Anita Alvarez and other Latinas discuss identity

A group of prominent Latina women gathered in Chicago recently to
talk about what it means to be a Latina. They took part in a panel
discussion organized by the Latina Leadership Council, which is an initiative of the Chicago Foundation for Women, held at the National Museum of Mexican Art.

Among the participants I saw there were Cook County State's Atty. Anita Alvarez, actress Sandra Marquez and entrepreneur Neli-Vazquez Roland.

Alvarez recalled that when she was in law school there were only two
Latinas in a class of 70 students. But the law professors would often
confuse them.

"They couldn't keep us apart," Alvarez said.

As a young prosecutor, she was once mistaken for the
Spanish-language interpreter. And some have accused her of working for
the wrong side, which she refuted.

"My victims  are black and Hispanic," said Alvarez who became a
founding member of the National Hispanic Prosecutors Association.

Marquez recalled that as an acting student she wasn't considered for all roles.

"Why am I not being considered?" she wondered pointing out that she studied acting "not Latino acting."

Today Marquez is an ensemble member of Teatro Vista and an adjunct
lecturer in the theater Department at Northwestern University.

Vazquez-Rowland started her career as a stockbroker in the 1985. In
her firm she was one of three women and the only Latina. She recalled
that the guys took bets on how long she would last in that career. She
carved out a niche for herself by going to Mexico and investing in
companies there.

"By the way, a lot of guys lost bets," she said.

Vazquez-Rowland worked as a stockbroker 13 years and then later
founded Be! Products, Inc., a cosmetics company, and A Safe Haven, a
housing program for recovering drug and alcohol addicts that she
founded with her husband.

The women on the panel pointed out that as Latinas we are diverse is many ways. Veronica Arreloa,
director of the women in science and engineering program at the
University of Illinois at Chicago, grew up in the suburbs and doesn't
speak Spanish. Aurora Aguilar, senior producer of Eight Forty-Eight on Chicago Public Radio, grew up on 18th Street in Pilsen and speaks Spanish.

But like Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor some of the women said they have dealt with an extra layer of scrutiny, stereotypes and double standards.

"Because we're women, because we're Latinas, we will always be held to a higher standard," Vazquez-Rowland said.

Alvarez said that when she decided to run for state's attorney few took her candidacy seriously.

"I was dismissed right off the bat," she said. She said that people made comments like, "Who's going to vote for an Alvarez?"

But they did and she defeated her male opponents in the Democratic
primary and won the general election last year becoming the first
Latina elected to countywide office in Illinois.

Alvarez's advice for other Latinas is not to let others discourage
you. "When people tell you it's not your time," Alvarez said, "believe
in yourself."

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