Ever wonder how you can quit your job and achieve your dreams? These four Latinas have found their calling. And as one of the women says, “If you follow your passion you will have a fulfilled life. Fear is what paralyzes you. Money will come and go.”
FROM GIRL SCOUTS TO LEGAL ADVOCACY
Working for the Girl Scouts USA to bring in more diversity, Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan tried to convince Latino parents to let their girls participate in sleepaway camp. But most of the parents she was meeting were immigrants from Central America and Mexico where abuses often happened at the hands of uniformed para-military or military groups. Needless to say, persuading them to hand their children over to a uniformed group was a tough sell.
“Camping is a big component of the Girl Scouts, but Latino parents refused to send their girls to camp,” said Bannan. “They saw these women dressed in green uniforms saying they would take their daughter into the woods for a week. That did not go over well.”
She saw how families had more pressing issues to resolve like unemployment, poverty and deportation. Because of the fear of recent immigration crackdowns, a lot of families were living in isolation, afraid to send their kids to school, go to church or the market—never mind a camping trip with the Girl Scouts.
“When you are dealing with how do you feed your family or having your family being torn apart and criminalized by immigration, that takes precedence over the Girl Scouts,” said Bannan.
So Bannan decided to help her community in a deeper way. She left the Girl Scouts in 2008, took six months off and thought about her purpose in life. Her partner had always told her she would be a good lawyer, but Bannan saw lawyers as greedy and litigious.
Then she discovered City University of New York’s School of Law, a public interest law school with its legal advocacy and activist teachings, she knew she had found her calling.
“I fell in love, and I thought I could definitely be a lawyer doing women’s human rights work,” she said. “Going to law school was a profound change in my life.”
Before taking the leap, she and her partner talked about finances and agreed that they would have to live on his salary alone for a few years. Bannan, now 35, did not want to accumulate more debt, so instead of taking out loans to pay for law school, she paid for it with savings.
At 31, she was the oldest in her law school class by ten years. Giving up a 15-year career and a stable job at the Girl Scouts was not easy, but she also did not see another option.
“There is always a little bit of fear. I was in my 30s, starting a new career and in many ways what I did before did not matter,” she said. “But it was almost like I had no choice because the alternative was not a real option. It would mean I would not live up to who I knew I would be.”
Bannan, who lives in New York, graduated from law school in 2011 and began clerking for a federal judge. She recently passed her bar exam and is waiting acceptance. But come September, she has a job lined at the Center for Reproductive Rights working on domestic litigation in abortion defense, maternal mortality and women’s access to healthcare.
Bannan, who is of Italian, Puerto Rican, Colombian and Sephardic heritage, is eager to begin her new career. It is a grim time for women’s human rights. Sadly, there is a lot of work to be done not only for women’s reproductive rights but also with immigration reform, she said.
“I would love not to have a job as a human rights attorney, but I don’t think that will happen any time soon,” she said. “We need to increase social consciousness about how we treat people in this nation.”
FROM NURSING HOMES TO NEIGHBORHOOD ARTISAN CRAFTS
In 2009, Wendy Ramirez was warned that her job as a Business Manager and Grants Administrator for the country’s largest home healthcare agency could be next on the chopping block. The warning made her wonder if she wanted to spend the rest of her life researching hypertension and retirement communities.
“The work was inspiring and wonderful, but I just didn’t feel like this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” said the 53-year-old mother of two boys.
At the nursing agency, Ramirez worked long hours and commuted into New York City from Cranford, New Jersey. Since she would leave at dawn and return at night, she didn’t know her neighbors, she had trouble relaxing even on vacation, she was disconnected from her own life.
“I was not breathing,” said Ramirez. “On a plane to Puerto Rico they were closing the doors of the plane, and I was still on the phone working. They had to tell me to get off the phone so the plane could take off.”
Ramirez had always dreamed of owning a small boutique—ideally in a small town that had a homey feel to it. So in 2010, she and her cousin, who had just become a widow, pooled their resources and decided to go for it. They would open a boutique that sold artisan goods from local artists and unique and environmentally friendly gifts.
