NHI honors its First Families at Celebracion 2019
On November 2, 2019, the National Hispanic Institute celebrated a historic moment in its 40-year history. In a true, once-in-a-lifetime event, NHI co-founders Ernesto Nieto and Gloria de Leon welcomed a group of people who were instrumental to the growth of the organization. The event, for what NHI called its First Families, honored people who helped Nieto and de Leon grow NHI from a concept to a fully-functioning international network, built around the need for greater Latino leadership.
NHI has now reached nearly 100,000 high school students through its unique Latino leadership education programming – labeled “immersive-disruptive” for both its immersive quality (turning college campuses into living laboratories for high-performing high school students to become better thinkers, speakers, and leaders and its disruptive nature (taking place during the summer and giving students a transformational educational experience inspiring them to lead).
Prior to the event, which featured acceptance speeches from all the honorees, we prepared profiles of the winners for the commemorative Cele 2019 print edition of NHI Magazine. We invite you to read and learn more about how these incredible First Families volunteers helped shape NHI into the organization that it is today.
Helped NHI to grow in Las Cruces, New Mexico
Virginia Garcia was instrumental in NHI’s earliest efforts to grow in New Mexico. As she remembers, she was teaching at Mayfield High School in Las Cruces in 1991, was called into Principal Robert Ogas’ office, and given a mission. Mayfield students had attended the New Mexico LDZ in Albuquerque during the previous summer, loved it, and were trying to get additional students to sign on for the subsequent year — so many, in fact, that Principal Ogas felt they needed a sponsor, which is where Virginia came in.
She wanted to see it for herself first. “Needless to say, I was completely impressed with the program,” she recalls. “After observing the activities, I decided I wanted to help with the program.” She ended up working throughout the Southern New Mexico region as a project administrator, recruiting students for the Young Leaders Conference (today known as the Great Debate) and the LDZ. She was particularly proud of the 1994 Southern New Mexico team, who battled their El Paso rivals as well as teams from Albuquerque, Southern Colorado, Las Vegas and Lubbock to win the regional YLC.
“Getting students to join the programs was the challenging part of the process,” he remembers. “Once I selected the qualifying students, parental approval had to be achieved. Parents are the backbone of these programs, and only with them can success be met.” She also noted that because of poverty throughout the state, but particularly in her region, it was an additional challenge to fundraise — but it’s one that she met head on. “No student was ever left behind.”
The work was important to her, in large part, because of her experiences with racism. As she remembers, “That changed my outlook in life. In school, we were not to speak Spanish, I was one that did not obey that, and I got reprimanded many a time for it. I did not let that make me ashamed of my language and culture.” She went to New Mexico State University to major in secondary education, motivated to teach Spanish. As she remembers, she wanted to teach the culture as well as the language, incorporating the history of the Southwest.
But she continued to learn lessons about the racism in New Mexico which made NHI all the more integral for her. “What I did and do notice is that the further north you go, the less you hear the language, and that was one of the things I wanted to change. But I was very guilty of not being proud of who I was. I did not teach my own children how to speak Spanish because I did not want them to be discriminated against. Involving myself with NHI, I worked with the youth stressing for them not to be embarrassed about who they were and to speak the language. I wanted my people to be recognized and accepted for their potential and who they were and where they were going would make a difference.”
Louis de la Garza
Helped NHI to grow in Austin, Texas
Louis de la Garza wanted to help other Latino students aspiring to become engineers or scientists — in large part, because he was a first-generation college student who came from self-described modest beginnings to graduate in Electrical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. He’d become involved as a mentor with organizations like AMPS (Association for Minority Participation in Science), TAME (Texas Alliance for Minorities in Engineering) and SHPE (Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers). But then his son, then a high school freshman, told him about NHI — and he was intrigued, given that it was a program that focused on leadership.
As he remembers it, “I was very impressed at how easily these students would get up and talk about their experience in such an articulate manner.” He got to know some of the parents involved, including professionals working with the Texas State Legislature and the City of Austin, and was impressed by the parents as well as the students. He determined it was the right place for his son, Louis Jr., and his daughters Cristina and Andrea.
