The Power of Latino Leadership: Culture, Inclusion, and Contribution

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The first book squarely focused on describing the principles and practices of a unique Latino leadership model, written by a long-time, exceptionally well-connected Latino leader and active speaker and marketer.

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Chapter 1 Ancient Roots and Mestizo Ancestry

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MOST PEOPLE TODAY ARE genetically mixed. Our blood has intertwined through ongoing migrations—our genetic streams run together from unknown sources. The difference for Latinos is that the fusion of races, nationalities, and cultures was so pervasive that it spread across our entire hemisphere, producing a people traditionally known in Central and South America as Mestizos, the offspring of the indigenous people and Europeans, primarily the Spanish.

The mestizaje, as the process was termed, is not a commonly embraced concept by Latinos in the United States. There are advantages, however, to including it as part of the complex Latino identity. What is important to note is that the Mestizo experience is a precursor to the Latino culture and the bedrock of its inherent diversity.1 (Although México is technically part of North America, in this book it is considered part of Central America due to cultural and historical antecedents.)

The lineage of many Hispanics comes from Indian mothers and Spanish fathers. Mothers traditionally preserve—and transmit—tradition, values, spiritual practices, and customs. Much of the culture, consequently, reflects this indigenous background. The integration of the Spanish and native cultures can be seen at the family dinner table. Rice and beans is a primary dish for all Latino subgroups. The Spanish introduced rice, while beans are indigenous, or American Indian. Corn tortillas come from native cultures, and flour for white tortillas comes from Europe. The many varieties of chilies and salsas are from the Americas. Ham, or jamón, and chorizo, now Latino favorites, were brought by the Spanish.

 

Chapter 2 The Latino Legacy in the United States

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SITTING IN MY SECOND-GRADE classroom I distinctly remember learning about the “discovery” of America and chorusing with my classmates, “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Next we learned that in 1607 the first British colony was established at Jamestown, Virginia. None of us thought to ask, “What happened in the intervening 115 years? Did the earth stand still?”

In fact, the Spanish conquistadores were trudging the North and South American continents from the tip of Alaska to Argentina and from the Florida Keys to the Hudson River. Saint Augustine, Florida, was founded in 1565, forty-two years before the English colonized Jamestown and fifty-five years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. What an inconvenient truth! Our historical selection process discarded these facts.1

European civilization was first introduced to this hemisphere by the Spanish and then advanced by their mixed-race progeny, who are today’s Hispanics. They established the bases for agriculture, commerce and trading, mining, and ranching that would eventually drive the engine of the US economy. The Spanish settlers in 1600 introduced the plow and the ox to the native Indians, as well as the first European-bred livestock. California, Texas, and Florida continue to be among the largest producers of fruit and vegetables in the world today. Hispanics were los vaqueros—the original cowboys—and as late as the 1800s were prominent on the open range.

 

Chapter 3 Personalismo: The Character of the Leader

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I WAS A YOUNG LEADER working as the executive director of Mi Casa Women’s Center when my mentor Bernie Valdez showed me, through his example and extraordinary life, how personalismo was a powerful determinant in leading people. Like many early Latino leaders, Bernie didn’t read leadership books. He earned respect because of the kind of person he was and by the way he valued and validated everyone.

The first time I picked up Bernie for our monthly lunch, I expected his home to mirror his stature in the community. Much later, Bernie would have the Colorado Hispanic Heritage Center and a public library named after him. Yet he lived in a little house behind the stadium where the Broncos played football. It was the house where he and Dora had raised their children. He lived simply and modestly, much like the people he led.

Bernie had worked in the sugar beet fields and been a union organizer. By the time we were having lunch together, he had served as president of the Denver Board of Education, headed the Social Services Department, and started numerous community organizations. Bernie had impeccable follow-through, no matter how long it took or how difficult it would be. “You have to work hard and not give up,” he would tell me. In the turbulent 1960s, when Latinos were just beginning to forge their identity and to organize as a community, Bernie inspired others to do the same. The decades it took to desegregate the Denver Public Schools are a testament to his endurance and persistence.

 

Chapter 4 Conciencia: Knowing Oneself and Cultivating Personal Awareness

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THE BRILLIANT MEXICAN ARTIST Diego Rivera sketched a powerful black-and-white etching titled “Conciencia.” He rendered a young teacher holding beautiful apples in her mantle surrounded by eager children. Rivera, a symbolic artist, included an open book, suggesting the quest for knowledge. The title “Conciencia” implies we must look for deeper meaning. Conciencia can be translated as “consciousness,” “awareness,” and “self-knowledge.” Rivera’s portrayal suggests the teacher as our inner guide. The children symbolize our pure and receptive self, poised to learn and grow. The apples are pearls of knowledge.