By September 2011, they found a 100-year-old store front with tin ceilings and tin walls that was originally a barbershop in Cranford’s idyllic main street. The shop would be named Artemisia, after Artemisia Gentileschi an Italian Baroque painter considered one of the most accomplished painters in the generation after Caravaggio and the first female painter to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence.
“In 2009, I would visualize Artemisia,” said Ramirez. “I would write about it in my journal, I believed it. I didn’t know how it would happen or how that door would open, but I had set the intention. You send it out to the universe.”
Ramirez was kept on at the company (all five of her co-workers were laid off) but in December, 2011 she left.
Today, she walks to work, stops at the local tea shop where the owner makes her a specialty green tea with rose petals. They chat, taking the time to get to know each other. She has met many neighbors, and she is home in time for dinner with her husband.
At least 75% of Artemisia’s products are made in the U.S. and if she buys from abroad it is only with those who practice fair trade. Her customers come in and stay. They say the scents of Chai, ginger, cinnamon and apple pie lingering in the air make her store so welcoming, they don’t want to leave. They tell her stories about how the gifts they buy bring joy, like the dad who came back to the store to tell her how much his daughter enjoyed the photo box with quotes. She realizes that her store in now an important part of the local fabric in an unusually tight community.
“He said ‘that gift touched my daughter and it was such a beautiful moment that I had to come back to share it with you,’” said Ramirez. “Those human connections are important. It’s almost like you are interwoven into people’s lives in a small way.”
Find Artemisia on Facebook.
MUSIC SAVED HER. NOW SHE WANTS TO PASS ALONG THAT GIFT
When Melina Garcia’s mother left their native Venezuela for a chance at a better life in the United States, she could not afford to bring her two daughters along. Melina was 13, lonely and confused. Her parents had just divorced. She remembered that in happier times, the background to her life was the classical music her mother loved and would play every day on the family’s record player.
So in her mother’s absence, when the pain was too much to bear, Melina would pull out Chopin’s Sonatas or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and close her eyes.
“My mother had left all her music collection. That was my way I could connect with her. I would close my eyes everyday and imagine that my mother was still home,” said Garcia, 34. “That is how I coped for those two years of not seeing her.”
Eventually, she and her sister made their way to the U.S. to join their mother. The years passed and in 2010, when her own daughter was two, she tried to sign her up for some music classes. Garcia was not impressed. After all, she came from Venezuela, the birthplace of Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the world famous classical music teaching program called El Sistema, which teaches children from lower income communities how to play an instrument, as well as important life skills like cooperation, discipline and respect.
Garcia had a well paying job in communications at Clinton Foundation’s Sustainable Growth Initiative, but she was unhappy about spending so much time away from her daughter. And then in 2010, she saw a video from Dudamel where he talked about wanting to bring El Sistema to the U.S.
“That ignited a fire,” said Garcia. “I really wanted this to come to Jersey. But then I thought if they brought it to Jersey they would not bring it to Union City. I said to myself, ‘I may just do this myself.’”
Union City is the most densely populated city in the country with mainly a Hispanic immigrant population. Teen pregnancy, gangs and drugs abound. When she and her husband had their baby, they contemplated moving to another community. Instead, they planted their roots firmly in Union City.
“I have lived here for seven years, and I kept complaining,” she said. “I know these kids have huge potential but they are being shown everything negative. I got tired of complaining. If given the right tools, I fully believe in my community’s capacity to move forward.”
Two years later, after connecting with the Sistema USA Network, meeting with Union City’s mayor and raising some money, Union City Music Project has a home. In February 2012, Garcia got 150 applications for 30 spots. Garcia was able to squeeze it up to 50 spots for kids ages 3-6 years-old, but is dependent on more funding to see it grow. She sees how these children will benefit from the positive teachings they are getting at the after-school program.
“You expose children very early to the idea that the orchestra is the community and that you help the flute player, follow the conductor, you have to be disciplined, be responsible for an instrument,” she said. “If there is no harmony, there is no music. There are great life skills that come out of experiencing music in an orchestral setting. Instead of joining a gang they will want to join the orchestra.”
