Dexterous Minds



Gorgeous domestic workers in an anglicized telenovela of intrigue, servitude, sex and subordinated expectation. The sexy but dumb trophy wife in a mainstream sitcom. Bit parts as nannies, sex workers, and pregnant teens with little hope for a better future.

If we look to television to write our Latina narratives, we lose.

A 2012 report by the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC) detailing the impact of media stereotypes on opinions and attitudes toward Latinos and immigrants couldn't put it more bluntly: "Stereotypes people believe to be true ... reflect the images, characters, and stories they commonly encounter in news, television, film and radio programming." 

This shouldn't come as a surprise. We know media — especially entertainment media— excels at selling images as consumer goods, and those on the outside looking into our community have gotten the hard sell of Modern Family, Devious Maids and police procedurals where we're either victims or criminals, but never the forensic scientists or judges. 

A full 44 to 53 percent of the respondents of the NHMC study (regardless of whether the television or film portrayal was positive or negative) said they believed Latinos/Latinas and immigrants were "less educated" than the rest of the population. Only 5 percent of them indicated seeing frequent TV portrayals of Latino or Latina lawyers, judges, nurses and doctors; a paltry 4 percent saw us portraying teachers. 

While the stereotypes held by non-Latinos should certainly give us pause, it is the effect these stereotype-ridden portraits of Latinas may have on our daughters and other young Latinas dreaming right now about their futures, that we ought to worry about most. 

Bakersfield College professor Rene Trujillo, in writing on self-esteem and career decision-making among Latina college students, finds that racial and sexual stereotypes undermine identification with academics and school performance. He cites studies that indicate that Latinas are less confident about their career aspirations because "the way in which people make career decisions, search for jobs, and seek promotions depends on what they believe about themselves and the world of work."

Natalia Olson-Urtecho, regional administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration, notes that media plays a big role in the expectations of young Latinas. 

"I think that brings with it a big responsibility," she says."Why feed into the status quo and continue to reinforce those (limited) images? People think those are the only role models."

Olson-Urtecho is herself a great role model for young Latina women. She has parlayed degrees in urban systems engineering and city planning into a significant job with the federal government, which enables her to promote green businesses and to encourage entrepreneurship. She is incredibly articulate, devoted to her work, and as witty as any sitcom or TV melodrama star.

She is only one of the five remarkable Philadelphia area Latina professionals who Al Día tapped to make visible the hidden Latina narrative: A narrative where beauty doesn't preclude intelligence, ambition doesn't exclude conscience, and the future isn't circumscribed.

All of the participants — Olson-Urtecho, Farah Jimenez, Lynnette Perez-Santos, Claudia Valeggia and Adriana Arvizo — come from different backgrounds and have faced different challenges along the way. When we brought them together at the Al Día offices, amid the laughter and the talk, there was a remarkable congruence. Each is committed to helping other Latinas succeed, each one defies stereotypes, and each one writes her own script.

From left to right: Lynnette Perez-Santos, senior accountant; Farah Jimenez, CEO; Claudia Valeggia, biologist; Natalia Olson-Urtecho, administrator for the U.S. S.B.A., and Adriana Arvizo, public relations manager of GPTMC.

Role: The unafraid CEO

"My parents always said to us, 'An education is the only  thing no one can take away from you.' When they left Cuba their education, and the clothes on their backs, was all they were permitted to take with them," says Farah Jimenez, CEO of the People's Emergency Center (PEC) in Philadelphia. 

Although her father never completed his engineering degree (the demands of providing for the family after they left Cuba prevented it) her family's emphasis on the importance of education meant that Jimenez grew up knowing she'd go to college and grad school. 

"If my parents taught me anything, it was to not see the barriers in life, only the opportunities," Jimenez says, "They are a personal demonstration of that perspective, having built a successful life in the 1960s in a country where they knew no one, didn't speak the language, and all the while walking around in black skin and speaking with thick Spanish accents."

Jimenez remembers her mother (who had been studying medicine in Cuba but had to complete her degree in Spain) juggling studies along with the demands of raising two young daughters. 