The concepts of confianza and personalismo point to two critical questions for Latino leaders: Who are you? What kind of person are you? Answering these questions requires the practice of conciencia, or in-depth reflection, self-examination, and integration. Conciencia is the connection the leader has with his inner core—the reliable, consistent self that provides direction and guidance. Conciencia is the mechanism for character formation and personal development.

 

Chapter 5 Destino: Personal and Collective Purpose

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AS A CHILD I didn’t believe in destino at all. In fact, I thought God had gotten it all wrong. If I had designed my life, it would have been a different movie. Take the first act, for instance.

I was born on a hot, humid clothes-sticking August night, in the middle of the Nicaraguan jungle. Most people in those days didn’t even know where Nicaragua was—and if they did, they didn’t much care. The mining town of Bonanza spurred the emergence of a small community living in little wooden houses that leaned into the rocky hills. Across from the company’s commissary, overlooking a lush green ravine, my mother lay down on that hot summer night to birth her seventh child.

Whose plan was this? What happened to divine providence? Why was I born to a Spanish Indian woman with a fifth-grade education who was as thin as a rail and at forty didn’t need another child? My mother was one of those tall coastal women whose strength often allowed them to laugh in the face of the strenuous life they were dealt. But she was buckling under the stress of this untimely pregnancy and the uncertain future that wobbled before her.

 

Chapter 6 La Cultura: Culturally Based Leadership

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LATINOS ARE A RICH culture of synthesis and fusion. With such a colorful array of fiesta-loving, family-centered, hard-working, tamale- and salsa-eating Latinos, one might wonder, what could possibly keep this sundry group together? What are the connecting points that give a shared identity to this camaraderie?

Much like the Jewish community, Latinos are an ethnic and cultural group. Latinos are bound together by the Spanish language, a shared history, a spiritual tradition, and common values that stem from both their Spanish and their indigenous roots. Cultural values are fastening points—the nucleus—shaping a collective identity from the many ingredients of the delectable Latino familia. As Arturo Vargas, president of the National Association of Latino Appointed and Elected Officials, observes, “I’ve met Latinos all over the country, and diverse as Latinos are, there’s a set of core values we hold. It’s about family, and the face of their children, and the face of the future. There’s a level of optimism and a sense of community.”

 

Chapter 7 De Colores: Inclusiveness and Diversity

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FILLING OUT MY FIRST US Census form in 1970, I searched for a category that would acknowledge my culture and ancestry. I felt a loud thud in my heart as I finally checked the “Caucasian” box. As I filled out the forms, I heard my abuela’s sweet voice, “Ay, mi hijita, nunca olvides quien eres y de donde venistes” (Oh, my dearest little daughter, never forget who you are and where you came from). But remembering your history and embracing your identity is a difficult feat when there is no acknowledgment that your people even exist.

We all have a deep need to be accepted for who we are. This is particularly true for Latinos and other people of color, who have been relegated to a minority status and measured by a White ideal. The story of how “the Browns” (Hispanics) became a category in the US census illustrates the unique history of this cultural medley. (Of course, members of other ethnic groups such as South Asians, Pacific Islanders, Middle Easterners, and American Indians may also consider themselves Brown, but in this story Brown refers to Hispanics and Latinos.)

 

Chapter 8 Juntos: Collective Community Stewardship

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AS NOTED, THE ANCESTRAL groups that melded into the Latino culture had strong family ties, community bonds, and centered on We, or the collective. Leadership flows from this orientation and is based on a communal process where people work together to serve their communities. This spirit is captured in the word juntos, which means “union, being close, joining, being together”—and expresses the principle of collective community stewardship.

Whether I or We is central to a society contours the shape of its leadership. In an I, or individualistic, culture, I become a leader because of my initiative and competence as well as my winning personality. I am a can-do, take-action person. By calling attention to myself—my accomplishments and skills—people believe I am competent and follow me. Unanimity or group consensus follows the leader’s decisions. The leader strives for self-mastery—as I become empowered, I can empower others. Leaders maintain status by remaining youthful, vigorous, attractive, and able. Seniority is secondary to performance.

 

Chapter 9 ¡Adelante! Global Vision and Immigration Spirit

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MY FIRST MEMORY IS being in the hull of a banana boat as we rocked and swayed across El Golfo de México. My mother, four brothers, my sister, and I hunkered down in bunk beds as we left our beloved Nicaragua. Scared, excited, and hopeful, we were on the way to the land of opportunity! This immigrant dream has been the promise of America and the wellspring of its greatness. No one knows this better today than the millions of Central and South Americans who have made the long trek across deserts, oceans, rivers, and mountains to share in the bounty of this great country.

