Ernesto Nieto: Reflections on Turning 80 (and NHI)
On the occasion of Ernesto Nieto’s 80th birthday today, we asked him a few questions to document the day. Here are some excerpts from the conversation.
You’ve now spent more than half of a long life now leading NHI; what has surprised you most about the journey?
How happy it’s made me, how purposeful I feel. The big difference between being in a professional position is that you carry out a function, you have a so-called job to do. And it’s more of a function, and it’s very specified, whatever level you do it in, whether it’s government or private business. With this, though, it’s just a journey of exploring and enjoying the fruits, the discovery, the amazing depths of a community. Not only in Texas, but in California and New Mexico, and Chicago and Puerto Rico and New York. It’s been a lot of discovery for me, how people live differently and view things differently and have different life experiences that construct their outlooks and opinions and attitudes. And that, to me, has been probably the most outstanding aspect of my work and my mission.
So how has it helped NHI to have those different perspectives?
I think that it’s been an open discussion with my community, and learning to appreciate what they value. For example, when you go to northern New Mexico, people are really concerned about the environment. I mean, they really legitimately are concerned about the forest, the beauty of the community. They’re genuinely concerned about that. Go to West Texas, and family are really close to one another. They’re not in the middle of some urban metropolitan lifestyle. They rely mostly on family connections and family values and abuelitas and abuelitos and uncles. And then you go to South Texas, and you have a history, people can talk about tios and tias and predecessors, ancestors going back years.
In working with the Latino community in this country, you’re not working with a singular point of view. You’re working with Dominicans, with Cubans, with Puerto Ricans, with Mexican-Americans, with Mexicans, with immigrants, with Hondurans, with South Americans, with Central Americans. And they’re all different. They bring different aspects of the story to the stage. And it’s been absolutely wonderful for me, absolutely. I am so thankful. I think I’ve visited every state but five in this country. And by visit, I don’t mean land in an airport, I mean, to know people and families, and to have so many different conversations.
So you’re talking about leadership for Latino communities with NHI, and there’s one global Latino community, but there are also these individualized communities with what sounds like very different approaches. How has that realization impacted your teaching and your approach?
Leadership is not new to them. They’ve had leadership for centuries. They’ve had to rely on each other through their family members, through their community, the people that present themselves in their institutions, like church, civic organizations or cultural organizations. Leadership has been there. For centuries. So it’s not something that they don’t have, and you have to respect that.
Take the Rio Grande Valley, where everything is so extended family-related. In their families, there are lawyers, police officers, doctors, small ranch owners, builders, carpenters. And so, it’s self-supporting. They have someone that works at a hospital and can address everybody’s health problems or questions. They know someone down the street, and everything is built on confidence.
What I have tried to do in my life’s work is create systems for communities, not to appoint people, but to look for people to create systems in the community, that lend themselves to early detection of leaders, early training of children, early exposure to some of the requirements and demands of leadership, and providing them with ways of rehearsing their abilities. I’m not trying to teach leadership per se. I’ve tried to create learning experiences that evolve into people making personal decisions about how they use that knowledge and that ability, in order to support their own individual life missions, participating in the life of a community.
I also wanted to ask you about turning 80 in what has been the midst of an unparalleled year. Thinking about the confluence of events in 2020—the pandemic, the social unrest, the economic downturn—have you experienced a year that compares to this prior?
With the economic downturn, people are used to adjusting, to moving. finding other opportunities. It may be difficult on them, but they have ways of achieving and addressing it. But COVID has been the game stopper that crosses all kinds of ideologies, beliefs, values, lifestyles. For Latinos, and what I see with NHIers, is the amount of death, particularly among the elders.
And if you value elders the way we value elders in the Latino community … there are people that have elders in a rest home, but our elders live with us. They have a bedroom and a role in our lives. The amount of tragedy and the amount of emotional loss and psychological and spiritual loss has been huge. And it’s at all socio-economic levels of the Latino community. The reason it means much more is that we don’t dispense with our elderly as other cultures might.
What does it mean to you that NHI is now able to deliver digital programs that you couldn’t have dreamt of in 1979 at NHI’s inception?
I have said to the staff, and I’ve said to the board, that COVID has revolutionized how we think. The way we thought before the COVID was, “How many kids are we going to serve this year? What parts of the country can we operate in? Who’s going to go out and find these kids?” As a business model, it’s pretty simple stuff, and pretty routine. The digital programs we’ve created in response to COVID allow us to expand as far as we want, and with as many young people as we wish. There are no limits to what we can do.
I’m very proud of the work we’re doing, but I sure as hell don’t take credit for it—maybe for coming up with the concept. And I plan to continue. I’m not quitting. I’m not looking for a cane to lean on. What I’m doing and what Gloria’s doing is that we’re become executive coaches, for the people that are taking over.
If you’re interested in extending birthday wishes to NHI’s founder, please consider making a donation to a fund for maintaining and preserving the NHI property in Maxwell.