Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Latina Still Standing chooses to be thankful despite the tragedies

Published Nov. 2013

Being thankful is a choice.

People who have experienced many difficulties and hardships, may not think they have much to be thankful for. I believe that everyone has something to be thankful for; it’s just a matter of perspective.
Gina Sauceda is a Latina who has endured tremendous hardships and losses, yet she chooses to be thankful.

Gina and her husband Nick have been together since high school. They had three little girls. Their oldest daughter, Vanessa, was four years old when she became sick and was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension. And, when their second daughter turned four years old, she was also diagnosed with the same illness.

Both children were given a certain number of years to live. Their mother chose not to disclose this information to the children; she let them live as normal a life as possible and both of them survived longer than originally predicted.

But, in 2002, her daughter Valerie, 13 years old, lost her battle with pulmonary hypertension and, seven years later, her oldest daughter Vanessa, who at 22 years old needed a heart and double lung transplant, also passed away.

Gina had to endure losing two of her three daughters within the same decade. Yet, she is still standing and she is thankful. “My grandchild is my world,” Gina said. “She and my daughter and my husband keep me going and I am thankful for them.”

Gina spent thousands of hours in various hospitals with her daughters since their diagnosis. Neither Gina nor the doctors know why the two girls were born with that disease; there was no apparent genetic history. Yet, in spite of the misfortune, Gina has chosen to be thankful. “I am thankful for the time I was able to be their mother,” she said. “I am thankful for waking up every day.”

She had been angry at first and angry at God, but she came to realize that God didn’t do this to her children, the illness did.

Gina’s advice to other families who have to endure something so tragic is to take it one day at a time and choose to be thankful for the time you have with your children. On account of her faith, Gina is sure that she will be with her girls again. She considers herself a Latina Still Standing and I definitely concur that she epitomizes what that phrase means – she is resilient, optimistic, courageous and has a strong faith to help her through tough times.

I chose to tell her story in November because I believe being thankful is a choice. Despite having gone through tremendous hardships and losses, one can still find reasons to be thankful.

This Thanksgiving I am thankful for Gina and all of the other Latinas I have met through the Latina Still Standing column, blog and facebook platforms and thankful that I can share their stories of triumph over so many obstacles with other Latinas in order to inspire them to never give up.
Happy Thanksgiving, Latinas!

An Arizona native, Diana Bejarano, is a blogger, columnist, motivational speaker, marketing professional and a graduate of Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Reach her at

Latina goes from Peoria High School to the big leagues

Published Oct. 2013

Latinas can do anything anyone else can do, and maybe even better. After hearing so many stories of triumph and overcoming tremendous obstacles, I wholeheartedly believe it.
Patricia Ramos feels the same way. She has reached the top in a field that Latinas traditionally don’t excel in – basketball.

Hard work, determination and heart helped her play as a point guard while attending Peoria High School, Pima Community College and Ashford University in Clinton, Iowa. This past summer, she went to New Orleans to compete in the Women’s Final Four Combine. She competed against college seniors from all over the country. Not only did Patricia make it through all of the games, she was selected to play in a women’s professional league.

Patricia is not the average basketball player. She is a only five feet, three inches tall; she acquired her talent through practice and endurance.

“People say your height will keep you back, but it’s not about your height; it’s about your heart and how big it is and how much you believe in yourself,” Ramos said.

She is the only Latina on her team. Few Latinas play in the women’s national and international basketball leagues, and even fewer Mexican Americans.

“Basketball has given me many opportunities. It paid for my education and I have met so many people through volunteer activities. I even had the opportunity to work with the Special Olympics and I learned to play wheelchair basketball,” Ramos said. “Basketball has taught me respect and discipline and I was able to travel extensively.”

Patricia’s parents have been the main  force behind her success. Her father, John, coaches high school basketball and taught her to play when she was just six years old.

“She has a lot of dedication, she never let her height hold her back,” said Sonya Ramos, Patricia’s mother. “She always does double the work and always gives more than 100 percent.”