They all went on to have roles in NHI over the years. Louis became President of the NHI Austin Community Council Program, and then became president of the NHI National Community Leadership Council organization, when there was a move to bring parents together across the country. Both Louis Jr. and Cristina, meanwhile, took on coaching roles with Austin’s Great Debaters, and Cristina even worked for NHI as the Director of the Great Debate.
“I think NHI had a great impact on my community,” he reflects. “I saw many Hispanic students start the program as very shy individuals with not much confidence or self-esteem. I saw these same students flourish to become great orators and speakers. I saw the shyness fade away and much more confident individuals emerge. I saw this time and time again throughout my tenure with NHI. Even though I always encourage my own kids to be vocal and stand out, they too needed that extra push. I saw that they each became very good accomplished speakers and that has helped them in their chosen careers.”
Reflecting on his and his wife Grace’s involvement, he feels they’ve contributed to NHI’s overall success. As he notes, “I personally remember many meetings with Ernesto, Gloria and other NHI staff to discuss NHI’s direction. We gave input based on how our kids were developing and the kids of our community. We always supported NHI and did what we could to continue the work. It’s very rewarding to see NHI has flourished over the years and we are very happy to see and be a part of the 40th anniversary.”
Silvia and Daniel Garcia
Helped NHI to grow in Brownsville, Texas
Silvia and Daniel Garcia are educators with 80 years of experience between them in their long and storied careers. In fact, Silvia was finishing a doctorate degree in education from Texas A&M University-Kingsville while in the final years of serving as a Parent Administrator (PA) for the Brownsville region.
Brownsville was just starting up as an NHI region when the Garcias became involved with NHI. At that time, their eldest child, Daniel Alonso, was starting at Pace High School; and their two daughters, Marisilda and Lizabeth, would also go through NHI programs as they progressed through high school. “While my kids were already confident in themselves, NHI strengthened their confidence and helped them affirm their beliefs as they became more focused toward their future,” she recalls. “They became a bit more assertive and were able to stand on their own.”
“I saw a lot of growth, not only with my kids, but in the students who participated in NHI,” she adds. “Although many of the students would start the program being rather shy; some didn’t want to get involved or didn’t even want to talk. And then, all of a sudden, you’d see this complete change in them.”
She notes that giving students ownership of the program was key to the Brownsville region’s success. “My job was to be there for them, helping as needed, and ensuring that things were organized and worked well. If they needed anything, I was there. But I gave the kids the chance to take a leadership role in everything they did. And I believe that that really helped them to get organized, to be on the ball, and to react to problems.”
Saint Joseph Academy is now synonymous with NHI’s presence in Brownsville — thanks in large part to Tino Villarreal, who succeeded the Garcias — but it was under the Garcias’ leadership (and, of course, the leadership of the students working with her) that the school became a home for NHI. “One of the challenges at the time was that we didn’t have a regular place to meet and prepare for the Great Debate,” she recalls; remembering, that on numerous occasions, they utilized the public library and several churches before locking in Saint Joseph Academy as a meeting site.
The Garcias are particularly buoyed in seeing how NHI has helped many Brownsville and surrounding area students throughout the Tip of Texas region, as these students have grown and developed, graduated from high school, and college or university, and have their professional careers.
“Through the years, I have seen a lot of my former NHI students with degrees and professional jobs; and that makes me feel very proud of them,” she notes, adding that NHI provided students the platform to learn confidence, organization and speaking skills. “In many cases, some of the students who went through NHI, may not have had the financial means to go to a four-year college or university, and now they are attorneys, CPAs, and schoolteachers. And to me, that’s the greatest accomplishment.”
Hector and Mary Helen Gonzalez
Helped NHI to grow in San Antonio, Texas
The initial enthusiasm a high school student has for NHI can bring his or her parents into the NHI community, and that happened for Hector and Mary Helen Gonzalez when their son Analco learned about NHI in 1995. For them, though, it’s been a lifelong commitment in keeping one of NHI’s most energized regions — San Antonio — fully engaged and active.
