Marlene Gonzalez used to work in Corporate America. At an event she helped organize years back, she started talking with a white male colleague about her work and her background as an immigrant from Latin America.
Her colleague looked at Gonzalez, who is fair skinned. "Oh, but you don't look like my maid," he said.
Gonzalez recounted this story to a group of Latina women who gathered Friday for a mini-conference organized by the National Hispana Leadership Institute (NHLI) in Chicago.
"I didn't feel ashamed of that," she said. "Because my mother used to be a maid."
Gonzalez said her mother worked incredibly hard so that her daughter could achieve an education.
Today, Gonzalez is president and founder of Life Coaching Group LLC.
Gonzalez said she didn't become angry at her colleague or lash out at him.
Hopefully, just meeting an educated Latina would help to break his stereotypes. And Gonzalez, who worked in Corporate America, is one of the few Latinas to defy the statistical odds.
Only 63 percent of Latinas in the United States have completed high
school, 4.4 percent have a bachelor's degree, 3.5 percent a master's
degree and less than 2 percent have a doctorate.
And only 3.6 percent of Latinas work in management or professional occupations, Gonzalez said.
Several of the speakers addressed what needs to be done to help Latinas achieve higher levels of education.
Maria Pesqueira, President and CEO of Mujeres Latinas en Acción, a
non-profit women's advocacy nonprofit in Chicago, said part of the
problem is the high teen pregnancy rate among Latinas and overcrowding
in high schools.
"How do we prevent them from dropping out?" Pesqueira asked.
More than 50 percent of Latinas have children before the age of 20.
"The teen pregnancy rate across the country among non-Latinas is going
down and Latinas continue to go up. If we don't look at preventive
programs, then we're not doing our part," Pesqueira said.
Cristina Lopez, president of the NHLI, said that Hispanic women have to help each other out.
"We need to get information out. We are educators in our community. If
we know of resources, if we know of programs, we really need to let the
community know so that they can take advantage of these resources,"
Elvia Torres, who owns her own State Farm Agency, talked about the
importance of mentoring. She hires high school and college students to
work part-time in her office.
"I get phone calls from parents who say thank you so much for giving them an opportunity," she said.
Juanita Irizarry, a program officer with the Chicago Community Trust,
said that she and colleagues have joined together to help sponsor
individual Hispanic students to go to college. Some of them face
financial barriers or barriers because they lack immigration papers.
"If we really care about these things, we have to put our money where our mouth is," Irizarry said.
The more women like these who succeed, the further we will go in breaking stereotypes.