During a breakfast of Corn Pops cereal, yogurt and milk at the start of the 12th annual Hispanic Engineering, Science & Technology’s Latina Day at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg on Wednesday, 14-year-old Savannah Garcia of La Villa hardly spoke. She was tentative, timid and seemed uncertain what this day — geared toward empowering Latinas in the STEM career fields — might bring for her.
Her mother, Jennifer Garcia, 31, sat proudly beside her, chirping away about how this event touting higher education for these girls in the Rio Grande Valley is so important “to encourage Latinas to pursue their dreams,” she told me. “My uncles and aunts didn’t encourage us. We were told to just get married.”
That Jennifer was here with her daughter showed not only a commitment to the next generation of Latinas, but a legacy of commitment coming from previous generations of Latinas. It took tremendous courage for Jennifer, a stay-at-home mom, and the other 240 moms in the UTPA Field House that morning, to break with decades of family traditions and to come help their daughters want more for their futures.
As a Hispanic career woman, whose own Hispanic mother never went to college — her family didn’t believe females should — I can attest just how important this day was for these 400 Valley female high school freshmen.
From UTPA President Robert Nelsen, to countless successful Hispanic speakers, the girls and their moms — most who had never been on a college campus before — were told they can achieve anything.
It was emphasized for them to dream big. Plant a seed. Try everything once and chart a new course as females in their families.
Giggling nervously, uncertain where to sit and go, they traveled in groups cautiously, excitedly, proudly and a bit fearfully.
I know that combination of fear and pride. It brought me to tears in a parking lot outside of my eldest son’s dorm room at the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2011 when we dropped him off for the start of his freshman year.
But I knew he had to go. Just as Jennifer told me she knows Savannah has to go to college. And so do Savannah’s two younger sisters one day, she said. As does my Latina daughter, who is 11.
“It’s scary. To think about them leaving,” she said.
But they must. And having these motivational speakers who are Latinas, that the girls can look up to, telling them they can do it is inspiring.
So many professional women graciously shared their stories. Their tales were humbling, empowering and rich with ganas (desire).
For it was their ganas for a better life that got them through the toughest days when they felt all alone and uncertain of this new path.
Alma Ortega-Johnson, area president for the South Texas Region of Wells Fargo bank, told the girls she was discouraged from going to college by her former bank employer. Making minimum wage at the time, they even demoted her to discourage her. “They made my life miserable,” she told the crowd.
Her father had only a fourth-grade education and her mother didn’t have much schooling, either. Growing up in Chihuahua, Mexico, her family was so poor they often went hungry. But her mother, she said, realized this desire for more in her daughter and managed to sneak money to her to help her pay college tuition.
“Don’t let them tell you what you can’t do,” she said to a rousing applause.
Monica Flores, an electrical engineer for Toyota who graduated from Nikki Rowe High School and UTSA, told a breakout session that beginning engineers, like her, make annual salaries of $48,000 to $50,000 at her company.
“I love math. I sound like a huge geek but it’s OK. I can travel, buy cars and I love this lifestyle,” she said.
I noticed several girls sit up taller when she said this. And when Flores’ mother told the moms in the room to help their daughters to dream big, I saw wide eyes all around. It was like a portal to another world had opened. Hopefully many are ready to leap through.
Hours later, I caught back up with Jennifer and Savannah, who was more talkative now. She told me about an experiment they did dropping an egg from two-stories high covered in materials without it breaking. Her egg — packed in a balloon and foam cups — broke. That of her friend and fellow La Villa High student, Tamika Hernandez, did not.
But Savannah wasn’t dissuaded or discouraged. She said she had tried to save on costs and materials, which was part of the experiment, but ultimately she had failed to prevent her egg from shattering.
“I still want to do science,” she suddenly spurted out to me. “I want to be a child psychologist. I’m not strong in these subjects. But I like them.”
I believe Savannah is underestimating herself. And I know with the support of her mom, she will make an awesome doctor one day.
Sandra Sanchez is Opinion editor for The Monitor. Contact her at email@example.com or (956) 683-4461.