As Mary Helen recalls, Analco’s enthusiasm was instrumental to them becoming engaged in NHI’s work — he returned from LDZ with six new friends from San Antonio, and they all created a club to help recruit more students. “They returned energized, all telling the story about how their families, including ours, had shared with them about our political and community involvement. It came full circle and took on meaning with their LDZ experience regarding family, community involvement and the importance that we all play a role in it.” They consulted with Ernesto Nieto to ask how they could help, and started a Community Leadership Council and a Young Leaders Conference (now Great Debate) team — which became the foundation for what is now known as NHI@SA.
NHI@SA now works with as many as 200 students a year committing to all levels of NHI leadership programs, including an estimated 100 a year who participate as Great Debaters. “We have worn many hats,” she notes, adding that students have graduated into trainers and PAs, contributing to what she calls a legacy. “Everyone has different roles in leadership to keep making it a better, evolving community, to keep it alive for future communities and generations yet to come.” Their own children are among those students who are, as Mary Helen puts it, “in sync with the belief of community.” Ixchell was the first NHI@SA PA, Analco served as a trainer, and Luis has been involved in various roles along the way — and the three of them now work together at OCI Group, a San Antonio-based consulting group with other partners (including Anita Fernandez and Olivia Travieso) remaining highly involved in NHI@SA.
Mary Helen characterizes her and her husband’s continuing work as “contributing to a unified effort to build a true leadership Latino paradigm, building a new generation of young Latinos, using a Latino-based community lens to lead our community locally and globally.”
“Personally,” she notes, “we have had a great opportunity to see youth being challenged on issues that impact our Latino community, and propose actions to truly transform our community to a level of fairness and equity. We constantly remind our youth that they don’t have to wait to shape and change the world after they graduate; they have the power for intellectual change. We give them the example of these six young kids back in the 1990s who came back from an NHI program and went to San Antonio’s Central Library to propose a Mexican-American section and it was approved with much deliberation. Now the community has a place to go and see themselves with pride.” She sees that effort as evidence that today’s NHIers have the potential to become community leaders, adding, “That is what takes on the meaning of ‘I am NHI!’”
Helped NHI to grow in Chicagoland
Minerva Hernandez remembers when her daughter, Reyna, wanted to attend her first NHI program as a high school student. She and her husband thought it sounded terrific, but worried about their first-born daughter being away from home for the first time. She was finally reassured enough by staffers, who even gave her permission to make a brief visit onto the DePaul University campus where the program was taking place.
She took them up on the offer, and found that trip life-changing, noting, “The pride I felt when I witnessed so many Hispanic students together in one location, speaking up and supporting each other was inspiring. I immediately felt that I needed to be an advocate, to assure that NHI continued, and that not only my daughter benefited from this experience, but that it be offered to more students. I knew the need in our community for our kids to be exposed to Latinos who are excelling in the mainstream society.”
She volunteered to become Project Administrator for Waukegan, Illinois, and served in that role for nine years, coordinating with longtime NHI associate Chris Pluta, to build the Chicago area into one of the most active regions for NHI participation. It wasn’t always that way, though; Minerva recalls, “Ernesto Nieto would tell me over the years, ‘I love that this woman will attend with a group every year, if she has 18 students or four, it doesn’t matter, she shows up.’ I’d smile… and took it as a compliment.”
She eventually found herself in the role of reassuring parents, unsure of sending their kids to NHI, that the program would be worth it. “NHI offered a doorway to expose our youth to another world,” she recalls, “empowering them, teaching them to use their voice and to share their opinions.” While all four of her children were influenced by NHI and its teachings, Reyna has followed most closely in her mother’s footsteps as an NHI organizer, now serving on NHI’s Board of Directors.
But she sees the influence of the organization reaching not just her own children. As she observes about her time as a Project Administrator, “NHI united young Latinos helping them stand strong knowing that they were not alone. NHI empowered our community by giving us the means to build future leaders and trailblazers.”
