Editor’s note: This is the first in an ongoing series with Latina moms and daughters responding to a series of questions on Latina identity. The savvy, successful women share their take on what is Latina to them.
Carmen Nava is a successful businesswoman and proud Latina mom. Her illustrious 27-year career has taken her to assignments in billing operations, marketing, external affairs, human resources, customer service and sales. On February 1, 2012, she was appointed to her current position as senior vice president—Customer Information Services for AT&T. Prior to her current assignment, Ms. Nava served as senior vice president—West Region Consumer Sales and senior vice president-U-verse Program Office.
Active in various boards and organizations, Ms. Nava serves on the Corporate Advisory Board of USC’s Latino Alumni Association, the Board of Trustees of the University of the Incarnate Word, the Board of Directors of the New America Alliance and the New America Alliance Institute. She also serves on the Advisory Board of two of AT&T’s Employee Resource Groups: HACEMOS and LEAGUE.
After receiving an award on behalf of AT&T at the Latina Style 50 Awards Ceremony and Diversity Conference in Washington, D.C., she took a few minutes to sit down with Mamiverse contributor Maria Cardona to discuss career, motherhood, and what it means to be Latina.
Cardona: What lessons has your job/career taught you? What are you proudest of?
Nava: The relationship with my daughter and watching her grow and blossom into a young accomplished woman. I wanted for her, just as my mother did, all of the things that she didn’t have ‘cause my mom never got to go to college and she never got to travel very much. I wanted for my daughter to have all the things I didn’t have. I did go to college, but I never went away to school because my mom wanted me to live at home and be close to home. I wanted my daughter to go away and live in the dorms, I wanted my daughter to travel, I wanted my daughter to go to grad school, which I never did, and she’s doing all of those things: she spent five months in India, she’s now at Yale, in a two-year grad program, and so to me, just watching her live out this dream that I’ve had for her, but embracing it as her own goals has really just been the most fulfilling part of my life.
From a career perspective, I took some risks. I left LA. I was very happy in LA, we had a wonderful home, wonderful neighborhood, we had wonderful schools…. If you really want to go after your goals and your dreams, it does involve taking some risks. Sometimes letting go is the hardest part, yet is allowing you to open all sort of doors.
Cardona: Because that could be very fearful for somebody who has always lived in the same place surrounded by family, so sometimes fear keep us from that leap.
Nava: And to that point, I’ve seen along the way many talented people whose careers were stalled because they weren’t willing to take those risks, and that’s something in our community that we all grapple with, our families are so important to us, and that sometimes translates to being physically close, and I think we have to rethink that because I feel probably closer to my family thn I’ve ever been—and yet I’m far away. So you have to find the new ways to stay close and still accomplish those goals.
Cardona: What is the hardest part about being bicultural and growing up in what you have said is a very traditional family, yet also embracing everything that the mainstream American society has to offer?
Nava: You know I really think that both can coexist. I never felt that I had to give up who I am or what my family was all about in order to fit in. I’ve always had a belief that there’s a richness to bringing people together, different cultures together. And I try to teach people about our culture. Those who may be growing up in the company, for example, some folks may have had limited exposure to either Latinas or Latinos in general, and so I always felt, “Well, it’s my job then to educate and help people understand.” Just as I want to learn about other cultures.
It’s funny you know, sometimes the questions that we all get, where people will ask: “So what does your family eat on Thanksgiving?” and I say “Turkey!” It’s not that anyone’s trying to put you down or to be rude, it’s just that they’re curious and they may not realize. And at the same time, food and music, and all the things that make up our culture, there’s so much richness in it that I think we can share that. I never really felt like I didn’t fit in, it was more a matter of “Okay, how can I make sure that everyone’s comfortable around me if I’m the one that’s different in the room.” Then it’s my job to reach out to them and make sure that I can break down those barriers.
Cardona: What is a Latina?
Nava: Well, I don’t think there’s one answer. I’ve had the privilege to work and know so many in so many different fields, that we come in all shapes and sizes, we come from all different parts of the country and parts of the world, we’re in so many different fields that I think we’ve broken so many of the barriers that existed in the past. And so I don’t think there’s a single answer. We’re from many religions, we’re from many political parties, we are doing so much in so many areas, I don’t even want to stereotype us or box us in or put any sort of barrier around us because we’re virtually everywhere.
