Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, First Latina Elected to Congress
With humor and optimism, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen shares her difficult journey from Cuban refugee to becoming the first Latina Congresswoman in the U.S.
Diana Trujillo, Aerospace Engineer
America Ferrera, Actress and Activist
Ana "Rokafella" Garcia, Pioneer Break Dancer
Christy Haubegger, Founder, Latina Magazine
Maria Bartiromo, Business News Journalist
- I am the person that came from another country trying to figure out a better life in a different place, and then took that little seed and expanded it to taking the entire human species into the next level of exploration.
I grew up in Colombia, in Cali. I lived there until I was 17. Growing up, it was a responsibility of the woman to make sure that my dad, my uncle, my grandfather were happy when they would come home, food was on the table, everything was taken care of. My mom was actually the smart one. She was in med school when she met my dad. And then she got pregnant with me and she dropped out. My parents got divorced when I turned 12. After that happened, my mom had nothing. No money. We didn't even have food. And we boil an egg, and then we cut it in half. And that was our lunch that day. I remember just laying down on the grass and looking at the sky and thinking something has to be out there that is better than this, some other species that treats themselves better or values people better.
I literally thought, what's the hardest thing a human being can do? If I could be out there as an astronaut and represent humanity, there was no more bigger honor than that. And when you, Dad, see my life, you're going to realize that we can bring-- we women bring something to the table.
I was the first immigrant Hispanic woman on the program. l got to meet astronauts. I got to meet CEOs of companies. None of them looked like me. And among all of the people that talked to us, there was only one woman. But as I was talking to them, l realized we had a lot of things in common, the way that they thought about the universe and exploration, the way that they thought about humanity. I found my people is kind of what I felt.
Once you come out of the launch vehicle, telecom takes over. Can you hear me, right, is the question that you're wondering, can you hear the Rover? A small job with a lot of impact. Multiple times when we did multiple hours and weeks of testing, it wasn't going smooth enough, and you're wondering, I hope this is working. The fact that we got the first picture, I could not believe we had done it. This is Mars. This is Mars. I am one of the first 30 people in the world to see these pictures of Mars.
The fact that we actually found out that Mars was, at some point, habitable, that leads to the next question: Can we actually find some evidence that there was, at some point, life on Mars? We're going to take a sample with Mars 2020 and put it on a tube to be ready to be returned back to Earth. All of those missions are also thinking about human exploration, all the little pieces that at least we need to figure out for us to even conceive the idea of sending a human. As a little girl, I saw the women in my family give up a lot It gave me the tenacity that I needed to say, I'm not going to give up on my dream. I want to be out there looking back in, showing my family that women have value. That women matter.
CHERRIE MORAGA: I had never read the word Chicana and lesbian in the same sentence, except as a derogatory term. So every time I wrote it, I felt like I'm going to hell.
My mother is Chicana and my father is Anglo. Growing up, pretty much all of my family, what I understand as family, has been my mother's family, which was hundreds of people. So we had our own tribe. My sister, brother, and I were the only mixed kids. We're the only one that had a gringo father. But I just wanted to be brown.
Like, that was to me everything I associated with home.
I knew that I was queer, like different, from the time I was very young. I walked like a boy, talked like a boy, thought like boy, wanted things like boys. And it was at eleven that I really understand too that I had a desire for women. And I figured, oh my god, I really am a boy. And that really freaked me out.
It had everything to do with Catholicism. So the way I translated it was that I was marked as somebody who had the devil in them.
I'd wake up in the middle of the night, three and four times at night. Pray the rosary. I'd get up. I can't even describe the depth of fear. I think people don't really understand what homophobia is when it's played against yourself, you know. It is the most brutal. No one can do to you what you can do yourself.
When I had graduated from high school and got into college, it was the first time I became sexually active. And it became very evident I couldn't deny it. So I did come out. And I just for the first time felt free, free to love. And it was so important and so fundamental. You can't take away a person's desire and have them be whole.
And it allowed me then to begin writing without secrets.
And it wasn't really until I came out that I really began to make connections about other forms of oppression, including that I had a right to be Chicana.
And those who were mimeographing, we weren't even thinking that it would have the impact that it had. But once it was done I knew how important it was. And really helped to put women of color writers kind of on the map. And also I needed it for my own identity. At that time there was no us to read. So the confidence it takes to try to then find voice when you can't read the voice, it was a very important time. But I look back and of course I think I'm a much better writer now, you know. But I still have a lot of compassion for that, you know, 27-year-old because it's original.
When you see yourself reflected and you see the complexity of your own life, this is something that privileged people get all the time. We don't get this in our arts. We never get to see the complexity of who we are as human beings. So how does art make us well?
I did a work last year called, "New Fire," in collaboration with my partner Celia Herrera Rodriguez. And 3,000 people came to see the work. Majority of the people who came to see it were not mainstream theater goers. They were mostly [SPANISH], mostly queer people, mostly women of color. And I was in heaven. And you see them talking about, you know, suddenly that they saw themselves. They saw their grandfather, their grandmother, their aunties, their cousins on the stage. But it's the real deal. Those are those moments in which you feel like-- in Spanish we say, vale la pena. You know, it's worth all of the trouble. It's worth all the heartbreak.