Garcia was also intimately familiar with the cycle of poverty and violence that plagues so many low income neighborhoods. She had arrived in the U.S. from a well regarded Catholic school in Venezuela straight into the horror of Brooklyn’s Sarah J. Hale High School in the 1990s. Her high school was constantly on lock down, they were searched everyday for weapons as they walked through metal detectors, classmates would threaten to cut each other’s faces with razor blades or set people’s hair on fire. Garcia was threatened constantly and so she filed down a metal ruler as a weapon to take to school.
“When I came out of school I was so depressed. I could only see darkness,” she said. “We suffered the same hurdles as any immigrant family. When I was 16 I thought I would be nothing.”
But since her mother had been a professor of romance languages and her father a high school principal in Venezuela, she knew she had to go on to college.
“I owed that to my parents to get educated,” she said.
As the head of the Union City Music Project, she is not getting a salary right now, so money is tight. But the payoff has been much more valuable.
“If you follow your passion you will have a fulfilled life,” she said. “Fear is what paralyzes you. Money will come and go. If you dwell on the consequences and what if, you will never do anything. I am a regular citizen and a person who decided I want to do this and nothing would stop me.”
Learn more at ucmusicproject.org.
FROM THE FRIENDLY SKIES TO GREETING CARDS
After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Ivette Mayo and her husband realized they had a problem. Both worked for Continental Airlines in sales and marketing and soon, the airline industry would be seriously impacted. Within days thousands of people in the industry began to lose their jobs.
“We had all of our eggs in one basket,” said Mayo. “After 9/11 we realized we had an omelette on our hands.”
Growing up as the daughter of a Navy man, Mayo was used to change. She went to 13 elementary schools, living in Virginia, San Diego and Florida throughout her youth.
“We were always the odd men out. My mom wanted us to assimilate,” said Mayo who is of Puerto Rican descent. “But I wasn’t white enough or black enough. So I had to find a way to adapt and that made me an awesome sales person.”
In 2006, after years of training in sales, marketing and bridging cultural gaps and diversity, Mayo branched out on her own as a consultant for companies to develop marketing strategies to different ethnic groups. But she was not done re-inventing herself.
Two years later, after losing a consulting bid, she decided to send the client a thank you card. It was her way of saying thanks for the opportunity. But she scoured the shelves at all the stationery stores in Tampa, Florida, and could not find one thank you card in Spanish.
She decided to make one herself using her own designs. Since she was a girl, her hobby had been sketching and drawing. Although she did not get the account, the client called her, thanked her for the card and asked where she bought it. When she told him she had made it herself, he ordered 100 cards for himself. Later he ordered more cards for his employees.
Soon after, Mayo held a “focus group” meeting with her girlfriends. They all lamented that they could not find a decent Spanish or Spanglish card that was hip and cute.
“They all told stories about how the English language cards they found that were so pretty,” she said. “But in Spanish they were so dated or the sentiment was very formal, like estimada amiga…who talks like that? They did not resonate with modern Latinas.”
And so, she was on her way to creating her own card company, Yo Soy Expressions, while still keeping her consulting work for her other company, Yo Soy I Am LLC. She researched the best approach, how much money she would need to invest, what the best printing style would be, how to protect her trademark, and to transfer her sketches to print.
When she was ready, she began approaching vending partners. Everyone said no. They told her
Latinos didn’t buy cards, that she needed to print 10,000 cards in order to make it work, or that there were too many greeting cards out there already.
But she kept going.
“One of the things I have had to learn is to be quiet,” she said. “I learned to have questions and to let people give me the information as opposed to judging the information.”
She ended up making 20 designs and from 2008-2010 she traveled to more than 40 cities from Chicago to Kansas City to Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco. She was applying to major retail chains to be a vendor and she got a lot of rejections. But by 2011 she became a vendor for Walgreens in Houston. More than 400 stores have access to her product and currently 42 stores in Houston carry her cards.
“We can always find excuses and always think we know the answer or that no means stop pursuing, but to be honest none of that is true,” she said. “No means ‘thank you, now I can move on to something else. I’m freed up to move on to something else.’”
To see Ivette’s cards, go to yosoyexpressions.com.