In the past decade, Latinas have emerged as a growing force for economic and political change in their communities and throughout Los Angeles. But change is never easy, and Latinas are facing a number of challenges as they try to take their place beside more established leaders.

The Business Journal conducted a roundtable discussion on issues related to that effort. Panelists were Martha Diaz Aszkenazy, president of Pueblo Contracting Services, a San Fernando-based real estate developer; Maria Elena Durazo, head of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, Local 11; Linda Griego, operator of Engine Co. No. 28 in downtown and former president of the Los Angeles Community Development Bank; Antonia Hernandez, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund; and Isabel Kilroe, co-chair of Enlace Communications Inc., a Los Angeles ad agency that specializes in the Latino market.

Nola Sarkisian-Miller

Question: How have things changed in the past 20 years for Latinas in the business community?

Griego: We still don't see many women in corporate America heading major companies. That's true for women in general and even more true for Latinas. But there are more Latinas in business school and in pools of labor. I do see quite a bit of movement in the small-business world. For example, a second-generation daughter takes over her father's role in a family business. Most of these (situations occur) in medium-size companies of $10 to $25 million. In the next decade, I think we'll see more small-business leadership with Latinas.

Q: What are the barriers?

Griego: We've seen that a number of Latinas run restaurants. It's their way out of poverty. If they can't go into the corporate world, then they'll get into a small business. But, when they try to break out of the mom-and-pop sector, it's harder to do, both in terms of financing and networking. When we as Latinas start off small, we tend to be very loyal to the folks that helped us. If that loan officer helped you in a bank and he moves, you (stay with) that person. So you never establish a bank relationship, and when you need capital to grow and double your size, it's hard to get.

Aszkenazy: I left the corporate world because there was a brick ceiling not glass. I couldn't even see through it. I was told bluntly that my culture was keeping me back. Somebody felt this in his mind and I can't change that, so I will go on. I can't compete with that. I listened to motivational speakers and they said to go around the wall, which means going into your own business. It was my way of doing things. A lot of other women have decided to do the same thing.

Kilroe: One tough thing is balancing family and business. One thing I would say that separates me from my Mexican peers was that I was born and raised in a family of independent thinkers and intellectuals. So that helped my sister and me become who we are today. However, the traditional role of family and woman staying at home is still prevalent in Mexico. It doesn't mean that women aren't working. What I see is that they stay in the workforce before they're married, then once married, the family and home is priority. Here in the U.S., there is a much more open way. You're able to be yourself and grow in your own way.

Q: What kinds of stereotypes do you face?

Hernandez: That we're submissive. I come from a line of strong women. Yes, we're respectful, but we're more political than most people believe. We know how to work things to our benefit. Go into any poor community and there will be some dysfunction when it comes to the issue of gender and sex. The way men play out their poverty in society is to play it out against women. Look at that dysfunction in any community and look at the role of women. In many instances, the women are holding the family together. That's a survival tactic and very assertive.

Griego: If you go into non-traditional jobs, a man always wants to know what your husband thinks of your job. Did he approve and give you permission to get this job? The question startles me, but I get it so often, almost daily. It's amazing that people think you can't be independent and make your own living.

Durazo: The question is, what opportunities can we create with these issues? In the union, we encourage women to be leaders and to be responsible and to demand rights to be treated well. Women sometimes may work real hard, but may not volunteer for a formal position. It's our responsibility to challenge that. The majority of our leaders in the rank-and-file are women. Give women a leadership role and they will rise to the challenge, especially if the issues involve family. When you get women and their kids involved it's very positive. It's very exciting.

Hernandez: The bright side of the negative stereotypes is that it has pushed the Latino community to go into the private sector. You find alternate ways. The unfortunate part is that you can only grow so much in your community. In the U.S. you have to jump into the mainstream. But, once they try to go into the mainstream, they go, "Whoa! What happened?" In the past 10 years, we've made tremendous strides in politics, but unless we make equal strides in the economic sphere, we're not going to advance. Politics only get you so far. That's the next phase for our community, jumping into the mainstream.

I always get asked, "Why do you Latinos not mainstream? Instead, you want to watch your Spanish television." Latinos come to this country for the American dream, and they're no different from anybody else. But when they get here, they see those stereotypes. If more Latinos were seen on television, and in the mainstream of society, there wouldn't be this need to hold onto the culture. American society reinforces the isolation, and people turn around and ask us why we don't want to mainstream.

Q: What are ways you've gotten beyond the roadblocks?

Aszkenazy: Well, if you can't beat them, join them. One thing I did early on was partner with a white construction company. That increased my bonding capability, gave me legitimacy. It really helped out. It was a fast-track way to do that. If I had continued to hit my head against the wall, I'd come here with a bruise on my forehead or maybe I wouldn't be sitting here. You try to extend the circle of people you deal with. You include everybody.

Griego: Determination. I've produced a television pilot to sell to the networks. It's sort of a Latin version of "American Bandstand." We saw the timing was good. It was before Ricky Martin hit. But the doors were closed. Seriously closed. But I'm tenacious. If it takes 10 years, I will get this show on. I'm not going away. We'll take our hits. We're green. We'll partner. We can't do it alone. We'll partner with somebody who can open the door.

Q: Is there a business advantage to knowing the Latino culture and speaking Spanish?

