Those of us in the foundation believe in opening doors. Every time you open a door, you pull someone forward.
—Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, Co-Chair, CLF; Executive Director, BAHIA
October 15, 2011: An eight-piece mariachi band with its traditional blend of guitars, horns and violins trumpeted the beginning of the Chicana/Latina Foundation’s annual celebration. Dressed in shiny midnight blue costumes adorned with embroidered white flowers, the band welcomed scholarship recipients and their families, supporters, board members and staff. They delivered a classic Mexican sound. But one thing stood out. All the musicians were young women— and all of them had graduated from college or were currently enrolled.
The choice of Orgullo Mexicano Mariachi Femenil to start off the evening was not only about great, culturally rooted entertainment, but also served as a symbol of the vital importance of education. Every year since 1977, CLF has awarded scholarships to young, smart, talented Chicanas and Latinas to advance their education. The cost of college tuition in the U.S. has increased by over 900 percent since 1978. This year more students applied for the scholarships then ever before. And this year, due to the commitment of supporters and the dedication of staff, more women received awards than ever before.
If you ask a recipient of the competitive CLF scholarship how much she values the $1,500 award she won, she’ll
likely tell you it helps cover her rent, buy textbooks or pay for transportation to school. Ask her how she finds the entire experience of being a CLF scholarship recipient and she’ll tell you it’s amazing, empowering, indescribable. In other words, priceless.
All of the recipients have endured tremendous hardship to get to this point in their lives. I had a chance to meet some of the 41 ambitious awardees at the celebration. Let me introduce you.
Meet Lisa Stanley. A part-time worker and full-time student in business accounting at Folsom Lake College, Lisa lost herself when she got addicted to drugs, was in an abusive relationship and became homeless. She has been clean for more than two and a half years and is reunited with her children. But her Mexican grandmother suffers from dementia and can’t pass on the traditions of her heritage.
The CLF scholarship has helped Lisa find her roots and her potential by providing a multi-generational community of hardworking Latinas to share their skills and their stories. Lisa is determined to become a CPA and give back to the communities that have helped her shape her recovery.
Meet Luz Contreras. When she was growing up, her family only went to see a doctor when they got really sick. Her mom couldn’t take off work to bring them and they had no money or insurance to cover medical visits. “Even at a young age that made such an impression on me. . . . My passion is to go into primary care so that I can care for those who need it: those that look like me, those that don’t, those who can’t get quality health care because the doctors they see don’t understand them or their culture or where they come from.” Hers is not only a passion, but a dream in progress. In college, Luz volunteered at two clinics serving uninsured, underserved African-American and Latino communities. Now she is in medical school at UC Davis poised to graduate in 2014.
The Leadership Institute for Awardees
In addition to the financial award, scholarship recipients participate in a one-year program to acquire multi-dimensional training at the CLF leadership institute. This is where they develop a network, share their challenges and receive guidance from Latina professionals from a variety of fields, including the arts.
Being mentored by older generations of Latina leaders in North America is an essential part of the institute’s program. Ortensia Lopez, Board Treasurer and Executive Director of El Concilio of San Mateo County, is a 34-year veteran of CLF. Her advice to scholarship recipients comes from decades of experience as a community leader. “Research what you want to do. Make sure it’s aligned with your vision, your philosophy and your values.”
Values play a significant role at the leadership institute. CLF believes in the integrative development of each student. The program offers useful skills building such as understanding public policy and learning how to be
an effective public speaker. But it also offers the intangibles such as defining and defending one’s values. A vital part of each woman’s personal development is making cultural connections—recognizing and telling her own story and those of her mother, aunt and grandmother. This well-rounded experience is part of what the scholarship recipients cherish.
The value of human rights and equality for all is vital to the very identity of the Chicana/Latina Foundation itself. It’s not news that the Latino community, with macho influences, has not always been open to strong societal roles for women or for gay people. Yet CLF ensures that people of any sexual orientation can proudly stand up as who they are, not just at the galas where outstanding students who are lesbians may be invited to speak, but in all programs and activities. The CLF promotes much more than tolerance. It promotes genuine human understanding. In fact, the Foundation’s Executive Director, Olga Talamante, is well-known for her courageous advocacy on behalf of a multitude of civil rights causes.
When a scholarship recipient is interviewed by a panel, it is understood that the students are expected to become leaders and give back to society. All of them are already active volunteers in charities and social movements. When their year is up, they can join the alumni group, eventually mentor and educate the next generation, and provide their time and skills to the Latino community and beyond.
Latina Leaders Deliver Lessons
Rebeca Rangel, Senior Vice President, Community Affairs, Bank of the West, gave concrete advice to the scholarship recipients when she came up to the podium to receive the Emerging Leaders Award. It included how important it is for them to develop their intellectual horsepower by being curious and staying abreast of the news. She added, “Don’t distract from your intellect with low necklines or high hemlines. It’s not worth it. You’re building a brand.”
The notion of “brand” didn’t even exist when Rebeca’s predecessors were students. What else is different for Latinas in today’s world? Lopez had this to say, “When I was growing up, we were very poor and we didn’t have everything, but I’d come home every day and my mother was there to greet me and hug me and let me know I was loved. . . . [Today] The challenges of economics for families to stay alive means there are fewer parents at home to help raise the children.”
Research indicates that more Latinas are transferring to and graduating from four-year colleges. Some are getting Ph.Ds. But significant gaps still exist between Latinos and whites. Why does Chicana and Latina education and advancement matter?
Keynote speaker Catherine Sandoval offered her perspective as the recipient of the CLF’s Legacy Award. A law professor, Sandoval is the first Latina to serve on the California Public Utilities Commission. She grew up in East Los Angeles, first in a trailer, then her family moved “up” to the barrio and lived in apartment housing. Her influence as a commissioner derives from her background, her ethics and her education. She graduated magna cum laude from Yale University, obtained her J.D. at Stanford and then became a Rhodes scholar.
Sandoval noted that most CPUC policies have historically been targeted at homeowners, yet 54% of state residents live in apartments. “How are we going to create policies that are effective, efficient and available to a broad variety of Californians and reflect the diversity of our needs: economic, geographic, demographic, linguistic . . .?” Without someone like Sandoval asserting the need to address complex questions like this with a comprehensive approach, a wide swath of residents would not be represented in public policy.
On related policy issues, many people in the room, disappointed by the Congressional rejection of the Federal Dream Act in 2011, for which they had lobbied, worked hard to pass the California Dream Act, which Governor Brown signed October 8, 2011.
The California law provides federal Pell grants to students, including the undocumented, on a merit basis. Far narrower than the original Dream Act, the state act still reaches only 33 percent of AB40 (undocumented) students. Guadalupe Gallegos-Diaz, CLF Co-Chair and a former scholarship recipient, explained that on campuses like U.C. Berkeley where she works, discussions are taking place to change the requirements of the Act to allow students with a 3.0 average to benefit from the law, which will reach more AB540 students who lack the networks and opportunities to get financial aid that are available to other students.
The evening drew to a close with people dancing to the music of a young Latin jazz trio. The transition of the music from traditional to contemporary seemed to reflect what the evening was all about—a timeless moment in which a diverse community of women and men, led by the Chicana/Latina Foundation, support students to accept the baton. And where a community of young women welcomes the rich experience and wisdom of their mentors to celebrate the future—a future they promise to lead with integrity.
Leanne A. Grossman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California. (Leanne@portfolio-of-passions.com)