Letting their little girl move away from home to go to college was tough; letting her follow her dream and play in another country was also hard, but they put their fears aside and supported her.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for her, so we gave her our blessing and we’re praying for her safety,” said Sonya. “We don’t cry in front of her,” said John. “We usually wait until we get home.”
“We just keep telling her ‘You’re a warrior,’ ” says John. “She’s so driven; it actually motivates her more when they tell her that she can’t do it.”

Patricia had to endure coaches telling her she could never go pro because of her height, but twice she was runner-up for Player of the Year.

Patricia remembers her pet Chihuahua that terrorized their bigger dog. “My parents always said, ‘It’s not the size of the dog, it’s the bite!,’ and I believe it!”

Patricia hopes to get picked up by an international team while playing in Europe and maybe one day play for the WNBA. Whether she does or not, she has already made herself and her family proud.

An Arizona native, Diana Bejarano, is a blogger, columnist, motivational speaker, marketing professional and a graduate of Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Reach her on her website at or e-mail her at

Latina who is licking the odds

Published Sept. 2013

Many Latinas have an entrepreneurial spirit. Some have ideas that are very different from anything that has been done before. Believing in our ideas and garnering support from others is just half the battle, but it can be done. Just ask Betty Alatorre de Hong, also known as “Paletas Betty.”

As a teenager, Alatorre de Hong travelled more than 1,000 miles with her family from Michoacan, Mexico, to settle in Phoenix. The things she missed most about leaving her home were the flavors of her favorite foods – homemade tortillas, tacos from street vendors, fruit juices (known as aguas frescas), fruits and vegetables from local farms and her beloved fresh fruit paletas (Mexican-style popsicles).

That is why she decided to open Paletas Betty Ice Cream Shops in Arizona.

Her dream was years in the making and it wasn’t an easy task, but she worked hard, believed in it, and convinced others to believe in it and support her. Betty had no culinary background but she had passion, and she believed in herself and her dream.

It’s hard enough learning how to start and run a business but for this Latina coming from another country it was even more difficult. She remembers how challenging it was to learn to speak English and assimilate into American culture, especially while living in a predominantly Spanish-speaking home. She took English as a Second Language (ESL) and bilingual classes and immersed herself in English-speaking settings.

“When we moved here, I remember watching TV or listening to people and it just seemed like they were speaking so fast,” says Alatorre de Hong. “The language is reversed and my brain had to be trained. I needed to find my way through school and find out how to go to college.” As hard as it was, she had to take the initiative and do it.

She eventually graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Marketing from Arizona State University and began working for the Vanguard Group, managing retirement plans and investment funds for almost five years.

She wanted to do something different. “I still missed things from back home and to me it seemed like I was never able to find really good paletas with all-natural ingredients like the ones back home.”
She explored options and opened her first store in July, 2010, in Chandler. She opened another store in Tempe in 2011 and is planning for future growth in this market.

Hordes of students visit the Tempe location, while the Chandler location attracts more families. Both locations get a fair share of out-of-state customers as well. She picked those locations because they were located near other local businesses.

“The hardest thing with starting this business was getting people to believe in my idea and my product,” she says. “In order to overcome obstacles, I had to really do a lot of research and have people try the product and convince them to take a chance because at that time a lot of people had never heard of the paleta Mexican fruit popsicle.”

Betty Alatorre de Hong says it has been a great experience thus far and she’s learning something new every single day. Her advice to other Latinas: “If you have an idea or a dream, no matter how big or small it is, follow your gut instinct and do it!”

An Arizona native, Diana Bejarano, is a blogger, columnist, motivational speaker, marketing professional and a graduate of Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Reach her on her website at or e-mail her at

Latinas Aim for Higher Learning

Published August 2013

Bridgette Hernandez, mother of an autistic child, shared with me her desires and fears about going back to finish her degree. I have heard many stories of single and married mothers who must find the courage to continue their educations.

The fear of being a “returning student” is very real. Even I, with a four-year degree, often ask myself: why don’t I go for my master’s? As for many Latinas, chief among the many issues are time, money and determination.

The desire is there in most Latinas I know. Is having ganas (desire) enough to overcome obstacles such as low income, early motherhood and expectations to be at home with the kids? It takes an independent and strong Latina to buckle down, do the research, decide what to study, where to go, how to finance it and then dedicate the time and energy to getting it all done.

