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By Maria Ortiz
I grew up being ashamed of my Mexican accent, and the more nervous I was, the more my accent became more noticeable. As an adult, I have come to embrace it. I am proud to be a first-generation Mexican-American in the U.S.
As a kid, I didn’t know that I was “first generation” and that my parents were immigrants, but was aware that we were different. I used to be my mom and dad’s interpreter during parent-teacher conferences, at the grocery stores, and at the doctors. I don’t think most of my friends had to do that. My family was also unique in another special way—we were a large family.
Having a big family has been great but also challenging at times, especially for the women in the family. My three sisters and I grew up helping my mom cook, clean the house, and pick up after all my six brothers. It was a huge task.
I don’t remember exactly when I started, but I grew up questioning why only the women of the household had to clean, and the answer I got was, “That’s how it is, that’s how it’s always been, accept it, and hurry up and finish.”
I did not accept this answer. Day after day, year after year, I kept asking but never got a satisfactory answer. It became more of a problem when all the chores were conflicting with my schoolwork. I was a good student that loved to read and loved math. Yes, I was a nerd and proud of it.
This coincided with the time that some of my mentors had planted the seed that I was smart and that I was going places. One of my middle school math teachers said, “You have to go to college, and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t.”
It was these defining moments and hard work that got me to where I am today. I have been a propulsion engineer and a program manager throughout my career over 25 years. During this same time, I have also been mentoring kids from kindergarten through college, in hopes that I can be a guiding light in their journey. I recently had a heart-to-heart conversation with my 80-year-old mom, and she said, “I don’t know why I thought women had to stay at home; they can do and study anything they want.”
Maria Ortiz holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of California, Irvine and a program management certificate from UCLA, and she presently designs, builds, and tests propulsion systems for the commercial satellite industry. She is an active mentor in the BRDG bridge to connect nonprofit, providing first-in-family college students wraparound support to transition to the workforce. bridge-to-connect.org.