Theresa Barrera, who rose from being a part-time cashier at Sam's Club to be a vice president of Supplier Diversity for Walmart Stores, Inc., one of the world's largest retailers, sent a strong message of empowerment during her speech to kick off HESTEC's Latina Day Sept. 28 at The University of Texas-Pan American.
For students to achieve their goals, Barrera, a UTPA Foundation Board member and its current vice chair, stressed the importance of having an education, trusted mentors and parental support.
"So mothers out there, this is the time when you have a chance to fill your daughter's heads with big dreams. This is the time that you have to make sure that they can accomplish anything they want to accomplish. This is the time that we can encourage and make sure that they know that the world is in their hands," she said.
Barrera said because women make 86 percent of the purchase decisions in households and play such a strong role in Hispanic households, Latinas are very important to her business.
"You are going to be in high demand," she said. "We need to understand you - how you live, what you think, what you do and why you do it. You literally have the world in your hands and to be what you want to be. But you have to understand that you have to apply yourself, you have to educate yourself, you have to work hard and you have to be ethical and honorable."
As a mother of two daughters herself - ages 13 and 16, she advised students to be careful about what they put on social media sites, like Twitter and ended with the message she began with.
"Dream big," she said.
State Rep. Veronica Gonzales, now in her third term representing District 41, served as the morning keynote speaker. Gonzales is an attorney with the law firm of Kittleman, Thomas & Gonzales, L.L.P. She has received many honors for her advocacy for abused women, healthcare for the underserved, police officers, business owners and students, including the 2010 "Ultimate Latina" Award from the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
"My mom was a strong woman. If I brought home a B, it better be an A. If I brought home an A, it better be an A+," she said.
Gonzales encouraged students to get involved in school activities like she did in school.
"Getting involved in school activities keeps you busy, you meet a lot of people, you learn a lot of things," she said.
Gonzales went on to graduate from Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State) with degrees in English and Spanish, went to work in a law office and was later urged to attend law school by a mentor. A native of San Marcos, she said she was told the Rio Grande Valley was a "black hole that would suck me down" when she accepted a job in a firm here after her graduation from The University of Texas at Austin Law School.
"Twenty years later, here I am. The Valley didn't suck me down, it sucked me in," she said. "The Valley has been great to me."
In 2004, Gonzales was urged to run for the legislature and won her race with 70 percent of the vote.
" I never in a million years thought I'd be at the Capitol ... making laws for the state of Texas," she said. "If a little girl like me from San Marcos, whose parents did not have a college education and no money and could go to make laws for the state of Texas, the possibilities for you are endless. There is nothing you can't do."
"Never stop learning," she said. "If you work hard and you show you are committed, we will find a way for you to go to college."
Gonzales urged them not to be afraid to take risks or to ask questions or for help. She also encouraged them to not do things because of a boy.
"Don't let a boyfriend rule your world," she said.
As they go forward, she asked them to pay it forward by helping others less fortunate and to be grateful. "Don't forget where you came from," she said.
Megan Garcia, a sixth grade student at Sauceda Middle School in Donna, brought her mother Sarah to the event, and both were impressed with what Barrera and Gonzales had to say to students and their families.
"I loved it," said Sarah, a registered nurse at Rio Grande Regional Hospital, who said the speakers' messages were ones she had given her own daughter. "I want her to come back, give to the community, help people out and not forget where she comes from. The day gives us a sense of pride in being Latina."
Megan said it was awesome to have her mother with her and she appreciated the advice the speakers gave.
"It gave me a lot of things to do in the future," said Megan, who loves math and plans to be a nurse, like her mother, and a fashion designer.
Latina Day continued with breakout sessions, a performance by the Mariachi Aztlan, and a luncheon moderated by Gonzales.