Lessons learned, lessons shared: Nevada Latinas on why the journey never ends
Claudia Ortega-Lukas and 14 other Nevada Latinas talk about challenges, trials, acheivements and more, offering insight as well as advice for their younger selves
March is Women’s History Month and I have been thinking about the impact Nevada Latinas have in our community. As a member of Alianza, I have the honor to work alongside many women who every day demonstrate their commitment to their jobs and to the goal of bringing education to all our young people, in particular underrepresented communities.
As women, we care for those around us, at home and at work. We can’t stop trying to help everyone, no matter the cost. It is what our madres taught us. We are also very aware of the role we play in making life better for the younger generations, especially our women. We want our young Latinas to have access to education, to healthcare and childcare, to good jobs and good wages, to not having to work two or three jobs to make ends meet, and to be able to afford time off. We know that as role models we can inspire others to dream and achieve. And we know that through our work at the University we help pave the road for those behind us, we are Abriendo Caminos (trailblazing). We teach, counsel, guide and mentor. We do this everywhere, anytime, not just as part of our jobs but as part of our daily lives.
And we all have had our share of challenges and uphill battles. Some of us fought against all odds to be where we are now, defying the possibilities of success. Many of us had to learn a second language and navigate a much different culture, some serving as the official interpreter to our families at the tender age of 8. Today, we know we are in the right path. We know our work makes a difference. We know we are succeeding, slowly, at times, but definitely moving forward with determination.
So, I thought, what are some of the lessons learned I wish I had known when I was young? If there was a way to share that knowledge with our 17-year-old selves, what would we say?
Our answers were, unsurprisingly, similar.
As hard as that is to really internalize when you are 17, the advice would be to really embrace who you are, rather than “accommodate” those parts of you that you think should not be “disclosed” somehow, including your opinions. As long as one is departing from a place of respect towards others and towards oneself, feeling able to be yourself, including being able to express one’s ideas and beliefs, is the greatest freedom.
Eloisa Gordon-Mora, Ph.D. Political Science
From the vantage point of being 41, I would give my 17-year-old self two seemingly conflicting pieces of advice. First, I would say that you can work to change the situations you cannot accept. Change might be arduous, and it appears to be impossible at times, but if you have the right people on your side, you will make progress. The second is that righteous indignation does not mean you need to be unkind. In fact, you will not regret being considerate to people—including yourself. It is possible (although it is not easy!) to be considerate, respectful, and empathetic in a world that often rewards mean-spirited competition. This does not mean that you need to suffer other people’s meanness indiscriminately, however: you can work towards making change while keeping your internal joy intact.
Tania Leal, Ph.D. Second Language Acquisition
Just because no one who looks like you or has done it before, doesn't mean you can't pursue your dreams. You'll be surprised who you see on the other side. You'll learn much more than those who hesitated. People will tell you "you can’t" but it shouldn't stop you from proving to yourself that you can. Also, you don't have to choose to do one thing for the rest of your life. As long as you challenge yourself and find joy and passion in what you do, life will turn out. Look toward the wildest things you could ever dream of doing and you'll find what you want along the way.
Sierra Gonzales, M.S. Mechanical Engineering
A piece of advice to the 17-year-old me would be to not hesitate considering all possibilities toward your future. Accept opportunities to visit other campuses and embrace the chance to explore other areas. No dream is too big! Something that would have made me more self-sufficient would have been knowledge of financial investing. Gratefully, I received many scholarships and funding, and it would have made a tremendous difference if I’d known how to invest extra funds.
Jafeth Salido Sánchez, Ph.D. Higher Education Administration
Allow yourself to be in uncomfortable spaces because that is where you will learn and grow the most. Don’t be afraid to take, and ask, for opportunities. Enjoy the journey and cherish every single moment because that living moment becomes a memory.
