Immigration Series: The 5 Things My Immigrant Parents Taught Me About Leadership

We recently celebrated America’s Independence Day. I’ve always loved the fourth. Growing up it meant beaches; BBQ and much-needed bonding time with the familia. Now as a full-fledged adult I am reminded of the moments in my life that have taught me what it truly means to live in this country. One of the things I love most about America is its willingness to open its doors to others.  That is why I love Leviticus 19:33-34, which says  “When a stranger remains with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who remains with you as a brother, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” My parents were immigrants to the US in the late 1960's when they arrived here from the Dominican Republic. My stepfather came to the US from his home land of Nicaragua. 

That’s why the recent issues at the border with separating children from their parents have many immigrants and their families outraged. Katie Annad wrote an article for Vox Media about the emotional impact this treatment has had on children. When I think of these families I can’t help but think of my parents and all the sacrifices they made for their kids to carve out una buena vida (a good life). It is foolish to assume that their sacrifices didn’t come at a great cost. However, their sacrifices came with many lessons that have greatly impacted my career and that of my siblings.

Here are five ways being the daughter of immigrants helped me grow as a leader: 

1.    Stay Motivated.

Papi and I, 2015

Papi and I, 2015

Nothing screams motivation more than leaving everything you hold dear to move to a new country, experience language barriers, racial and cultural discrimination, all to have opportunities for a better life. I feel fortunate to have been there to see my parents struggle in real ways to achieve their dreams. I am so blessed that I lived every risk they took with them.  When your parents are immigrant’s motivation is the driving force behind what they have risked and given up in exchange for our success. I could never repay my parents for what they gave up but they have in turn become my motivation to continue to grow and develop. I believe what influenced me to stay motivated in my career is that my dad taught me to dream and dream big! He taught me that no matter what obstacles I faced I could reach for the stars and shine brightly. My mom taught me the value of bringing excellence to everything I do. Because of her, I have learned to work hard and learn form my mistakes.

2. Speak Your Truth.

Mom and I, 2016

Mom and I, 2016

Proving yourself to others and defending your actions is another consequence of being an immigrant in a new nation. Often time’s immigrants live their lives on the defense. Regularly having to explain who they are as if they owe others an explanation was frustrating for me to see as a child. I frequently experienced this when mom went to my school demanding that I be given not just the education that was available but the one I deserved. What I learned from this and many other experiences that I witnessed was the value of finding my voice. As I grew it made me work hard to make sure others less fortunate than me had a voice too. Speaking my truth taught me to have empathy for others.  That explains why I dedicated my career to the field of social work.  I found my voice and now I make sure others find their voice too.

3. Integrity Builds Connections.

Mom and Alex, my (step) Dad

Mom and Alex, my (step) Dad

Immigrants work and they work hard. My mother was always busy. If she wasn't learning English (her native tongue was Spanish), she was working two jobs, attending college or strengthening ties to her new community by attending church, visiting inmates or caring for the sick. Did I mention she welcomed immigrants into our home while they began their life here in the US? She made every moment count.

My step-father still gets up every morning at 4 am to go to work managing a parking garage in the city. Is it because he loves it? Not necessarily. He knows that he made a promise to his family and to his employer. He has always said “ Hay que trabajar (we must work).” This philosophy has stayed with me. Recently, he asked me how my new job was going. As I shared my list of struggles he listened quietly and then said “ Are they still paying you?... Then keep doing good work.”  He reminded me that at the end of the day in our career all we have is our word. Integrity builds trust and can take you far. 

4. Pay it Forward.

My parents' story would have been very different without the opportunities that others created for them. My mother and Father continued to pay it back their entire lives. I can’t tell you the number of relatives and friends that lived with us as they arrived in America. Back then I didn’t understand why I had to give up my room and privacy. Now I know that my parents were doing exactly what was done for them. They both worked in factories often working 2-3 jobs to bring the rest of his family to this country. It’s easy for us to sit on our porch and think, “ wow I made it…or look how far I’ve come.” My immigrant parents taught me that you never do this alone. I was taught to remember where I came from, honor those that paved a way for me and remember to reach out and pay it forward. Paying it forward is important not just for our career but also for our community to thrive. I'm a firm believer that we all need to support each other. We need to make time for coffee, lunch, and networking with those coming up and those that hold our hands along the way. When was the last time you took your mentor out for Café?

5. Be True to Yourself.

 I didn’t always appreciate it when my parents were unapologetically themselves. Like when I saw my stepfather iron his work uniform with such pride. He never pretended to be anyone other than who he was. And, almost to a fault, he is a truth teller. My parents (on both sides) are known as people who are respected, honest and trustworthy. This is because they are and have always been true to themselves.

Being true to yourself is critical for business leaders as well. You need to establish trust if you want people to buy into you, your vision and support your team. I learned from my parents that I'm much more relatable and trustworthy if I bring my authentic self to work. Being genuine in the workplace helps to establish strong ties that can last a lifetime.  As a leader, I want to be approachable, share my interests, and develop my team.  When mistakes are made I keep it real and give grace. The best way of building rapport is to be transparent and genuine.


My parents may not be seen as great leaders to many but to me they are. It is because of them that I have grown into the woman you see today. As we raise our son I hope to pass down the importance of staying motivated, speaking his truth, having integrity while paying it forward and being true to himself. If he can learn those values he will be doing just fine. 