Griego: It has been for me. I started my business 11 years ago. More than half of my employees were Spanish-speaking-only at that time. Now they speak English. Forty percent of my employees have been with me more than eight years. I couldn't have built a successful restaurant without knowing the language. In my most recent assignment running the Los Angeles Community Development Bank a lot of our borrowers and communities we served were Spanish-speaking. It wasn't that you couldn't communicate in English, but there was something to be said about understanding family and the culture (by speaking Spanish).

Aszkenazy: In the construction industry, that's the workforce. There's a huge shortage of trade people in construction so a lot of people are coming from Mexico. We're also developers and own real estate. A lot of our tenants are Latinos and have a whole different way of doing business. They come to our offices and pay us rent in cash. They come and talk to our property manager. They ask, "How are your babies?" They bring little goodies. It's a whole different world that we welcome. I can't remember having a vacant apartment because when one goes up for rent, the community finds out. Granted, the affordable price range is part of it. But there's a network out there and it works. It's a tremendous asset to know the language.

Hernandez: The role of the language has changed over the years. In 1970, it wasn't kosher to speak Spanish. In school, you were punished for speaking Spanish.

Griego: If we spoke Spanish in school, we'd put our hand out and they'd hit you with a ruler. At recess, none of us spoke English. And by end of recess, every kid was up against the wall with their nose to the wall. This was where we were sent if we spoke a Spanish word. At the same time, we saw it as a game. If you looked around and saw nobody on the playground, and everybody around the entire school with their nose to the wall, it was sort of fun.

Hernandez: Now it's the year 2000 and it's OK to be Latino. Some 35 percent are immigrants, and if you count the children of immigrants, over 50 percent are immigrants. The language issues are becoming stronger not weaker, the cultural issues are becoming stronger not weaker. You have a reversal where culture and language are becoming the predominant issue in business. When I'm a bridge to the mainstream, English is my language. When I'm representing my community and speaking to immigrants, I speak in Spanish. I couldn't do my job if I didn't speak the language of the people I represent. That's the advantage of being Latina.

Q: What's changed to make the knowledge and use of Spanish more prevalent?

Aszkenazy: First it's the population movement. You see the opportunities in business.

Griego: It's an economic reality. Trade has done a lot to change how people view those who speak two languages. Some of what NAFTA has done was bring in smaller companies to do business.

Aszkenazy: We're also voting now. My parents are immigrants. I'm first-born. My dad always thought he was a visitor here, even though he was a longtime resident. He always thought he would go back to Mexico. It wasn't until Prop. 187 that he thought he would lose his retirement, so he got involved. Now he votes all the time. My mom became a citizen first, then my dad. Everybody is doing the same thing. If 187 hadn't come along, we would've bumped along. He would've been fine. But he felt this call to activism.

Q: Was Prop. 187 a seminal event?

Durazo: It provoked a fight. It's one thing that there's racism and economic injustice, when it's very hidden, not out there. What Pete Wilson did was put it on the table.

Q: He gave you a target.

Durazo: He represented everything that was going on. He visually gave us an opportunity to rally together. That fight made a huge difference in terms of Latinos in California. For example, my understanding is that Latinos in California are not in favor of Bush. If you take the rest of the country, they say maybe he's not such a bad guy, he speaks Spanish. Here in this state, we went through a fight and it became clear what the Republican Party represents. We're still feeling the effects of that.

Hernandez: With 187, it brought you together whether you were third, fourth, fifth generation, whether you came from Cuba, Ecuador we said we were proud of our little differences until we realized that the mainstream couldn't tell a Puerto Rican from a Mexican. If you look like you, they will assume you crossed the border yesterday. We all suffered from the same stereotypes. Those differences were being used against us. So 187 made us realize our commonalities. It was as important culturally as it was politically.

Q: While Latino political power has grown in L.A. politics in the past decade, Latinas have been somewhat absent from the picture. Is that changing?

Hernandez: They're all in the state Senate. There is a percentage of growth of Latinas coming up in the community at every level from school districts to local neighborhood councils. The real issue is what will Latinos or Latinas focus on? How will we in the Latino community assess our leadership? Just because they're Latina doesn't mean they're kosher. There's the issue of accountability. If you have a Latina representing a Latino district, then they have to represent those interests. They can't be a crossover, because then they're not representing the Latino interests. If they're representing mainstream issues, then they're not representing Latinos. We're growing, but it's still coalition government in LA.

Q: So what's the next step?

Aszkenazy: The question is now becoming, how do we balance business and political issues? I don't see myself as a business owner represented by a Latino elected official because a lot of legislation that's come out (of Latino representatives) on wage and hours wasn't business-friendly. We won't be a block forever.

Durazo: Exactly. The agenda for the union movement is not identical to the business community. But there are realities that we have to face. Education, poverty, health care. Will we address those core issues or dance around them or give them Band-Aid solutions? It's not a Latino issue when a majority are in poverty. You can have beautiful schools, but when kids go home and their parents are working two or three jobs and still in poverty, what's the environment for learning? I overcame it. There were 10 kids in my family. We were migrant workers. We lived out of a flatbed truck. But the odds are against you.

Griego: That's why I don't forget where I came from. I have to use the skills I've got to do something and try to effect change.

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