The United States likes to consider itself the beacon of equality, fairness and ingenuity. To some extent, it’s accomplished those goals. But, if you look beneath the surface, you’ll find a number of people who have had to fight harder than most for it. Damary M. Bonilla-Rodriguez is one of them. I encountered Dr. Bonilla-Rodriguez through the Hispanic Professionals Networking Group (HPNG) on Linked In. HPNG is dedicated to increasing the visibility of Hispanic business professionals.
Hispanics are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the U.S.; something that’s due, in part, to immigration. But, many Americans ignore the fact that, as a group, Hispanics have been here longer than any other; except for Native Americans, with whom we often have a shared heritage.
Regardless, stereotypes of Hispanics persist – in both popular culture and political debates. While all women have endured some level of oppression and discrimination, Hispanic, Black, Asian and Native American women, in particular, find themselves in the uncomfortable position of being double minorities. This is of personal interest to me, since I’ve seen the troubles my mother and other women in my family have faced.
Even now, if you watch American TV, you’ll find limited portrayals of Hispanic women. Colombian-born Sofia Vergara, a star on ABC’s “Modern Family,” is one of the most prominent. But, the former model still panders to the conventional image of a Latina – complete with mangled English that (I guess) is supposed to be humorously cute. Then, there’s Shakira, another Colombian, who gyrated her way onto the American music scene with faux blonde locks. The only plausible Hispanic female character in American entertainment I can recall is Eva Longoria from ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.” She spoke perfect English and wasn’t obsessed with food and sex. Towards the end of the show’s run, another Hispanic actress, Lupe Ontiveros, appeared as Longoria’s mother-in-law. Ontiveros, who died in 2012, once estimated that she played a maid or housekeeper-type role some 200 times in her career.
It’s against these personifications that Dr. Bonilla-Rodriguez finds herself. I asked her recently to expand upon her career as head of the Latina Initiative Project at Girls Incorporated, a non-profit organization that seeks to empower young Hispanic women into realizing they can be more than wives and mothers or singers and actresses.
Please tell us about your background.
I was born and raised in El Barrio/Spanish Harlem NYC. My mom died when I was 8 years old; a victim to homicide. I am the eldest three sisters. I was raised by my maternal grandparents because my father was in prison during my childhood and not involved in my life. I focused on education and community activism as a means to achieve success. I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Spanish and Social Work, Master of Science degree in Organizational Communication, Special Certification in Corporate Communication, and a Doctorate of Education with a focus in Executive leadership.
What prompted you to get involved with women and leadership?
I grew up in a family where the women worked hard to care for their families and provide but were not happy because they had jobs, not careers. I did not have anyone in my extended circle that had graduated college or had a successful career. The desire to achieve some level of success and be a person of influence, took me down the path of education and empowerment of others. By accessing education and entering the work force, I gained an understanding the challenges faced by women, especially women of color; this knowledge ignited a personal passion to inspire women to pursue leadership roles in all aspects of their lives.
What are some of the ongoing challenges girls face in America today and how do you personally hope to address them?
America is still not a place of equity for girls and women, particularly women of color. My passion is to inspire and empower girls and women to pursue leadership roles in all aspects of their lives because if we have a voice, we can make a difference in society. Writing a dissertation was one way that I could contribute to society in this area. I also deliver key note addresses and sessions for women and girls on leadership development and empowerment.
Do you believe girls can identify with women like Condoleezza Rice and Hilary Clinton, or are they too distant and exceptional to be role models?
I think any woman who is in a leadership role can be a role model. However, seeing someone in a leadership role that “looks” like you or has a similar background, is the best way for girls and women to be inspired and believe they can be leaders and make a difference.
Aside from Rice and Clinton, what other notable women could serve as positive role models for girls?
For Latina girls and women, Justice Sonia Sotomayor has become an icon because we are proud of her accomplishment in breaking societal barriers, she “looks” like us, and an awareness has been awakened that we need more of her – more of us – in significant leadership roles at ALL levels of society.
If an average woman asks how she could be a role model to a girl or a younger woman, what would you say?
In each individual person’s life journey, they experience situations that teach them lessons; these experiences can help someone else along their path. I believe we can all be role models to others. I truly believe that I have stood on the shoulders of others who have paved a way for me to join a small group of Latinas with a Doctorate and that I – and all – should pave the way for others.
If a single father of a daughter asks what he could do to improve his child’s self-esteem, what would you tell him?
Single parents deserve so much credit for raising children alone because it is a hard job to raise children. I believe that it takes many people to raise productive, hardworking people. I would tell a single parent – mother or father – that hearing regularly how special you are, that you can change the world, that you need to believe in yourself, that your parent believes in you, and that you should access opportunities such as: education, are the foundation for improved self-esteem. Also, helping your children access mentors and people that can teach them about access to higher education and various career options, as well as programs such as Girls Incorporated, where I work, can help empower kids and build their self-esteem so they can get far in life.
