I learned early on that life does not deal everyone the same cards, but what you do with them can make a world of difference.
Growing up Latina in the United States allowed me the opportunity to learn from the richness of two cultures rooted in family, faith, and community. This biculturalism gave me the strength to face harsh circumstances, overcome obstacles, and choose how I was going to confront life. I learned early on that life does not deal everyone the same cards, but what you do with them can make a world of difference.
Our life was not easy. I am one of seven children. Our mother died when I was two and my little brother barely four months old. My dad worked hard to support a family of eight, playing the roles of both Mom and Dad, which did not come easy for a traditional Mexican male. “I only want for you to marry a good man who will take care of you,” my father would often say. Unintentionally, his words stung: My hard work and diligence to get good grades and someday go to college to make a better life for myself apparently meant little; or at least not as much as “marrying well.”
Despite the pressure to conform, I graduated from high school and went on to college, while others got pregnant, dropped out, and never left the Imperial Valley of California. I followed my dream, even though many in my family thought I was crazy. After getting my undergraduate degree from the University of California, I travelled across the country to pursue a Master’s degree in public policy at American University in Washington D.C. No one understood why I was leaving. “I got my degree. Wasn’t that enough? ” But I wanted more. I came to the nation’s capital with a dream to claim a seat at the table.
Upon arriving in D.C., I quickly learned that it would not be easy; D.C. was a huge culture shock. Not only was I homesick, but I felt disconnected and out of place so much so that I began doubting myself and my goals. Just as I was about to throw in the towel and go back to the Valley, a friend told me about a fellowship program for Latinos in D.C. After learning more about the program, I decided to apply. I told myself that if I didn’t make it that would be my sign to give up and go home.
That was 20 years ago. Today I am a senior executive at the same Hispanic organization that changed my life. On a daily basis I interact with members of Congress, high-powered elected officials, and CEOs of Fortune 100 companies—all working together with the vision of bringing the promise of the American Dream to the next generation of Latinos.
My siblings had similar experiences as I did growing up, but we all faced them differently. Some of us leaned in, others did not. I took a chance, followed my dream, and did not give up. I will continue to lean in and hope to serve as an example for other Latinas in the next generation.