Cardona: And that leads me to the second question which is a follow-up to that: What, in your view, are some of the greatest challenges that most Latinas face today?
Nava: Well we talked about one of them already, and that’s the whole family thing, as much as it’s an asset in our community to be very family-oriented and close to our family, sometimes that strength can become a weakness if we feel that we can’t branch out, and we can’t go against the grain, and we can’t move away and leave the family. And particularly as women we’re even [Cardona: more susceptible to that].
Nava: Right. And I think you know, sometimes we’re humble to a point, and that’s a strength but that can also become a weakness, but sometimes we’re willing to take the back seat and fade in and not be the one at the table, or not be willing to share our points of view or not have the confidence to assert ourselves. So I hope that the next generation of young Latinas can pick up where we left off and really assert themselves and share their point of view and let their voice be heard so that we can start to really have a seat at the table.
Cardona: We would like for you to share one of your favorite mami moments with us. You sort of talked a little bit about it with your daughter. Either with your own children or with your mother, or both.
Nava: Well I have lots of great mommy moments both with my mom and with my daughter.
When my daughter went off to college, it’s funny, she went to Berkley and we were living in the Bay Area at the time, so here I was preparing her to go away to school and she chooses a school really close to us. But she wrote me a letter about the impact that I had had on her and how she was going to really strive to make me proud and it makes me start to cry. To me it’s just those little moments, because when you’re raising children, I used to tell my sister, who has two girls, ‘How do you know if what you’re doing is right?’ You don’t really know until one day they go off to college and you pray and hope you did all the right things. There’s no measuring stick, there’s no way to really know, and sure you can sort of test, am I getting through, is my message getting through, did I instill the values in her that I hope I really did. But you really don’t know until they grow up, and so getting that letter for me was just a powerful moment of, “Wow, I guess I did okay.”
Cardona: I’m getting teary-eyed just listening to you as a mother with a four-year-old, looking ahead just thinking “I hope I get that letter.” So talking about the challenges of working moms specifically, clearly you’ve done it very well, what would some of the key pieces of advice be if you were talking to other young mothers.
Nava: I think Number One is having a very strong support system. My daughter’s safety was always Number One. When she was little, I went back to work after about six weeks and the first day back, I had to get on an airplane and travel, and I remember sitting there just crying, just crying the whole way. We had arranged a babysitter and my husband was going to drop her off and my mom was going to pick her up. And you just have to let go of the control, and say I’m going to have a really good support system, I’m going to have people I can rely on, people I can count on who are going to be there for her so that she’s going to be safe and she’s going to be loved whether I’m there or not.
And then you have to sort of pick your priorities. What’s really important? Because when you’re working, and you have a career, and you have a husband, and you have a child, and there’s a lot going on, at different stages of life I had to just be real clear in my mind what was important. Because you have to give up some things, and you just can’t have it all. So maybe the house won’t be perfectly spotless all the time. And maybe she’s going to have to spend the night at my mom’s if I have a late-night travel, or whatever’s going to have to be. But if the things that are really important if you’re holding those dear, and you know what things you’re not willing to compromise on, then that really helps. But really, for me it was a team effort: it was my mom, it was my husband, it was his mom and our babysitter and everybody had to work together in order for it all to work. And we were all focused on one thing and that was on her, and I think that if you can assemble the right team you can make it work.
Cardona: And importantly, it’s your choice. And so in general, what advice would you have for Latinas who are looking to make it in the workforce.
Nava: So number one is competence. You have to know your stuff, and that may mean training or education, but whatever field you’re looking to go into, really be competent, because the competition is going to be competent and the people who are going to vie for the same roles that you want are going to know their stuff, so really, really be confident. And never stop learning, never stop growing. Don’t ever feel that “Okay, now I know this space well” because it will change for you. So staying relevant, staying in that mode of continuous learning.
And then I would say be bold, go for it, because I think that if I could do something different in my career, I think I would’ve been bolder only because you don’t realize how much power you have, either to share your ideas or to make a connection with someone or to go to that next job, whatever it is. But don’t hold back, let all of the things that you’re bringing to the table come forward, let people see that in you. Don’t wait to be tapped on the shoulder. Go for it, take the initiative, take charge of your career.