In the past few years, as the economy continues to struggle, more women than men are either returning to college, or staying in college to pursue higher levels of education. What do you feel is the primary factor behind this trend?
Women have a nurturing nature and sharp instincts to provide and care for others. When the pressure is on to succeed or they see closed doors, women understand the value of education in setting oneself apart from the competition. Also, women may have entered the work force to provide financially without having the opportunity to further their education; the struggles provide the opportunity to pursue personal goals while preparing for better work opportunities and climbing the ladder of success.
I read an editorial many years ago that stated, while Black and Hispanic men often feel they’re victims of racism, their female counterparts more often feel they’re victims of sexism. Do you feel this is true and why or why not?
While this has not been my experience, in my work with women, I have heard this come up quite a bit. Some things I have heard are that women sometimes feel like their abilities are questioned based on how they look or dress. Others have expressed being “sexualized” because they are a Latina which is supposed to mean they are “sexy” as opposed to smart or any other professional characteristic. Women in society are still struggling for equity in various aspects of the workforce experience. Women of color are struggling for the same but also to have a voice in society. For example, women of color do not represent a significant part of the corporate/private sector in top leadership positions and corporate Boards. There is much work to be done.
What are some of the educational and professional obstacles Latina women in the U.S. face?
According to my doctoral research study, Latinas face four critical obstacles: lack of mentors, lack of opportunities, cultural obligations, and family obligations.
Hispanics overall often have been reluctant to move far from home, since that means they’ll be separated from their families. That’s starting to change, but do you think Hispanics generally have a stronger commitment to their families than to their professional lives?
This has been my experience – from choosing which college I would attend, to deciding if I wanted to move to another state. The Hispanic value of family – immediate or extended family – is positive because it means you have a strong support network but also poses challenges in education and professional journeys; this is especially true for Latinas, as they have traditionally been expected to take care of everyone. I wrote an article which was published in the Huffington Post, about “Latinas and Modern Marianismo” which touches on balancing traditional Latino values with modern Latina experiences. Here is the link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/damary-bonillarodriguez/latinas-and-modern-marianismo_b_4165200.html.
Do you think affirmative action is still necessary?
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU: https://www.aclu.org/racial-justice/affirmative-action) “Affirmative action is one of the most effective tools for redressing the injustices caused by our nation’s historic discrimination against people of color and women, and for leveling what has long been an uneven playing field. A centuries-long legacy of racism and sexism has not been eradicated despite the gains made during the civil rights era. Avenues of opportunity for those previously excluded remain far too narrow. We need affirmative action now more than ever.” I could not have said it better myself.
What do you hope for the general status of women in the U.S. in the next decade?
I am hopeful that as more women and women of color climb the ladder to hold highly visible and significant leadership positions across the country, doors will open so more women will have the opportunity to shine. I am also hopeful that the in the next decade we will see a woman hold the highest political office in the country – the U.S. Presidency.
Would you like to add anything?
My doctoral research study abstract, in case anyone is interested in reading my dissertation. Latinas face obstacles achieving proportionate representation in significant leadership roles. This research aimed to identify characteristics unique to Latina leaders that represented shared values and beliefs of Latinas, and to understand positive factors and obstacles associated with Latina leadership in the United States.
Survey responses from three hundred thirty-five Latinas and four interviewees from across the U.S. suggested that there are forty-three characteristics an effective Latina leader should possess. Four essential characteristics identified were: creative, good listener, optimistic/positive, and passionate. The forty-three characteristics were categorized into five groups of similar characteristics to synthesize what study participants believed were essential characteristics of Latina leaders. The categories were: high integrity, marianismo, new Latina, transformational leader, and visionary. Pursuing the attributes of these five leadership categories will help Latinas who aspire to become leaders understand what it takes to be a successful Latina leader, identify their strengths and weaknesses, and enable them to create a plan of success for themselves.
Furthermore, study participants noted factors of positive influence on Latinas. Six crucial positive influencers identified were: successful educational attainment, participating in leadership training, possessing self-confidence, having role models, religious influence, and family influence. Study participants also noted factors which can be obstacles for Latinas. Four critical obstacles identified were: lack of mentors, lack of opportunities, cultural obligations, and family obligations.
Literature about Latinas and Latina leadership is limited. There is an urgent need for research about the topic(s). This study was one step towards understanding the dynamics of Latina leadership in the U.S. I urge Latinas to invest in themselves and become successful leaders so that together, we can make a difference in the world because this world needs Latina sazon (Latin seasoning).