"One can only imagine what courage it took for her to leave her country —young, married and pregnant— without any idea of what the future might hold and gripping on to nothing more than her faith in my father, their union, and God," Jimenez says. 
"As a child I remember my mother was often called to speak on panels about women with 'odd' jobs — not many women were doctors then. Not to mention that she was a black, Latina, immigrant, foreign-educated doctor. What it took for her to achieve that without knowing the language and knowing the American system, speaks to her resilience and confidence."

Jimenez doesn't really take issue with Latina media portrayals. "The mainstream media stereotype of Latina women is the same in the U.S. and abroad," she says. "Telenovelas, morning news shows, evening variety shows on Spanish television, all offer images of beautiful curvaceous, sexy Latinas.  And, they offer them because, frankly, Latinas are beautiful, curvaceous and sexy …but they are also smart!  Book smart and street smart. Even the characterizations of Latina women in the mainstream media make that clear." 

But that doesn't mean Jimenez hasn't had to grapple with stereotypes. 

"I think that my personal identity as a Latina is not consistent with people's external perception of me as black," she says. "As such, during much of my childhood — whether in middle school or high school—  my primary experience with racism was related to my being black. I was called the "N" word, followed in stores, confronted with the harassment that can come because one is black. But I was fortunate in that I could easily resist the labels others placed on me because they weren't the labels I placed on myself."

Still, she adds, "My parents made sure my eyes were open to the realities of discrimination, often admonishing me if I left the house without ironing my clothes or taking care of my grooming. They would tell me that while my friends might be able to get away with looking fashionable in ripped jeans, I could not because I was black and Latina."

A lawyer who has never practiced law, Jimenez became CEO of PEC three years ago, after noticing the increase in the number of homeless people in and around the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. "I wanted to be part of helping to solve that problem by working on rebuilding lives and rebuilding communities. In my role as CEO of PEC, I work on ending the hopelessness that leads to family homelessness."

The struggle of hope against hopelessness is a recurring motif in Jimenez's answers to our questions. 

She sees the issues that face the Latino community as "reflecting the hopelessness and despair that so often accompanies the childhood trauma of poverty," and points out that Philadelphia organizations working hard to address those issues — "APM, Congreso, Taller and Norris Square" — are all headed by Latinas.

She also describes the most rewarding moments in her own work as those when the "residents reconnect with the potential within themselves — when they begin to believe, as my parents did, that the future is full of possibilities and that within them lie many of the tools they need to be successful."

It's hard, when interviewing someone as polished as Jimenez, to identify just one money line, but I finally settle on the one that closes out her answer to question about what qualities are most important for Latinas to be successful:  "A complete and utter belief in their own potential," she answers. "And an understanding that you don't need to give up your stilettos or your lipstick or —most importantly — your culture to be a woman of distinction and influence."

Role: The positive accountant

She wasn't expected to go to college, and if not for her friends, she might not have even thought about it. That is the benefit of having a good group of peers.

But it was no one's determination but her own that enabled Lynnette Perez-Santos to not only earn a master's in business administration, but to become president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting (ALPFA), and to fill her current post as senior accountant for ARAMARK K-12 Education Accounting Group.

"I come from very humble beginnings," Perez-Santos says." I was born and raised in North Philly, and I am the youngest of four children. My mother became a single mom when I was about 6 years old, when my father passed away. When I entered high school, college was not something I thought about. It was not expected that I would continue my education. My mother didn't and neither did my siblings."

But her mother was a woman of faith and Perez-Santos was an active participant in the St. Veronica church youth group in those days. She was also a team leader for Youth Encounter. The circle of friends she had in both organizations frequently spoke about the importance of schooling, and they inspired her.

She enrolled in Pierce Junior College and in time earned an associate's degree in Business Administration. But she worked while she studied, and it was keeping the books and working as an administrative assistant that stirred in her an interest in becoming an accountant.

"Lawrence Mazer and his wife Carol were the owners of a small law firm," she says, "and they took a chance on me. It was my first professional job. This was a full-on Italian law firm and I was the one Latina. Never did I feel on the outs. They treated me with respect and wanted to teach me. They wanted to help me succeed."