Anna Cabral remembers her grandparents’ stories about their perilous crossing of the Rio Grande and then walking all the way from Texas to California with no money. They took jobs in the fields to care for the family. Julián Castro’s grandmother was five when she came from México. She worked as a maid, cook, and babysitter so his mother could go to Catholic school and eventually get a college education. Hilda Solis’s mother fled the turmoil of the wars in Nicaragua to work in factories in East LA. Leaving their possessions behind to escape Fidel Castro’s regime, Carlos Orta’s father worked three jobs to support his family. Arturo Vargas’s parents met on a bus they took to work in Chihuahua, México. They married and moved to El Paso seeking a better vida (life) for their children.

 

Chapter 10 Sí Se Puede : Social Activism and Coalition Leadership

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BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER, REINFORCING a strong sense of culture and community, and articulating a vision that inspires people are the preludes to the real work of Latino leaders—concerted and collective community action. As “minorities,” Latinos have experienced discrimination and exclusion. Pressing needs drive a form of leadership that challenges the status quo and aims to change the social and economic conditions that perpetuate inequality. This necessitates a coalition and activist leadership form that cultivates a critical mass of people with the capacity to take action.

Leaders become activists because of the economic discrepancies and inequities that exist in their own families and communities. When Arturo Vargas joined his parents in picketing his overcrowded barrio school, which had only half-day classes, this affected his life’s work. “Leadership, for me, is about clarity of purpose and courage. I think we need to be very clear that the purpose of leadership is for the progress and improvement of the collective and the community. Courage, because true leadership needs to be bold, to sometimes make unpopular decisions, and to battle infrastructure and institutions that keep our communities from progressing.”

 

Chapter 11 Gozar la Vida: Leadership That Celebrates Life!

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I TELL FRIENDS THAT I sometimes get on my knees and just thank God I was born Latina because it is so exciting and so much fun. Latinos introduced the word fiesta into our society! In a “we love people” culture where resources have been scarce, it’s easy to gather folks together; everyone brings something (we have to eat anyway); the music starts playing and … ¡Orale! Everyone is having a good time!

My working-class family didn’t have money for vacations, eating out, or entertainment. My parents didn’t have hobbies or leisure time. Their good times centered on their children, outings to parks, church events, and family celebrations. Like many other Latino mothers, however, my mom had a knack for making everyday things fun.

Although my mother worked five days a week in the school lunchroom and Sundays at the church nursery, on Saturday, her day off, she would organize a “housecleaning party.” With salsa music blaring, my brothers, my sister, and I would find ourselves washing walls, sweeping the sidewalk, vacuuming, and making everything spick-and-span. Housework was a family affair. My sister Margarita called us the “busy beaver club.” My mother loved música, dancing, and singing. She was a fantastic cook who could s-t-r-e-t-c-h a single chicken to feed a whole tribe. She stayed positive and happy during hard times because her deep-rooted philosophy of gozar la vida—to enjoy life—was grounded in her spiritual beliefs.

 

Chapter 12 Fe y Esperanza: Sustained by Faith and Hope

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IN MY FAMILYESTÁ en las manos de Dios” (It’s in God’s hands) was never far from my mother’s lips. My brother Chris needed a baseball outfit; a stray dog wandered in, and David couldn’t bear to part with him; my class needed costumes for the school play. And where were the cookies for the church social? “What are kookees?” my mother would ask. No matter what the need or challenge, somehow she always managed to get what was needed for her eight children and to help others in the community as well.

God looked after her. How else could Celia María Bordas have ended up in the three-bedroom house at 3713 West Platt Street in Tampa, Florida—not far from the same ocean waters that lapped up onto the Caribbean shores where she was born—if God hadn’t put her there?

Generations of Latinos simply believed in God’s providence and guidance. In fact, my Tía Anita summed up her fe in six words. When asked about what was going to happen or something that was planned, she always prefaced it with “si Dios quiere” (if God wants this to happen). After the event happened, her response was “gracias a Dios” (thanks be to God). So coming or going, she had it covered.

 

Chapter 13 Building a Diverse and Humanistic Society

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STARTING SCHOOL NOT SPEAKING inglés was my first foray into the Anglo world. My teachers seemed cold and distant, had strange rules, and did not hug or touch the children. And the food tasted bland. Before the civil rights movement, America was whitebread. I never saw a Latino in any professional position or as a teacher, bus driver, or even a clerk in a nice store. The schools were whitewashing institutions that taught the history, norms, and values of the dominant culture. Like most children I wanted to be accepted, and the path to success was assimilation. I learned to read and write inglés and even forgot most of my español.

When I became a teenager, there was no Catholic escuela (school) on the outskirts of Tampa, where we lived. My mother boarded a bus with me in tow and journeyed across town. Humbly, she entreated the mother superior at the Academy of Holy Names to give her daughter a scholarship. The mother superior agreed to half a scholarship. Every Sunday, my mother and I would get up at 5 a.m. to babysit children at church during Mass to earn the remaining tuition.

 

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