AMERICA FERRERA: I was born and raised in Los Angeles. My parents are immigrants from Honduras and they split up when I was quite young. My mother raised six children on her own. Watching her do whatever it took to provide the life that she came here to give us was a real testament of what we're capable of.
I grew up feeling, first and foremost, American. Very aware of the fact that I didn't speak perfect Spanish. The girls who did speak Spanish made fun of me for not speaking Spanish. The very first audition I ever went to wasn't specified Latina. The casting director asked me if I could do it again, but please try to sound more Latina this time. And I was really confused.
I thought, do you want me to speak in Spanish? No, I want you to speak in English. I just want you to try and sound more Latina. And what she was asking me to do was to speak broken English. It became very clear, very quickly that the industry looked at me and saw a brown person, and that there was a specific box for that.
I was playing a young girl whose parents didn't understand her dreams for herself. The fact that it was this 17-year-old chubby Mexican-American girl, who no one would ever imagine would get to be the star of her own movie, I think that really opened up people's ideas of what was possible in terms of storytelling and who got to be the center of their own life.
I went to a professor of mine and started crying and saying, you know, what do I do? It was what I felt completely passionate and drawn to, and then there was go to school, get a really important job, and try and change the world. He said to me that he'd been mentoring a young girl. She was a young Latina girl. He'd been mentoring her for years and he couldn't really break her shell. She came to him and said, "Come watch this movie with me, it's called "Real Women Have Curves."
And so he took some of her friends to see the movie and she was actually going through a very similar thing with her own parents. And so it gave her the opportunity to start that conversation. And they did ultimately support her in her dream to go to college. I had no idea that he knew I was an actress. And he said to me, "She would have never been able to do that if she hadn't seen a reflection of herself." What I realized was that being an actress, it had already become something bigger than me.
Donald Trump announced his candidacy by calling Mexicans rapists and murderers, and talked about attacking women. So as a woman, as a Latina, as the daughter of immigrants, as an American, it did feel like a death of an idea that I had built my American identity around. And that made me realize that there was just work to do.
So what I chose to focus on was empowering communities to use their voices. So often the narratives about social issues leave out the very people who are most impacted by them. There were people on the front lines living these issues and fighting for their communities. And they know much better than those of us who just got woke yesterday.
I gain strength and encouragement from those around me who are being courageous, and brave, and stepping out. I need them to keep doing that, because it's what keeps me going.
DOLORES HUERTA: I think the one thing that really kind of hooked me for life was going to the home of some workers who did not have linoleum or wood on their floor, only dirt. And yet these are people who are working. They're working very hard, and you know that this is wrong.
Growing up as a person of color, you just see so many injustices. As a teenager, you saw the way that I was treated, my friends were treated. And it just-- at some point you just wish that things were different.
Conditions in the fields were very bad. Farm workers are not respected at all, to the point that they didn't have toilets in the fields for workers. They didn't have cold drinking water. Workers were earning, like, maybe $0.75 an hour.
I said, Cesar, I think the only way that we can do this is if we boycott all California table grapes. And Cesar thought no, I think we should boycott potatoes because this particularly grower also had potatoes. And so I said, well, you know when people think of potatoes, they think of Idaho, they don't think of California.
Boycott grapes. Boycott grapes.
So we went ahead and started the grape boycott.
One of the tactics that we used very successfully is we got the chain stores to take the grapes out of the whole chain.
During the strike, there were times when my home was terrorized in the middle of the night, my windows broken when I'm there alone with my children. And we had shotguns and rifles aimed at us. When you're in the movement, when you're on this path for justice, you know that things are going to happen.
Within months we were able to win the boycott.
We, as women, that we've got to put big lights around our accomplishments, right, and around our ideas, and not feel that we're being egotistical when we do that because it's a way of letting the world know that yes, we as women can accomplish great things.
ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: I have to pinch myself whenever I see that dome lit up. And I think, they let me in here, and they let me vote. This is just incredible. For me, being born in Cuba is not just an interesting place on your passport. It's given me an understanding that comes from losing your homeland, seeing a communist tyranny take over, and understanding how fragile democracy is. It really left an impression on me. And I still have it with me today. I never would have thought in a million years that I would be in Congress.
I always wanted to be a teacher. My family started a private elementary school. And getting to know the parents of the school and getting to know the problems they had with immigration, social security, Medicare-- one day, I just thought I could actually be the person making these incredible, crazy rules that no one can understand. And I could maybe write them in a way that people could understand them. And that's how I got the idea of maybe running for office.
I really wanted to make a difference in the realm of foreign affairs. So I said, this is my passion. I'm going to run for it. There were about 13, 14 candidates for this slot. And I just told each one of them, do whatever you're going to do. But I'm going to run and I'm going to win, because you will not outwork me.
That election night was crazy. It was not until about 3:30 in the morning when I found out that I had won. And then the "Today" show calls me up. And they say, how does it feel to be the first Hispanic woman ever elected to Congress? And I said, what? I had not even realized it.
Is this a great country or what? I mean, to think that a Cuban refugee would come to the United States not knowing a word of English-- because I didn't know a thing. Nada. And I'm now the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and a member of Congress. I'll always have that little niche in the history books. I'll be a small footnote, but a footnote nonetheless.