"The challenge was that this was a different environment, one for which I was not prepared," she says. "I had to work fast and acclimate to how to manage my time and be able to work while still maintaining my school work in good standing."  

After receiving her associate's degree, Perez-Santos went on to earn a bachelor's in accounting from Chestnut Hill College, and an MBA in Finance and Accounting from Regis University.

"I believe that we, as women of color, have always needed to work harder and be a little more aggressive and show our confidence in all that we do, to be heard and be taken seriously in any role," Perez-Santos says. She has a role model in her mother, who she describes as having strong values, not being afraid of hard work, and who is willing to ask for help when she needs it.

There weren't many Latinas in accounting in the days when Perez-Santos was studying for the profession, but there are now. She attributes this, in part, to corporations better understanding the importance of a diverse workforce. 

"The Latino professional has so much to offer to the mainstream," she says. Perez-Santos is of Puerto Rican descent, and is completely bilingual. She says most Latinos are bilingual, which gives them the ability to work effectively inside and outside of the Latino market. "We're making a huge impact and changing the landscape of the professional workforce."

The success of Latinas, Perez-Santos believes, starts at home. "Most of us have strong family roots and a strong foundation in a rich culture with great values.  As a single, Latina mom of three children, it is important that I lead by example and help them understand that the contributions they make to the community not only support our culture but inspire others to do the same."

"Media can have an impact on how Latinas are perceived," she says. "But I don't believe it is responsible for low expectations." In fact, she very much admires Eva Longoria, the Mexican-American actor who serves as producer for Devious Maids, as well as actor and singer Jennifer Lopez. Both stars, Perez-Santos says, work hard to give help the Latino community.

And they take risks.

If there is one thing Perez-Santos would like to impart to up-and-coming Latina professionals it is that they must take risks to succeed. "We Latinas are strong in our convictions, yet we shy away when it comes to taking risks," she says.

"Be open to opportunities. There will be a time you are asked to do a task that no one else wants. Guess what? Take that task. Own it. It shows strength that you contribute, step up to the plate and get it done."

Role: The curious scientist

What drives a Latina girl to choose a career in the sciences even when she doesn't see many women scientists around her? 

In Claudia Valeggia's case, it was an innate curiosity and, at the same time, the result of a couple of cultural expectations — one turned to her advantage, the other which limited her options — that drove her to become a biologist.

"I never met a woman scientist when I was growing up," Valeggia says. "But my father was a chemical engineer and had a very curious mind, which I inherited. He was a huge influence in how I saw the world." says. 

Valeggia is a professor of biological anthropology and the director of the Population Aging Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Born and raised in Argentina, where she earned her first degree, she did her graduate studies in the United States, and became a U.S. citizen in March of this year.

Her parents, Italian immigrants, placed a high value on education, and they were supportive of the "non-traditional" interests that, until the age of 15, included a plan to become a nuclear physicist. 

But then Valeggia met the first obstacle erected by custom. "(To study nuclear physics I would have) had to move 1600 kilometers away when I was 18, and that was frowned upon," Valeggia says. A young woman alone and so far from home....

Her schoolmates didn't think much of her plan either, but for a different reason: they didn't like field of science she had chosen.  "One of my friends convinced me that physics was not a very 'positive' science, and that I could make much healthier contributions."

So she acquiesced to both staying closer to home and switching sciences, and turned to biology.

"This is the paradox of the 'machista' culture that ended up playing in my favor: because I was also expected to marry someone who would support me, I was free to choose whatever career I wanted, while my brothers were encouraged to go for lucrative careers," she says.

The scientific discipline she chose is the one that has the best representation of Latina women, but the total number of women of color with doctorates in any STEM fields is still a miniscule 2.4 percent in the United States (per the National Science Foundation), and Valeggia says she can count her Latina colleagues "on one hand."

She thinks that the lack of representation of Latinas in the sciences has to do, in part with the fact that as Latinas think of pursuing professions, they look for careers with more stability and better pay. Though the sciences are extremely competitive and demanding, they aren't often well remunerated. "You really have to love science," she says, then goes on to talk about the satisfaction she feels when her research is used to better the lives of women and children in actual communities.

