The More Things Change …

You probably know how this phrase ends: “… the more they stay the same.”

I was reminded of this adage when I spoke to girls and young women in 6th through 12th grades as part of Encuentro de Chicas Latinas — a wonderful community outreach program of the Girl Scouts Nation’s Capital. The program is designed to inspire girls to become more active in their schools and communities.

Knowing that the key to giving an effective speech is to tell a story, it was important for me to share my personal story as a daughter of immigrants. While delivering the speech and seeing the reactions on the faces of those at the event, I realized that while the world has changed when it comes to opportunities for women overall, and Hispanic women specifically, there is a lot still standing in our way.

In the gymnasium of James Lee Community Center in Falls Church, Va., I stood at center court and looked into the eyes of hopeful future leaders — young women who I hoped to inspire with my story of perseverance, a strong work ethic and the unfair playing field I had worked hard to level. I described how when I was their age, I had to rely on myself to figure out homework assignments, develop science projects and apply to college. Luckily, I was able to lean on a few friends when I was truly stuck.

You see, my parents could only speak Spanish. The language barrier prevented them from being friends with my friends’ non-Spanish-speaking parents. They didn’t chaperone school events or mix at the church socials. And forget about the neighborhood potluck dinners.

At times it was incredibly isolating.

As I relayed what life was like for me, the heads nodded and the eyes welled. Decades after I faced my own battles to succeed academically and socially and be embraced for my culture, these young women experience the same challenges.

They have big dreams, and they need big opportunities so they can realize those dreams. I conveyed that their own personal standards and expectations of themselves will take them anywhere they want to go. I reminded them that being a Girl Scout is a terrific way to start the path to success.

But the world should meet them halfway.

In my own experiences, even as an adult living and working in a city as diverse as Washington, D.C., I have found myself hedging in situations where my ethnicity will be front and center. It’s not shame; it’s concern that implicit bias about who I am will soon follow.

Sometimes people will hear a name and assume they know everything about the individual behind it, from the religion they practice to the food they eat. I’ve spent a career debunking those myths and encourage every young Latina I meet to do the same. But it’s a harsh reality that immigrant communities all over the world still face.

After the event, one young woman approached me and told me she wasn’t confident she would ever be able to speak English. “You will,” I told her. “Be patient and believe in yourself. You can make it happen.”

Being with these amazing young women actually inspired me. Seeing their strength and determination to reject exclusion and discrimination, and instead pursue opportunity and leadership, renewed my confidence that as our communities become more diverse, so will our points of view of those who look or sound different from ourselves.