Growing up in East Los Angeles, Leticia Mendoza had teachers who encouraged her to follow her dreams; today, she is trying to do the same for young Latinas living in Southeast Los Angeles County.
Mendoza, now a teacher and elected official with the ABC Unified School District, understands that even when young women are encouraged to take on the world, they sometimes do things that will prevent them from reaching their goals.
“Most of the time what’s holding us back is fear,” confides Mendoza, who last week saw one of her efforts to empower young Latinas come to fruition.
With help from local leaders, she brought together 175 high school juniors from the ABC, Downey, Montebello, Norwalk-La Mirada and Whittier Union Unified School Districts for the Inaugural Young Latinas Empowerment Conference at Cerritos College.
The event featured Latina politicians, businesswomen, educators, doctors and administrators who spoke to the young women about the importance of a higher education and being involved in their communities.
“I want these young girls to feel that no matter what field they’re interested in, it’s all up to you to get there,” said Mendoza, who also happens to be the wife of California Sen. Tony Mendoza.
“Many may not be thinking about college, they face challenges and may need more encouragement,” Mendoza said, emphasizing that language barriers, immigration status, relationships, low self-esteem or college readiness can stand in their way.
Or “parents may want to us to stay home and help the family,” she added, reflecting on the cultural barriers Latinas face when pursuing a higher education.
Cal State Fullerton professor Maria Malagon, Ph.D., was the featured speaker at the conference.
She pointed out that of every 100 Latinos in California high schools, only 60 will end up getting a high school diploma; 11 will go on to get a Bachelors degree and three will earn a Masters degree. Even fewer end up with a Ph. D., Malagon said.
The professor told the gathering of Latina teens that they are needed in a variety of fields, therefore “we need you to be committed to work hard.”
She said it might not be easy once they do get to college, and at times they might not feel welcomed. There is indeed a border that sometimes separates Latinos, she acknowledged, and it’s not just the US-Mexican border we’re talking about, but a metaphorical one as well.
“It’s a line that says you belong here or you don’t,” she said.
“These institutions were not made for you and me…but we have the right to be there,” she said, referring to the low number of Latinos students and professors on college campuses.
Malagon warned the high school juniors to resist when “folks try to change us.”
“I was told I had to change a lot about myself,” Malagon said, referring to her hoop earrings and wing-tipped eyeliner. “I proved myself with a lot of hard work.”
With the attacks on women and the Latino community by Pres. Donald Trump and his policies, a conference like this is very timely, Mendoza told EGP.
“It was the perfect time to do something about it,” she said, adding she hopes more women consider running for office.
Mendoza says she also wants young Latinas to know how men should treat them and that’s why she recruited her senator husband to help demonstrate that lesson.
Wearing pink aprons, a dozen male elected officials took “serving the public” literally. Commerce Mayor Ivan Altamirano and MUSD Board Member Edgar Cisneros were among the officials who served lunch to the young Latinas.
“We wanted to show you we care about your success,” Sen. Mendoza told them.
“This is the first step of the rest of your lives,” added Assemblyman Ian Calderon. “We want to be supportive.”
Many of the high school students used the word “empowered” to describe how they felt after hearing the words of encouragement from speakers and seeing women that look like them in important professional fields.
Sara Flores, a junior at Santa Fe High School, told EGP she felt more motivated to reach her goals.
“Many people think of us [Latinos] as people who don’t know anything about education or don’t care,” she said. “I want to prove people wrong. I want my voice to be heard.”
Mendoza told EGP she would like to see the event expand next year to include more women leaders, students and even parents. For now, she hopes these girls are returning to their communities with this motto: “I want them to say, ‘yes I can do it!’”
Norwalk High School student Lizet Anguiano was quick to put her newfound confidence and authority into action.
Without hesitation, she asked Assembly Majority Leader Calderon, “Can we get some limes over here?”