Valeggia recently won a Presidential Award for her research investigating the interaction between human biology and cultural variables and how that interaction shapes fertility, growth and development. Despite her doctorate, her academic posts and the recognition for her research, she says that having a Spanish accent in her English has an effect on how her work is received in academic presentations. 

"I do have an accent and I think this does have an impact on the impression I cause when introducing my work," she says.  "Sometimes I feel it is a good reception, as if my 'exotic' accent is a plus and makes people pay more attention. Other times I have felt that it is a turn off." Even though Valeggia doesn't believe she's been slighted for being a Latina, she says that she's "sometimes felt that my presentations were not as persuasive as they should have been — particularly when I've presented my work in medicine forums — but I always thought that had to do more with my gender than with my ethnicity."

Valeggia has a plucky air about her, a bit reminiscent of Karen Allen in the first Indiana Jones movies. It is easy to imagine her in the jungle (her husband is also a biologist and studies monkeys in their natural environment) and in the El Chaco area of Argentina, where she does her own field work. El Chaco is part of an extensive — and largely inaccessible — lowland that covers half of Paraguay, and large expanses of Bolivia and Brazil, and where the indigenous peoples with whom Valeggia works make their home.

Because she did her undergrad in Argentina where the majority of students are "Latinos," and because she has light skin, she doesn't feel she has experienced the same stereotyping or impediments to advancement to which U.S. Latinas can be subject. But she recollects that her only Latina classmate as she was getting her doctorate at University of California at Davis, was Puerto Rican and would speak about a kind of academic "racial profiling" that threatened to derail her studies. 

Fierce competition is part of the science world, even at grad school level, but according to Valeggia, "there was absolutely no sense of competition between us." What's more, the two Latinas made sure to help each other.

She believes in the power of mentorship, and describes Magdalena Hurtado, a biological anthropologist currently at Arizona State University, as an extremely supportive mentor during her postdoctoral years. Valeggia makes sure to return the favor. She teaches and mentors young women in her profession, particularly in Argentina where she and her husband have established FundaciónECO to promote education in El Chaco. 

"Through this foundation, we were able to support the schooling of several young people from underserved communities," Valeggia says, "and we are now proudly sponsoring Rosaura Medina, an indigenous young woman who is now in her third year of law school."  

The couple has obviously been the role models for their sons: the oldest, Facundo, is interested in studying neuroscience; the middle son, Matias, biology, and even though the youngest, Joaquin, hasn't decided what he'll do, his mother thinks it's likely to have something to do with science.

Maybe this proof that vocations develop from regular exposure to their practice leads Valeggia to believe that the way Latinas are depicted in the media does have an impact.

"I definitely think media portrayals matter," she says, "and we should strive to highlight successful Latina women in powerful positions such as (Supreme Court Justice) Sonia Sotomayor and (former Surgeon General) Antonia Novello, or present and past Latin American women presidents."

"We have to learn to recognize, appreciate, and broadcast the diversity among Latinas," she adds. "Latinas are capable of doing whatever they want. They should be proactive and assertive in looking for role models." 

What if — as Valeggia herself experienced during her graduate studies when she had no Latina professors or advisor,— young Latinas can't find role models in their chosen fields? 

Then, she says, "They must be the trailblazers themselves."

Role: The independent manager

"I wrote my first story when I was 7. I carry that piece of paper in my wallet still, as a lucky charm."

The daughter of a middle-class family in Chihuahua, Mexico, who always loved stories discovered, at the age of 12, that she could write and deliver speeches too. She had a way with words and ideas. 

Now Adriana Arvizo is a public relations manager for the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation.

"I just turned 30 and I'm a manager," she says. "I love my job. I love what I do and the organization I work for. I still tell stories about something that I'm very passionate about: Latinos in the United States." 

The daughter of two engineers, Arvizo says that for her not going to college was never an option, and she knew early she wanted to study communications. 

Because her hometown was a few hours from the U.S. border, she found out about a program at the University of Texas at El Paso that allowed students from the adjacent Mexican state of Chihuahua to pay the same tuition as Texas residents. And at 18 she came to the United States to start her studies.