Cecilia Quiroz, a 28-year-old, single mother is living proof that it can be done. It took her five years to get her Associate of Arts degree as a part-time student, another four years to earn a bachelor’s and an additional year to receive her master’s. Now, at 42 years old, she’s working towards her doctorate in Forensic Psychology. She’s teaching at the college level and helping other Latinas get back into school to pursue their educational aspirations.

What are the benefits for Latinas? For some, it’s just being a role model, for others it is breaking the cycle of poverty. Higher education pays off. A 2010 Bureau of Labor Statistics report gives the median weekly earnings of individuals with advanced degrees at $1,351, compared to $626 for those with only high school diplomas.

I was fortunate that my family supported my pursuing a degree. But, obtaining a bachelor’s was no easy feat for a rebellious teenager who chose to drop out of high school at 15 years old. By the grace of God and the prayers of my grandmother and parents, I took my GED test on my 16th birthday, passed and applied to college that same year.

My mother, who didn’t attend college, had no idea how to help me with college enrollment. Luckily, I had a Latina mentor who drove me to ASU in her blue Jeep Cherokee and helped me apply. That act of kindness by Dr. Anna Solley (now the president of Phoenix College) was a turning point for me.
Going back to school can be scary and hard, but not having an education and not earning a decent salary is even more difficult. Today, I am committing to the goal of finishing my master’s and then, perhaps, I’ll pursue a doctorate.

Bridgette, Cecilia and countless other Latinas have informed me that they are returning to school to make a better life for themselves and their families. “Anyone who wants to return to school or start school, they can and they should!” says Quiroz.

A Latina with an Independent Spirit!

Published July 2013
As we celebrate Independence Day this month, I think about the sacrifices  many have made for our freedom, including Latinas who have served and fought in the armed forces. Latinas have a proud history of serving their country.

Today, Latinas are a significant percentage of the 1.6 million women veterans and 1.2 million Hispanic veterans. Most have not engaged directly in combat, but played important support roles.
Rebecca Villalpando is just one of many brave Latinas who saw the military as a path to enhancing their lives. The 53-year-old, single mother of two joined the Navy when she was just 19 years old, served four years on active duty and another eight years in the Reserves.
Rebecca, a native of Arizona, has traveled the world with the military. Her love for her country also led to her a Fellowship with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute in Washington D.C. in 2004-2006.

She said she joined the military despite her family’s lack of understanding and support. They didn’t understand why she wanted to enlist in the armed forces and leave Arizona. Rebecca was a pioneer who says she doesn’t regret any of it, because it helped her grow, stretch and learn. I, for one, am thankful for her bravery and service. She and many other Latinas have kept our nation safe.
She is a military veteran. She is a mother. She has also survived divorce and single parenthood. She has worked during the day and has taken one or two classes at a time, year after year, and is now a few credits away from receiving a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in political science from ASU.

When asked what she was most proud of, she said, “I was a single mother, who refused to be a statistic. I was raised to not rely on government assistance and to not be a quitter.” Rebecca’s advice to single mothers: “Follow your dreams … and take your kids with you!”
She exposed her two sons to education and exploring the U.S. Both are pursuing college degrees as well.

Latinas are smart, she says; they know how to make things work and keep everything together for their families. Rebecca makes us all believe that we can do just about anything.
Rebecca’s faith kept her going during tough times. Her advice is to keep focused on your goals and don’t be afraid to be the first in your family to do something.

“Our ancestors moved to a new country and made it,” Rebecca said, “Don’t let anyone’s lack of support stop you from accomplishing your dreams.”

Recently, Rebecca helped start a Veteran Women’s Shelter in Phoenix (MANA), a transitional residential program for women vets who served in the Marines, Army, Navy and Air Force. This is the first homeless shelter of its kind in the Phoenix area (perhaps, one-quarter of all veterans are homeless).
Rebecca is a proud veteran and a Latina Still Standing. Today and every day, let’s not forget our country’s best kept secret: Latina women in the military. We all need to support and honor them.

God bless all Latinas serving in the military and all soldiers who have given their lives for our freedom.

Diana Bejarano is an Arizona native and a graduate of Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Reach her at or