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Univision Contigo

From Farm Worker Camp to Washington, D.C.

In March, we are celebrating women's contributions to history, culture, and society. Mary Ann Gomez Orta is the President and CEO of the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute (CHLI) .
24 Mar 2021 – 01:49 PM EDT
"I make decisions every day that stem from my parents' reminders to learn, help others, and that everyone is important." Crédito: EVA HAMBACH/AFP via Getty Images

First-generation American of Mexican heritage is who I am. I am the first of five children born and raised in a farmworker camp 45 minutes away from what I called civilization, also known as Stockton, California. My family was poor in finances and rich in traditional values. My father, Leonides Gomez, came to the U.S. from Michoacan, Mexico in the bracero program. My mom, Margaret Garcia, was born in Brownsville, Texas. They met working in the fields of Chico, California.

My parents made education a priority and all of their children earned college degrees. I consider that the most significant accomplishment of two people who had a third-grade education. My dad always said: no matter what happens, no one can take away your education.

I grew up speaking Spanish and seeing the world through ABC, NBC, CBS, and Univision in our home. The TV was my primary English language and American culture teacher. Through that screen, I learned about other cultures, countries, languages, and religions as I watched Siempre en Domingo con Raul Velasco with my dad. The shows filled my mind with possibilities.

I never felt less than or poor until I went to high school. I was in honors English classes and other students looked at me as if I didn't belong. Imagine explaining to your parents who completed third grade the importance of going to a high school dance, a football game, or joining the tennis team. Suffice it to say my high school priorities were not necessarily my parents’ life priorities for me.

Then college. Everything at the University of the Pacific was new to me -- course topics, time management, loans, and working part-time. Additionally, the majority of my classmates were White from higher socio-economic beginnings. My struggle was real. Although I had a rough first semester, I was able to get through it and it sparked a new drive in me. I focused on graduating in front of my family. This new found sense of "ganas" has been an engine of my success.

I took my degree in communications to Sacramento and worked for a public relations firm. My bilingual-bicultural Latina style was lauded. Over time, my skills enabled me to join the corporate world of marketing. I received compliments for my work coupled with remarks about my style, my support for diversity in and out of the office, and how I effusively I greeted and hugged people. The ganas would kick in, and I would stand my ground. I questioned marketing plans from headquarters, I revisited advertising deals to get better ones, and created new partnerships with community organizations most did not know.

Growing up asking many questions for my parents while interpreting language and culture gave me a certain sense of confidence that made others uncomfortable. Was it because I am Hispanic? Was it because I'm a woman? Or maybe it was that I was the Hispanic-educated woman in the room they had not encountered before? It was a combination. I turned it into an opportunity to invite people to learn about different cultures, experiences and growing the business while doing so.

No matter what, I was honest, trustworthy, and respectable. Through those years, I had the honor of working for three men who supported me. When I was in an uncomfortable situation with a client and an indirect coworker, they stepped in. The client agreement was terminated, and the coworker was fired.

Navigating unfamiliar waters was challenging. In the 90's mentorship or sponsorship was still a distant thought. It was extra special when I would get together with other Hispanic employees. We challenged each other, compared marketing strategies, and had a great time doing so without judgment or imposter syndrome.

I was always involved in community-based organizations and national non-profits. I found comfort and joy in donating my time because I also learned so much and met new people. That education again.

It is is now close to a decade that I've been leading the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute based in Washington, D.C. The vision of "Advancing the Hispanic Community's Diversity of Thought" grows in strength each day. As CHLI's CEO, I have invited non-Hispanics to be part of our programs. If we, as Hispanics, Latinos, or Latinx, want to be invited, hired, promoted, and celebrated, we must start by inviting non-Hispanics to our organizations, programs, and social occasions. How else are we to learn from each other?

The foundation of empowerment is investment. People believed and invested in me, so I pay it forward. At CHLI, our most significant investments are in college students. We show them the power of diversity of thought, inclusion, individual and family pride, public service, and servant leadership.

I make decisions every day that stem from my parents' reminders to learn, help others, and that everyone is important. I believe diverse points of view create exponentially better results for all.


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