She worked a lot of jobs to be able to pay for her schooling. She washed dishes, cleaned the school stadium, worked as a bartender and as a barista. She also volunteered at the school paper because, even though she needed money, she also wanted the kind of experience she'd need to fulfill her dream of working in communications.

"I had the challenge of being an immigrant, I knew that in order to get a job and a sponsored work visa, I had to make more effort than others," she says. "My college was 70 percent Latino, but I felt different being an international student because the students who were born in the U.S. got financial aid, had the better jobs at school and had more opportunities. But that gave us, the international students, this amazing drive to do more, to give our 200 percent and take advantage of every single opportunity that came our way."

Her mother is her inspiration for what Latina professionals can be. "Ever since I can remember my mom has worked, and still does," she says. "She would wake up early, at 5 a.m., clean the house, cook some food, put on her business attire, go to work and come back late at night. She is the head of an economic research office for the state government in Chihuahua and she is super smart. I learned from her to be independent and that women can do everything that man do, and in high heels."

Arvizo thinks that the troubling high school drop out rate for Latina girls — 30 percent, which is more than twice the rate for African-American girls, and almost four times the rate for white girls — has to do with the weight of responsibility young Latinas shoulder, especially those whose parents are immigrants. "Very often they become the adults and guide their parents in this country, and that's tough," she says. "For Latinas especially, it is part of our culture that the oldest sister takes care of the siblings and helps her mother with whatever needs to be done for the family."

But Arvizo doesn't absolve media — neither Spanish-language or mainstream — of responsibility for the messages they are imparting. 

"What I call the telenovela culture is a terrible example for young Latinas," she says. "That story about the young, poor girl who finds the rich Prince Charming and cries her eyes out for him, and gives her life for him, leads young Latinas to think that at fifteen they have met the love of their lives and that everything is going to be like in the novelas. And it's not! We should be encouraging young Latinas to love themselves first, to travel, to explore the world, to enjoy their youth, to have healthy relationships and protected sex, to pursue education and take pride in being independent."

Earlier in the year Arvizo was at a conference where she heard Rita Moreno speak. "She was explaining how when she was young it was very hard to get a role in Hollywood because Latinas played the part of either a maid or a prostitute. I don't think much has changed in 40 years," Arvizo says.

"I think there are still a lot of stereotypes about Latinas being very sexual, and that bothers me," she says. "Latinos are very passionate, but we are passionate about everything — work, family, relationships, soccer and bettering ourselves —not only sex. So, yes, let's embrace our beauty and sexuality but also our intellect, our strong character and our moral values."

In addition to the vitally important aspect of mentoring younger Latinas, Arvizo believes there is an obligation to support all Latinas, even if you don't know them personally. "If there is a Latina designer whose work you like, go buy from that designer; if there is a movie with a Latina actor, watch that movie."

"Our self-esteem has been hurt by stereotypes and a history of discrimination, and we have to restore it," she says. "We have to understand that we are a great community.  We need to believe in ourselves in order to change the stereotypes. In every profession, Latinas are strong, super strong. We can achieve whatever we set as our goals. We just need more opportunities."  

Arvizo feels, perhaps more acutely than any of the other Latinas interviewed for this piece, the dual nature of the immigrant. She has lived in the United States almost half her life and, as a permanent resident, considers herself both Mexican and American. 

"How am I not going to love this country?" she asks."It is my home. It has given me friends, a career, a partner and, more than likely in the future, children. But that doesn't make me less Mexican. The song 'My Way' by Frank Sinatra gives me the chills exactly as "A Mi Manera' by Vicente Fernandez does. I am as passionate about the Mexican national soccer team as I am about my Phillies."

She says that on those occasions when she feels intimidated because she has accent in her English, she reminds herself that she connects two worlds. 

"This is how I see it. In martial arts, you use your opponent's strength for your benefit," she says. "I do have an accent, but hey, I speak two languages. And I'm not only bilingual but bicultural. Instead of feeling less, I feel more."

Role: The passionate federal appointee

I've already told you, at the beginning of thus article, that Natalia Olson-Urtecho has spark. 