It also awakened something in her, drawing back to a formative memory from her teenage years. “When I was a freshman in high school, my mother became very ill and needed around the clock care. I went to my counselor and asked about my options to stay in school and retain my straight A’s while taking time off to care for my mom.” He told me that I was a very pretty girl and I would not have any trouble at all getting married so I didn’t have to worry about that, and my best choice was to drop out.” She dropped out, but now realizes what was behind that advice, and understands how much differently NHI sees talented young Latino and Latina students.
As she asserts, “NHI and the opportunity that it offered to a better future for the next generation was enough to ignite my passion.”
Barbara and Tony Hinojosa
Helped NHI to grow in Baytown, Texas
Barbara and Tony Hinojosa started their commitment to NHI in 1991, when their daughter Amy became interested in going to a program, and like many parents at that time, went to a meeting to hear what Ernesto Nieto had to say. They were on board, even though they were living in the Baytown area and were commuting to Houston to participate.
They were attracted, in particular, to NHI’s message about self-esteem and self-advocacy, and encouraging high school students to do that “like adults.” As Barbara remembers, “Ernesto’s initial message to us really struck home in our hearts.”
Amy returned from the LDZ inspired; Barbara reports that it “definitely energized her to try to reach out to other students” throughout the Baytown area, and she stayed involved even beyond high school in a mentoring and counseling role. Barbara’s son Anthony became involved when he was old enough. But it was Amy’s energy, combined with the distance from Baytown to Houston, that inspired them to become parent leaders in Baytown and start recruiting there.
Though NHI wasn’t as well-known in Baytown in the early ‘90s as it was in other Texas cities with a head start, they found themselves able to reach out and sell parents on the NHI concept. “As you talk to people and you make the parents understand, then the kids get enthusiastic,” she explains. “Then, once the kids get enthusiastic, it’s not hard for us, as the parent leaders, to just want to embrace them and say, ‘Okay, let’s help them learn everything they possibly can.’”
The Hinojosas stayed involved while both Amy and Anthony were in high school, but Barbara recently stepped back into the role of talking to parents and children, in part because a local community center near her house is part of the network in Baytown that’s keeping NHI active.
“I’m excited that NHI is still going strong,” she says, recalling that when they were building up NHI in Baytown, they had to do a lot of educating the schools on NHI, but now the schools are “100 percent behind NHI,” contributing greatly to recruiting and taking some of the pressure off the organizers. “It really, really makes me feel good that it’s continued.”
Saying that, “I consider all the NHI kids my kids,” Barbara’s proud of the professional gains she’s seen Baytown alumni make, and is perhaps even more proud of the community involvement she’s seeing from them. “You see them all grown up,” she gushes, “and it’s just so overwhelming to see how successful they’ve all been.”
Helped NHI to grow in McAllen, Texas
Leonila Lopez is one of Gloria de Leon’s four sisters. She is married to Rene Lopez, and is the mother of three NHI alumni, and is from McAllen. Employed by the McAllen Migrant Division, Nila encouraged the participation of migrant students in all NHI programs. Thereafter, numerous other school migrant programs followed suit and offered contract programs for at-risk populations and the Collegiate World Series.
Since 1983, she has volunteered her time with NHI locally and as the on-site director of the statewide Texas LDZ. She staffed the first RGV Young Leaders Conference and 1985 Great Debate. During several decades of volunteering, Nila was affectionedly referred to as the “LDZ Mom” to many students as she traveled with NHI to New Mexico, Colorado, Chicago and the annual Texas LDZ.
Her NHI commitment includes establishing a family legacy. Each of her three children attended NHI programs: Melissa Lopez Garcia was a founding member of the 1983 Texas LDZ and now an Austin project administrator and NHI board member; Rene Lopez II, originating member of the RGV Young Leaders Conference and 1985 Great Debate; and Rolando Lopez, 1987 Texas LDZ Speaker of the House. In 2019, her oldest granddaughter, Annalissa Garcia’ was elected Lt. Governor of the California LDZ.