Noemí Gómez Martínez, MSW Social Work
I would tell my younger self: Do not limit yourself to anything! If you desire more education, then seek it. Travel, experience different cultures and be your authentic, fierce self! Learn about your raíces (roots)! Get involved with the community and network! There may be times that you feel you are not seen, heard or that you are enough! Know, my fierce warrior, mujer, that you are indeed enough! Pay it forward not for the recognition but for the simple reason that you are paving the way for future generations. Leave a legacy in all that you do!
Juana Reynoza-Gomez, M.A. Counseling and Educational Psychology
The advice I have for my 17-year-old self is that it's great to live in the inquiry or the grey areas of existence. I'm someone who is very goal oriented and makes a lot of plans, and even though that's a strength I think sometimes the challenge can be hesitancy to want to deviate from that plan. The older I get the more comfortable I get living in the grey area of life. So very little of existence is binary or black and white, and learning to be OK with the grey and thriving in the question instead of seeking an answer can be really powerful and open your eyes to new possibilities. Also, I advise always taking advantage of opportunities presented to you. It may not be exactly what you want at the time, but the people you meet and the things you learn are invaluable. The last piece of advice I have for my 17-year-old self is to remember the importance of reflection. It's really important to do the work of self-reflection and self-discovery so that no matter what choices you make along the way, you are able to make strong decisions that no matter what happens you can always be proud of who you are and your ancestors can be proud of who you are.
Cecilia Brooke Cholka, Ph.D. Health Communication
Many of us who grow up with amazing, well-intended, loving, very protective Hispanic family members may be able to relate to the funny comments that our elders often make in efforts to keep us safe, healthy, and well-fed:
- No andes descalza. (Don’t walk barefoot.)
- No salgas con el pelo mojado. (Don’t go outside with your hair wet.)
- Necesitas comer bien. (You need to eat well.)
While still well-intended, there were sometimes comments made by my older family members that reinforced negative gender roles, standards of beauty, and cultural expectations:
- Deja que los hombres se sirvan un plato primero. (Let the men eat first.)
- Las mujeres son mas débiles que los hombres...no deberían hacer senderismo solas en las montaña. (Women are weaker than men… they shouldn’t hike alone on the mountains.)
- No salgas de casa sin maquillaje... —putting on my eyebrows was a big thing for my abuelita. (Don’t go out without makeup.)
I could feel my heels dig in harder every time I heard someone say: “Why aren't you married yet?” “Why don't you want to get pregnant and have babies?” “You already got a college degree and a job...why do you keep going to school?”
The advice that I would tell my 17-year-old self would be to speak up. Rather than growing more resentful and more stubborn... just speak up. Rather than trying to prove society wrong all the time... just speak up. Rather than letting those comments create a guarded, independent protective barrier... just speak up.
Now at 40 years of age, I know how important representation is. For all the young Hispanic females out there, I am here to tell you that it is okay for you to be you. You are perfect exactly the way that you are.
Mariluz García, Ph.D. Equity & Diversity in Education
Strength truly comes from failure and loss. Failing is a part of life — lean on family and friends. They are always there for you, no matter the circumstance, even when you do not believe in yourself. Learning to be resilient will give you strength. I would also tell my 17-year-old self: Be kind to yourself. Ask for help when you need it, say no when you need to, and never be embarrassed to struggle. Keep your eye on your future but don’t forget to live in the moment and soak it in. Everything is happening for a reason, I promise.
Fallon Rodríguez, B.S. Environmental Engineering
The best advice I can give my 17-year-old self is to try to be more optimistic and open to new opportunities, even when you think that some things aren't meant for you because of your background. When I was 17, I was convinced that I had to pick between music and engineering because it was impossible to be good at both, but I ended up doing it for my first two years in college! I also never thought that the opportunity to study abroad would be a possibility for me, and I did it, and it was one of the best experiences I had in my life! Lastly, I never thought I would be moving to a big city like Chicago and working as an engineer. I accomplished all these things, so, never think that your background, gender and age are a limiting factor for your career because you are capable of doing anything you set your mind to.