The Mid-Atlantic Regional Administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration also has, of all the Latinas presented here, the background closest to my own — she's the daughter of a Latina and an American, for example, and she was raised in Central America.

But her dream is unusual. 

"I hope to be an ambassador," she says. "And the CEO of a Fortune 500 company."

President Obama appointed Olson-Urtecho to her position at the S.B.A. exactly one year ago— she is the first Latina to hold that government post — and in that year she has ceaselessly encouraged Latinas to see the opportunities open to them. 

"The other day I spoke about green businesses at Congreso (a Philadelphia-based Latino community organization) and I had to speak wearing two hats," she says. "One hat as the S.B.A., and one as a former green business owner — because they couldn't find another Latina involved in green business. So there is a great opportunity for more Latinas to get into that business niche few others are in."

Olson-Urtecho was born in Honduras, the daughter of a Latina lawyer and an American architect, and grew up there, and in Mexico, Jamaica and Venezuela. 

"My parents come from two very different backgrounds, and the fact that my father realized how important it was for us to grow up and live in Latin America is very admirable," she says. "My mom always emphasized how proud we should be of our heritage, and that stems from the racism she experienced in the U.S. where people would think she was the nanny rather than the mother of light-skinned children."

Olson-Urtecho describes her parents and grandparents as hard-working and humble people. But no matter how humble, their expectation was that she'd go to college. When she did go to college in the U.S. — fresh out of high school in Mexico City — she was startled by how little the other students knew about Latin America or, indeed, U.S. Latinos. 

"I didn't realize how much people didn't know about Mexico, which was so close," she remembers. "And I didn't have a single Latino or Latina professor."

She says she found herself trying to dispel stereotypes. "I had to work in communicating to people that there were other Latinos who were educated and had aspirations besides being a maid or a busboy. People thought I was a stewardess because I spoke many languages, and that's because we don't highlight successful Latinos."

She originally intended to major in international relations but she took classes in Urban Systems engineering, and though she says she wasn't strong in math, she liked the course. "I saw there was so much need for it in the countries I lived in," she says. "My parents always said we had a responsibility to help our community, because we were very fortunate to have the opportunity to study, and get ahead. That's why I went back to do a master's in city and regional planning."

There is verve and passion in everything Olson-Urtecho does, whether it's the eye roll that punctuates her story about a coworker who decided one day to tell her she was looking "very Sofia Vergara," or her willingness to balance a fluorescent light bulb on her shoulder during the photo shoot for this article, because ... green business, right?

She has been a U.S. citizen from birth, nevertheless she is often asked questions based on the assumption that she is a foreigner. How many passports do you have, she's been asked; or she'll get comments about her accent. Olson-Urtecho sees them as an opportunity to educate people. 

"What is it to be American?" she asks. "Anglo Saxon customs and traditions only? I don't think so. My vision is that we celebrate our diversity as an advantage and not a disadvantage. That we know the strength of this country relies on the mix of people, and that everyone realizes that if we don't uplift this image we will not leverage our best resources and capabilities."

There weren't any Latinas in her university majors, and Olson-Urtecho doesn't have many Latina colleagues at her current work either. She can't explain why that is, but she thinks that what it points to is a need for Latinas to speak out. She thinks there is a need for more Latinas to take risks. And to shake off the fear of what people will say if they fail. 

After all, this is a country, she says, where there is nothing wrong with wiping the slate clean and starting over again.

Clean slate, new story

"One word," I ask each one. "Give me one word to define yourself." 

It may sound like I ask them the question to find the best way to describe them, and of course, that's true. But at the same time I'm asking them something more. If we are to set aside an old and stereotype-ridden script about Latinas, if we are to open the way for young Latinas to know that they too have minds dexterous enough create an unexpected and unforeseen future for themselves, then I can think of no better people than these to give me the opening words for a new narrative.

"Unafraid," says Jimenez.

"Positive," says Perez-Santos.

"Curious," says Valeggia.

"Independent," says Arvizo.

"Passionate," says Olson-Urtecho.

So it is. Now its your turn.

• • •

This article was updated Sept. 27 to correct a mistake in the information about the People's Emergency Center.
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