Lessons from my abuelita
I’m a tech executive and the granddaughter of Mexican migrant farmworkers who harvested the fields of Silicon Valley before it became Google, Facebook, and Apple. I’m on a journey to bring these two worlds closer together.
My grandmother’s pale pink house with roses is a place that holds a special place in my heart. Although the house was in an area with a high concentration of poverty and violence, her garden was a sacred space; the Virgin of Guadalupe stood watch amid a bed of mint and oregano and my grandmother stood watch over all of us. It was in that garden that she planted the seed for what matters most to me: to believe that nothing was impossible, to see the beauty of my culture, and to always follow my heart.
My abuelita from Zacatecas who did not speak or read English was the one in my family who encouraged me to go to college. My road to and through college was difficult. I often felt that I was not good enough and that I could not excel in school. When I struggled with school and felt like giving up, my grandmother would remind me that she was forced to drop out of school at the age of ten. She explained that life would be full of obstacles and that I must never give up. Each semester, my grandmother would send me off with a bag of my favorite burritos and a special blessing, reminding me to not give up. She inspired me to graduate from college, one of the three of my twenty cousins to do so.
My doubts about my ability to succeed dissolved once I joined the workforce. My college education and my grandmother’s lesson that nothing was impossible opened up a world of opportunity for me. My dream was to work and live abroad. I was told that an international assignment was impossible for someone at my level, so I volunteered for every global project I could and spoke to everyone I knew to learn about the challenges faced by international teams and how I could help. My determination and hard work paid off when I was awarded not one but two international assignments. My success abroad led to more complex roles, often projects that had previously failed or areas of business thought near impossible to transform. My grandmother’s encouragement allowed me to look at complex problems, to remember to make the impossible possible and to look for creative solutions.
During this time, I was embarrassed to admit that I grew up in East San Jose. When I thought about my childhood, I didn’t see the beautiful memories; I saw only the poverty and violence that plagued my family. That changed when I was selected for an executive rotation. The Vice President to whom I was assigned was a Cuban refugee and became one of the few people at work with whom I was able to share my past. Due to our common background, he arranged for us to visit a school of at-risk Latino children. As I walked through the halls, I watched the students. In their faces, I saw my siblings and cousins. I found myself fighting back tears. That visit forced me to acknowledge something I had tried to forget: that very few at-risk students make it to college and follow their dreams. My brother had given up on his dream to become an engineer. By the time he was 18 he had his first child and had dropped out of high school. I wanted a different future for these students. I wanted to run and shout through the halls, “I am just like you and if I could do it, so can you!”
Something awoke in me during that visit — a faith that by sharing with these young people the stories of my struggles in school, my family’s challenges, my path to college and my success at work, I could inspire them to follow the road to college, just as my grandmother had inspired me. I became more involved as a volunteer in my community, particularly with two local schools. I used my background to drive strategic planning and returned often to speak during career week and other events. The greatest joy is the feedback I receive from the students, particularly young latinas, after my visits. I discovered that by sharing my painful memories, I could help inspire those who were living that pain but who also had dreams of a different life.
This new work ignited a fire in me. I started to ask myself what I wanted to achieve in life. My brother’s children are now at a point in their lives when they are faced with difficult choices: succumb to social pressure or pursue higher education. For them, and for the hundreds of young people I have met in schools over the past few years, I decided that it was time for me to help at- risk youth overcome the obstacles they face each day. I discovered that while my head had been pulling me in one direction, that of a successful career in technology, my heart was pulling me in a very different direction.
I started Latino X-Roads, an organization to inspire youth from East San Jose to follow the road to college and to have the courage to follow their dreams. I stood on stage in front of a group of 200 strangers to talk about my vision for the East San Jose Latino community. For the first time, I didn’t have to fight back tears as I spoke about where I came from and what it was like growing up. On that stage, my grandmother’s lessons filled me with hope and joy: nothing is impossible if I follow my heart and remember the beauty of my culture.