Afro- Latina: Parenting in the Hyphen; My life as an Afro-Latina Mom

I was born in the Bronx, NY to immigrant parents from the Dominican Republic. Growing up in the states meant that I was taught about American history. However, I started to learn about my Dominican history at the age of 34, when tasked to write a paper for grad school. At that moment I confirmed what I’ve always known…I exist at an obscure junction between being African and Latina. I live in the hyphen of Afro-Latina. In his book,The Future of the Latino Church, Daniel Rodriguez states living in the hyphen is the space “between multiple influences that affect our identity.” The harsh reality of my youth is that I belonged to two completely different worlds that might never truly accept me completely.


Being raised by immigrant parents meant that walking through our apartment door, I was literally entering the Dominican Republic (DR). Taking the elevator down 30 flights to ground level entered me back into America. In his book Mi Casa Uptown, my dear friend Rich Perez describes this stark contrast as living the remezcla. He goes on to say that the remezcla is “living in a tension that has the power to either devastate us or help us harness great power and influence of how we’ve been created.” My remezcla moments are layered and complex. My younger years were filled with devastating tension but as I grew in understanding, I have harnessed the power of being an Afro-Latina.

Mami and I, 2015

Mami and I, 2015

Papi and I at Central Park, NYC  

Papi and I at Central Park, NYC  

Although I was named after my Mami, I’m the spitting image of my Papi. Like my dad, I am often catergorized as being a black American and yet that’s only partially correct. In America, we are obsessed with putting people in a box. We want to clump people into the same category because it makes us feel safe. Here is the challenge…my color may be black, but my history is not black American. Internally, I identify as Latina. This complex way of viewing myself is often hard for people to understand especially due to my skin color. Being born to Dominican parents gave me a rich, flourishing culture, and beautiful language embedded in my DNA. To identify only as black would be to deny a large part of myself. Something I simply cannot do. This is why living in this hyphen is so isolating. To identify as Latina does not require denying my African descent. In fact, according to scholar Silvio Saillant, “blacks and mulatos make up nearly 90% of the Dominican population.” This solidifies my African roots which I love and am extremely proud of.

The challenge is that for far too long light-skinned Latinos have been the poster child for our people around the world. Our Latino media is often riddled by colorism. Colorism is defined as “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically of people of the same ethnic or racial group.” That false narrative has created a sad ideology. Dominicans often refer to themselves as “indios” (indigenous) rather than black because of their colorism ideologies. It’s actually more complex than that. What’s amazing about 2018 is that Afro-Latinos everywhere are breaking free of this narrative. Exhausted of having to constantly fight for our remezcla moment, we challenge that narrative and communicate who we truly are to the world. The folks at Remezcla Entertainment have an outstanding clip that challenges the ideas of race and culture in Latin America.

Parenting from the hyphen hasn’t always been an easy practice to maneuver. I often take for granted that my son lives his life in a different hyphen than I do. This means I have to be intentional about making space for him to educate me about his own narrative. I am deliberate about asking him questions like, “what does it feel like to be biracial and live in a small rural community in the South?” I will never understand what it feels like for him and I lean on him often to guide me. He in turn shows me the best way to advocate and protect him. On the same note, I too want to teach him three things I have learned from my Afro-Latina experience so far.


1. Stand up for yourself, even if that means standing alone. I want him to be brave as he faces adversity. In order for him to do that, it is important that he understands that racism is not his fault. He will need to know that standing up for himself may look different depending on the situation. For example, giving him practical tools about how to handle potential dangerous situations like police stops. Teaching him that in such an instant, standing up for himself is tied to knowing his rights and not resisting.

2. Always be willing to educate others. It’s easy to walk away when you have been offended, but its brave to stay and educate. A great example on this is when I speak. Typically, people assume I am not Latina by my appearance but when I speak they immediately ask me “where are you from?” This is a great time to educate them on being Afro-Latina. Another time I was asked “Hey! How did you learn to speak Mexican?” Taking the time to educate someone can be just as rewarding for him as it is for the person asking the question.

3. Don’t let anyone else dictate your narrative. I am still discovering what it means to be living in his hyphen. With that being said, my experience is my own. No one should attempt to tell me who I am or what box I belong in. My son is not just an adopted kid. His story is bigger than his adoption and his race but that doesn’t mean the two don’t matter. One of my favorite authors, Brene’ Brown puts it like this, “Owning your story and loving ourselves through that process is one of the bravest things that we’ll ever do.” As parents of multiracial children we have to be intentional about learning from them about their story, respecting who they are, and discovering what they need to thrive. By doing this, we will teach them that their story has value. When they know their narrative matters, they will never let anyone tell them who they think they are. May I never lose sight that although my son and I share our love of things like church, marvel movies, and travel we are also different and that’s ok.


Although living in the hyphen has not always been easy, I believe it has made me a better parent. My hyphen experiences prepared me to understand of what it feels like to be prejudged by others and to own my own story. My son has experienced prejudgments regarding his adoption story, ethnicity and race.  We have experienced many hyphen moments together like the first time he read his DNA results or the first time he was called a racial slur.  Both moments impacted us deeply. One was meant to devastate and the other helped him harness his power. What we have learned is that our hyphen moments may make us laugh, cry or call us to be brave. I am blessed to know we will experience them together.

He and I last weekend, 1-2018

He and I last weekend, 1-2018