Leonila Lopez’s love and support of the NHI mission during the critical and formative years of the organization’s development makes her a fitting recipient of the 2019 National Hispanic Institute First Family Award.
Doris and Richard Lucero
Helped NHI to grow in Pueblo, Colorado
Doris and Richard Lucero’s journey with NHI started in 1989 with Doris’ mother, Hilda Gallegos, who was working as a counselor at Central High School in Pueblo, Colorado. Ernesto Nieto reached out to Hilda to explain the LDZ program that had just started at Colorado State University. As Doris recalled, “He had to convince my mother that the program was worthwhile for students. She didn’t just talk to anybody. She was committed to ensuring that programs helped students reach their goals during and after high school.”
Not only did Ernie get Hilda on board, but she also got Doris and Richard interested. The next year, their oldest daughter, Sara (who was attending Central High School), became part of the 1990 class of Colorado LDZ students. Upon her return, as Richard observed, “She was excited when she came home. She talked about how good the program was for the students.” He noted that there wasn’t much of an emphasis on civics in the school district’s curriculum, and LDZ helped Sara with that missing part of her education. Similarly, the program gave her an awareness of her identity as a Latina. Doris notes that Sara also attended Colorado Girls’ State and although she enjoyed that experience, she found the LDZ program more rewarding.”
Though Doris says, “We’re proud that all three of our children were active participants in NHI programs,” it was Sara’s NHI experience that inspired Doris and Richard to work with NHI in forming the Southern Colorado Community Leadership Council and serving as project administrators for the region for the next decade. They worked on recruiting, noting that fundraising was a challenge because many students couldn’t afford tuition on their own. If students advocated for themselves, community members were more willing to assist. However, teaching students to be active participants in their own fundraising was one of their biggest challenges. Doris recalls the SCCLC constantly explaining to the students, “You’ve got to present yourself. You have to let them [potential donors] know who you are and why this is important to you … and it got easier over time.”
Doris was impressed with a curriculum that emphasized “personal organization, research methods, creative writing and public speaking,” while Richard was impressed with the focus on Latino leadership. “We can’t lead from behind,” Richard observed. “We’ve got to lead from the front. That’s imperative, especially now, with the growth in the Hispanic population.”
Working with NHI enabled the Luceros to see that the Hispanic population in Southern Colorado was connected to a whole network of people throughout the country invested in Latino leadership. And, as they’re particularly proud about, they’re getting to see students they worked with come back and take on leadership roles — including in Pueblo, where they still make their home.
“It was amazing watching these kids grow,” Doris recalls. “We got kids that were quiet and we encourage them to come out of their shells.”
Helped NHI to grow in Austin, Texas
Gloria Mayo-Moreno knew Ernesto Nieto even before NHI was born; she worked in the Governor’s office with him, and when they were laid off, she and her husband decided to help Nieto launch NHI — back when it was geared toward young adult professionals — before they began resuming their careers.
A decade later, in the late ‘80s she reconnected with Nieto while working as a Chief of Staff for a member of the Texas House of Representatives. As she recalls, “Every year, I would see Boys’ and Girls’ State Conventions held at the State Capitol, and there were very, very few Latinos involved. Participation was very limited and selective.”
That’s something that Gloria de Leon had noticed as well, and that observation was crucial to the launch of the LDZ. As Mayo-Moreno observed, “The NHI concept was brilliant and I was totally in, especially when my middle daughter, who was painfully shy, participated in the Great Debate.”
She became more than an NHI parent, becoming a program director between 1991 and 1997 for the Great Debate program (then known as the Young Leaders Conference), and later becoming an NHI board member.
As she recalls, “The early years of investing our personal time toward making NHI a reality has been well worth it. Ernie and Gloria stayed with it and made it a national model. NHI has impacted the lives of so many young Latinos in such a positive way. To my knowledge, there is no other program like NHI and I hope the legacy lives on.”
She’s seen the program positively impact a great number of students she came in contact with over the years, and has found that especially true for her own children.
