Cristina Perez was determined to tackle the growing problem of sexual violence suffered by Latino immigrants in Philadelphia and to break the silence that accompanied it. “Rape is about taking advantage of people with no power, so migrant populations are often a target of sexual assault, human trafficking, or forced prostitution,” she said. “And it doesn’t matter if they are male or female.”

Perez has established a growing and powerful coalition of survivors dedicated to preventing sexual violence. She has established Mujeres Unidas con Voz Y Resiliencia (MUVYR) and Men in Transition through her organization Women Organized Against Rape. MUVYR is a coalition of rape survivors who work to prevent victimization of other women in their community. Men in Transition trains men as volunteer counselors who develop activities to raise awareness and prevent sexual abuse of wives, family members, and themselves.

Perez works on all aspects of preventing and supporting immigrant victims of sexual assault—people who typically suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and feel that they have no rights in this country. According to Perez, 65 percent of her cases are men victimized in their workplace. Her first challenge is to help both men and women understand that they are not at fault.

For her fearless commitment to helping Latino victims, Perez has been named one of 10 recipients of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders Award for 2012. The award honors exceptional men and women who have overcome significant obstacles to tackle some of the most challenging health and health care problems facing their communities. Perez will receive the award during a ceremony in San Antonio on October 17.

Perez’s programs have reached thousands of Latinos, including more than 2,800 migrant workers and 3,500 survivors of sexual violence. The programs include counseling and support groups, training for mental health professionals to understand the special needs of immigrant communities, training for doctors and nurses to help determine whether their patients have a history of sexual assault or abuse, seminars for teenagers to help them understand the meaning of sexual consent and statutory rape, and drug and alcohol abuse recovery programs.

Perez understands and respects the sensitivity and culture-specific approach that is needed to help end the stigma associated with sexual violence in the Latino community. “New immigrants may be reluctant to call a hotline for help. You need to be in the community and connect with them directly. That is why we go to restaurants, churches, schools, homes, community centers—anywhere the community gathers, we will go there,” Perez said.

She has collaborated with the District Attorney’s Office to stop the exploitation of victims of human trafficking and prostitution by drug dealers and cartels in Philadelphia. She worked with the Pennsylvania Department of Labor to create a special division addressing the problems of restaurant workers, and with the FBI and Mexican Consulate on the problem of human trafficking. “We are seeing progress,” Perez said. “More people are starting to report the sexual abuse of children, and the police are now better trained to handle these issues as well.”

Janice Ford Griffin, national program director of Community Health Leaders, said the selection committee honored Perez for her courage and compassion in helping immigrants. “Cristina is an eloquent and determined activist for support services, and for interdisciplinary training of professionals to assure safe and trusting relationships with persons whose health issues are exacerbated by cultural differences or immigration status,” Griffin said.

Perez was nominated for the award by Maria Pajil Battle, president of the AmeriHealth Mercy Foundation. “Cristina is determined to be a voice for Latino immigrants who are so often voiceless,” Battle said. “She is passionate about educating health care professionals about the impact of rape and sexual violence and how it relates to public health. Sexual violence perpetuates high rates of HIV/AIDS and other STDs being transmitted among Latino immigrants. Cristina is an advocate for victims’ rights, as well as their health and the importance of proper testing and follow-up.”

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has honored more than 200 Community Health Leaders since 1993. The work of the nine other 2012 recipients includes culturally appropriate care for Native Alaskan elders; a community initiative to reduce opioid abuse and drug overdoses in Wilkes County, N.C.; a program to prevent and treat cancer among medically underserved populations in South Carolina’s Low Country region; an initiative to connect refugees to mental- health services in Seattle; a breast cancer awareness and treatment program for African immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area; a free health care clinic for the working poor in Little Rock, Ark.; a project to promote healthy lifestyles and working conditions for immigrant workers in Los Angeles; an initiative to prevent childhood obesity in Garfield, N.J., and an outreach program to assist older adults living at home in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.

For details on how to submit a nomination, including eligibility requirements and selection criteria, visit