly."
She and her first husband, Joseph, moved to Long Island more than 60 years ago, settling in Commack. He died in 1977. Her second husband, James Grottola, died in 1995.
After becoming a widow the first time, she went back to school and later earned a master's degree in social work from what is now Stony Brook University.
According to a 1999 Newsday article, Palacio-Grottola entered the workforce in 1973 as a part-time library aide for the Commack School District. Later, after studying at Stony Brook, she worked for the Suffolk County Department of Social Services, then transferred to Pilgrim Psychiatric Center in Brentwood.
She retired in 1996, but continued part-time work with her private psychiatric practice, helping disabled children of Spanish-speaking parents negotiate the Social Security and health-care systems.
In addition to her son and daughter-in-law, Palacio-Grottola's survivors include a daughter, Sabrina Grottola of Commack; a brother, Joseph Segarra of North Carolina; a sister, Irene Munroe of Coconut Grove, Florida; and four grandchildren.
Services and burial were private, the family said. The family suggested those wishing to honor their mother's memory may make donations to the National Association of Puerto Rican Hispanic Social Workers Scholarship Program at www.NAPRHS.com.