“The most rewarding thing about NHI to me personally has been watching my daughters grow intellectually, socially and personally as strong young women who want to give back to the community,” she reflected. “Their experience with NHI had a lot to do with their personal growth. They met many young, intelligent youths with similar goals as theirs. They made life-long friends.”
Irene and John Rosales
Helped NHI to grow in Houston, Texas
John Rosales first learned about NHI while working at the Johnson Space Center; he attended a talk Ernesto Nieto gave in Houston about “paying it forward” to help Latino youth succeed, and liked what he heard. He liked it so much, in fact, that he arranged for Nieto to come and speak to his NASA colleagues.
At that time, his wife Irene was a teacher; several months after the NASA talk, a student came up to her and talked about how he was inspired by NHI and wanted to get more involved in school activities as a result. When Irene shared the story with John, and let him know she’d like their own children to get involved with NHI, he exclaimed, “That’s Ernesto Nieto’s program!”
Their sons Victor and David did end up going to NHI programs, and Irene and John both became involved in helping NHI, starting by chaperoning and otherwise volunteering to help with programs in Houston. They eventually extended their commitment to the Board of Directors, with John serving as a member for some of its first years.
“It was a very rewarding time for both of us,” Irene recalls of her and her husband’s time with NHI. She notes that they worked with “bright, energetic Hispanic youth who were being given the encouragement and the tools to be leaders in their schools and communities. You could see their enthusiasm increasing and even very shy students would proudly tell us that they were running for office at their high school because of the NHI influence.”
John, along with Victor (who is now a physician in San Antonio) and David (now a computer engineer in San Francisco), even contributed their time to Houston students to help them prepare for the SAT, hoping to impact those students’ futures.
“NHI has obviously played a very effective role in Hispanic communities, inspiring kids to be all they can be, including our own two sons,” Irene observes, adding they are hoping for their first grandchild to become involved in NHI once eligible. “We believe parents are the first and most important educators,” she adds, “but we also believe it does take a village, and NHI has been a good part of that village for families over the last 40 years.”
Helped NHI to grow in El Paso, Texas
Tita Yanar, best known to NHIers as the Project Administrator for NHI during its formative years, first became aware of NHI when the first class of El Paso YLC students were being trained in 1989 by Dr. Roberto Villareal and his wife Norma. Their daughter, Ethel, was best friends with Tita’s daughter, Soraya. When it came time to appoint a PA to prepare the 1990 YLCers for the Texas Great Debate, Norma surprised Tita by volunteering her at a parents’ meeting. Although initially intimidated by the prospect, she accepted. Her daughter, Soraya, participated in the YLC Cross Examination team team in 1990 and discovered her impressive aptitude for debate.
Tita became completely invested in NHI and its mission. “I would talk with Ernie for hours in an effort to better understand and learn about the organization and its methodologies,” she recalls. “This was different from everything I had learned in my university training as an educator. It was truly learning by doing.”
When Soraya went off to college, Tita was ready to pass the mantle to someone else. But her son Omar, who was entering the ninth grade, had become fascinated by the NHI experience and declared that it was “his turn.” Even after he went off to college in 1997; Tita continued to serve as PA for three more years, guiding her El Paso NHIers through a dominant stretch of Texas and New Mexico Great Debate championships.
Tita is particularly proud that her two children, like so many El Paso NHI alumni, took what they learned from NHI into their lives as professionals and community leaders. Soraya is now a lawyer practicing in El Paso. Omar is an educator. He founded a college prep charter middle school, the El Paso Leadership Academy (EPLA). EPLA has distinguished itself academically and is at the forefront of implementing character and leadership development curriculum based on NHI principles.
Tita is extremely proud of the students she had the privilege to serve. She firmly believes that El Paso’s NHI success was due to their intellect, skills and capacity for hard work, as well as pride in their community, heritage and biculturalism. It is also her belief that there’s something special about El Paso that NHI helped the rest of the world discover. She notes, “Ernie says that you can always tell someone from El Paso by the positive attitude and confidence they project.”