While many things have changed during the 35 years that the Montebello-based Mexican American Opportunity Foundation (MAOF) has been putting on its National Latina Conference, including the conference name, one thing has remained unchanged: the program’s mission to inspire and empower Latinas to advance themselves in higher education and the workforce.
That mission was in full display last week when about 2,000 high school- and college-age women attended the sold out conference held May 17 at the Quiet Cannon in Montebello.
After 35 years, the National Hispanic Women’s Conference was changed to the National Latina Conference, a significant change that reflects current times, MAOF President Martin Castro told EGP.
The conference was the vision of MAOF founder Dionicio Morales who in the late 1970’s thought it would be a good way to inspire young women and bolster the number of professional Hispanic women in the workforce.
“The idea was to recruit high school and college Latinas—our youth—to the day-long conference where they would … attend workshops designed to get them to think about their future and opportunities to help them stay in school,” Martin told EGP. Empowered with information, they could then choose to “advance their education or attend a vocational program so that they can … succeed in life,” Martin said.
“…What better way to motivate young Latinas than to honor Latinas who are at the top of their profession?” he said.
Workshop topics have changed over the years to reflect young women’s changing needs and interests, however the annual women of the year awards have remained an integral part of the program. So has the fashion show, though scaled back, which is seen as a way to expose young women to professional attire appropriate for the workplace.
Workshops this year included information on how to achieve health and wellness goals, how life expectancy and aging will affect the Latino community, and career opportunities in engineering, television, sports and other fields. Attendees also learned about some of their legal rights, dressing for success and how to play golf during a clinic put on by Latina golfers.
One of the more popular workshops included current ABC7 television personalities who discussed what it takes to survive in the television industry.
Pico Rivera native Alysha Del Valle shared her story with the young women who were eager to hear about her job as a television traffic reporter; they were surprised to learn her workday starts at 2 a.m.
Del Valle said her parents told her to go to college, but since no one else in her family had ever attended she had to figure out on her own how to get there and pay for it once admitted. She said even though she was a young single mother, she continued to pursue her life-long dream by first attending Rio Hondo College then USC on a scholarship after “working her butt off.”
“I had several people, including my eighth grade Algebra teacher tell me I would never go to college, I would never be on TV. And I had another person while I was in college tell me that I couldn’t start in L.A., I had to go somewhere smaller and work my way up,” she said. “But I did not want to leave my family and I defied both of them and now I have my dream job with ABC7,” Del Valle told the young women.
ABC7 Vice President of Diversity and Community Relations Diana Medina, Director of Public Affairs Teresa Samaniego, Programming Assistant Director Lisa Gonzalez and Public Affairs Administrator Julie Farias also shared their stories. Most of the panelists identified themselves as first-generation Americans and college graduates.
One of the panelists admitted her education and career took a detour because she “partied a little bit,” but she noted she now has two degrees. “If you want to succeed, it’s not going to be easy but you will,” she said, highlighting the importance of a positive attitude.
Medina said attending college was not a part of her vocabulary growing up in Pacoima, but after “I kissed my prince and he turned into a frog,” she was faced with the reality of being a single mother who had to become the breadwinner. She went to night school after working all day.
“It was very difficult, and I stress that because you do have choices,” Medina said. “And every choice we make has some kind of result or consequence… So when you decide about your future, education is such an equalizer. The more education you have, the more possibilities you have, the fewer obstacles you will have, the more choices you will have. Without an education, your choices become very diminished,” Medina said.
Being a good wife and mother are also important and “the best thing you can do for your family is to be self-sufficient because if something happens to your husband, or something happens to your home, you may have to be the one who has to care for your children, you have to feed them and clothe them, and without an education, how would you do that?”
All the panelists underscored the importance of getting an education, whether at a college or vocational school. They discussed the value of completing internships, making professional contacts and prioritizing career goals over romantic relationships.
This year’s conference fashion show was co-sponsored by Mexican General Consulate David Figueroa and included regional dresses from Mexico.
“Without a doubt, the hard work of MAOF has contributed in a significant way to the empowerment and preparation of young Latinas,” Mexican Consul General David Figueroa Ortega said in a written statement.
MAOF is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and today provides services to low-income families across L.A. and Kern Counties, Nevada and New Mexico.
The Latina conference is one of MAOF’s legacy programs and has inspired similar conferences across the country, said Castro.
He acknowledged that the number of Latinas college graduates and professionals is higher then when they first started, but said the drop-out rate among Latinas is still too high so the conference is as needed and relevant as it was three decades ago.
He said if they can change the lives of 15 of the more than 900 local women who attend, “then it’s well worth it.”
The five women honored this year come from diverse fields and backgrounds, and received awards in one of five categories:
International – philanthropist Lorena Ochoa, who was ranked the number one female golfer at the height of her career; Education – Dr. Mildred Garcia, president of Cal State Fullerton; STEM -award-winning engineer and Northrop Grumman employee Ana Luisa Ramirez; Art -internationally acclaimed artist Yolanda Gonzalez, and in the Community category, the award went to Corinne Sanchez, president and CEO of nonprofit El Proyecto del Barrio, Inc.
Accepting her award, Sanchez said she was repeatedly told not to go to law school, that she wouldn’t pass the Bar exam and that she would be miserable practicing law; goals she did achieve and does not regret.
“I believe every person must persevere, never give up. Don’t let anyone stop you,” Sanchez said.
Sisters Leonela and Margarita Ramirez, 17 and 19 respectively, were encouraged to attend the conference by their teacher at the Huntington Park-Bell Community Adult School.
Leonela said growing up she had several teachers tell her and her peers they would never accomplish anything, except maybe joining a gang. The conference has exposed her to Latinas who have succeeded.
“There is a lot to take in, a lot of opportunities to look up,” Margarita said. “They push you to better yourself, not just school but also career… [We] can actually be somebody, not just housewives.”
**Editor’s Note: This story was updated on May 30, 2013 to correct statements attributed to a different ABC7 panelist.