Michelle Falcón Mujica, B.S. Electrical Engineering
At 17, making decisions about college and your future is much more daunting as a first-generation college student. I was the first to go to college in my family and the youngest of five siblings. One piece of advice that I would tell my 17-year-old self would be to pursue your goals regardless of the distance. Going-away to college seemed out of reach because I had older parents and I did not want to upset them. I was also poor and stressed about how I would even get there. And I was scared because I had never traveled very far. So, I stayed local. In the end, it all turned out alright, but wish that my decision would not have been driven by those factors because it would have relieved so much pressure, stress, and opened the world to me.
Cynthia Alcantar, Ph.D. Social Science and Comparative Education
Higher education seemed impossible to me at 17. Growing up, I dealt with mental health issues and in my house we never talked about mental health or any prevention efforts. I wish I had more guidance and support, not just at 17, but throughout college. Yet I have surpassed those scary moments in my life and if I could, I would tell my 17-year-old self: You are more than enough and you are capable of achieving your dreams. You will prove to yourself that you are more than your mental health. You are a fighter. You will succeed.
Azucena Alfaro, B.S. Community Health Sciences
One piece of advice to my 17-year-old self: “Sigue creyendo en ti misma. Nuestra actitud sí puede cambiar nuestra perspectiva y la manera en que vemos el mundo.” (Always believe in yourself. Our attitude can indeed change our perspective and the way we look at the world.)
It’s true that from a young age I believed in myself and I set high goals and expectations to achieve. For that, I have my parents to thank. They ignited that fire inside — my willpower. Perhaps I was naïve to believe I could achieve such great heights, but, for the most part, I made it. It was exactly at 17 years old that I told myself: “I want to be and will be a Doctor one day (not a physician).” That goal became more specific with time: to complete a doctorate before turning 30. And I did just that!
It wasn’t easy and I did encounter many obstacles and people who flat out told me I could not and would not make it — individuals who vocalized their doubt to my face. But deep down my stubbornness or perhaps my ignorance, prevented me from doubting myself (too much). I mean, sure, there was some doubt and feeling the imposter phenomenon. However, I frequently would catch myself visualizing what it would be like to reach my goal(s). Visualization has become a strategy I use to cope with anxiety, stress, and to address that feeling of “not-belonging and not being good enough”. Seeing myself represented in the few professors and researchers of color and mujeres (chingonas) luchonas (tough women) — that was, and is, priceless.
So yes, young Karla. Sí, tú sigue creyendo en ti misma. (You keep on believing on yourself.) And while I cannot promise that it’ll be easy — it will be worth it. Keep your eye on the goal but do enjoy the journey and all the people willing to believe in you the way you believe in yourself. As my dad always says: “El querer es poder.” (Wanting is power.)
Karla Hernández, Ph.D. Cellular and Molecular Biology
Whenever you think ‘I can’t anymore’, remember those who came before you who worked tirelessly to get us, as a society, to where we are today. Although there is still a long way to go, we have achieved quite a lot from the work and sacrifices of many. Don’t be intimidated by uncertainty. Uncertainty can paralyze us from trying anything new. Often, we are our own biggest challenge. Thinking we are not good enough or smart enough, but those thoughts are most often someone else’s. Surround yourself with people who support you; work hard, don’t make excuses, and be persistent, and remember to enjoy the journey.
Julie Lucero, Ph.D. Health Communication
What would I tell my 17-year-old self? Keep daydreaming! Most importantly, always tell others about your dreams. You will be surrounded by people who will guide you, open doors, help you learn and show you how to go about reaching your goals. If no one knows what you want, no one can help you. And yes, life is hard. Life is not fair. But you keep on going, never lose your focus and determination. Take care of your passions, learn another language (or two or three), discover other worlds any way possible — read, travel! And when you find other caminantes (travelers) on your path, always be kind and helpful. Even when you think you don’t know anything, or you can’t do anything, simple acts and words of encouragement go a long way. You will never know the impact you will have on others.
Claudia Ortega-Lukas, M.A. Journalism