“No Mutha%#$@&*, You Can’t Have a Hot Dog!” – A new excerpt from Summer in the Waiting Room

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Author’s Note: The following passage is an excerpt from the Part 3 of my book “Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life.”

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After returning home from the hospital, I went to a class to learn how to live a full life with a compromised heart. The topics included information about how the heart works, suggestions for healthy living, exercises that strengthen the heart muscle without adding stress to it, and facts about the different medications necessary to keep the heart functioning.

The material for the six-week program was delivered by nurses, nutritionists, pharmacists, physical therapists, and other content experts in a classroom setting. At 46, I was clearly the youngest of the 30 or so participants in a class of mostly ornery and impatient 70 and 80 year-olds set in their ways and grumbling about aches and pains.

Learning about a heart-healthy diet was enlightening. The standard information about avoiding fatty and fried foods, red meat, and processed sugars was like a review of a basic nutrition class. The reason and importance of staying away from salt was the most informative part of the program. To understand why this is important, we learned about how the heart works for someone with congestive heart failure.

A simple definition of congestive heart failure is a weakness of the heart that leads to a buildup of fluid in the lungs and surrounding body tissues. Blood from the lungs enters the lower left heart chamber to send oxygenated blood into the body to feed its muscles and organs. A massive heart attack kills off muscle that’s necessary to keep the organ pumping efficiently. The end result is that the blood that’s left in the chamber has nowhere to go. In extreme cases like mine, the blood backs up into the lungs, causing shortness of breath and more stress on the heart.

Salt enters the picture because it’s consumption leads to fluid retention. For someone with congestive heart failure, a weak lower left heart muscle and fluid retention make for a dangerous situation. Weight gain from fatty foods and water retention from salty foods is a deadly formula. What I learned in the nutrition section of the class has literally saved my life and kept me out of the hospital.

To understand how the dynamic works is to understand the numbers. The Federal Department of Agriculture (FDA) recommendation for daily sodium intake (the official term for salt) is 2,400 milligrams. For congestive heart failure patients, the recommended daily amount of sodium intake is 1,500 milligrams. Processed food, fast food, and most restaurant meals are unusually high in sodium.

For context, a typical dinner at the Olive Garden Restaurant demonstrates how much sodium is in the food we eat. My favorite meal there was the chicken parmigiana with pasta, one serving of pasta e fagioli soup, a couple of breadsticks and Diet Cokes, and cheesecake and coffee for dessert. Total sodium intake for that one meal is over 5,500 milligrams, nearly four times the daily allowance for someone with heart failure.

Sodium hides in unexpected places. Bread, dairy products, sauces, condiments, cold cuts, hot dogs, baked goods, and cured meats should be avoided for heart-healthy eating. Hot dogs? Really? One of my favorite vices is a Mark’s hot dog with everything on it. What has become known to my family as the “No Muthafucka, You Can’t Have a Hot Dog” story is a rallying cry for me to maintain a disciplined low-salt diet.

It all started the day the class learned about a heart-healthy diet. The nutritionist began by talking about the evils of common unhealthy foods for the heart. During the discussion about the ills of fried foods and fatty red meat, the presenter mentioned hot dogs while listing the “no-nos” for heart failure patients. There was a gasp and an immediate reaction from my elderly classmates.

The sound in the room was filled with murmurs and hands shot up into the air as people started asking questions. “Why are hot dogs bad for you?” “Do I have to stop eating hot dogs?” “Where can you buy low sodium hot dogs?”

The nutritionist went on to breakdown the sodium intake of a basic hot dog. Frankfurter: 600 milligrams. Bun: 200 milligrams. Relish: 120 milligrams. Mustard: 60 milligrams; Ketchup: 160 milligrams. The grand total: 1,140 milligrams for a regular old hot dog with relish, mustard, and ketchup. That was more than two full meals of the daily allowance for heart failure patients. The conclusion was to stay away from hot dogs.

There was a revolt!

The questions came fast and furiously. “What about low sodium franks?” “Buns?” “Relish?” “Ketchup?” My classmates started exchanging ideas. “You can buy low-sodium ketchup at Whole Foods,” said a visibly upset woman. “I’ll just eat the hot dog and bun without condiments,” shouted a distinguished-looking, but  irritated gentleman.

Despite the efforts of the presenter, hot dogs dominated the remainder of the session on nutrition. I learned a couple of things that day. First, grilling a few hot dogs isn’t such a good idea if you want to stay away from the emergency room. Second, don’t mess with the old folks’ hot dogs.

The hot dog saga finally came to an end when the nutritionist calmed the crowd down by promising to bring the issue back up for discussion at another time. That other time came three weeks later during the summary session. In addition to the content experts, a cardiologist participated in the class.

The hour included a review of everything needed for living a healthy lifestyle with congestive heart failure. The class began with the cardiologist recommendation to have a disciplined exercise and medication regimen, avoid stress, and eat a heart-healthy diet. A 75 year-old woman sitting next to me named Ruth raised her hand within seconds of the doctor completing his opening statement.

Ruth had been my seat neighbor for the entire program. She was a nice grandmotherly woman who loved cooking, hated exercise, and planned little changes to her life. She half-jokingly told me that she never exercised a day in her life and saw no reason to start. Furthermore, she couldn’t imagine changing her diet.

“It’s worked for me so far,” she snickered. “Look at you. You’re young, you exercised regularly, and you’re here with us too,” she ribbed me with a mischievous smile. She had a point. If I had lived a long life before the heart attack, I probably would have the same outlook.

When the doctor called on Ruth, she asked the question that was on everyone’s lips. “Doctor, is it true that we can’t eat hot dogs?” The room erupted in a buzz of activity. Heads nodded in agreement. Others raised their hands as well to add their two cents. The chaos that ensued three weeks earlier was starting to bubble up again.

I chuckled to myself, amazed at the emotional appeal of hot dogs. I get it though. Hot dogs played a major role in my life. My mind wandered for a split second to the time at Mark’s Hot Dogs when I had asked Sandra to get married. While my classmates prepared for battle over hot dogs, I reminisced about that magical night in east San Jose.

This hot dog madness had to end. I felt like standing up and saying, “no muthafucka…you can’t have a hot dog!” in my best Richard Pryor imitation. Of course, I didn’t do it. But as I was laughing at my own joke amid the commotion in the room, the doctor put the matter to rest. “No,” he said. “You shouldn’t eat hot dogs.” The doctor had spoken. The revolt had ended.

The last time I had a hot dog was before June 7, 2010.

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The Road to Faith: Part 2 – More on Gratitude

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Image by thewordsprite.com

The other day, Sandra and I were talking about the biblical story of Job. It’s a tale of a man who literally had everything. Faith, integrity, good health, vast wealth, and a loving family brought him joy and happiness. God decided to test his faith and allowed Satan to take everything away. Job became a broken man who lost faith and complained about the injustice that was done to him. Feeling sorry for himself, he went on a journey of despair questioning God.

He reached out to others to find comfort and justification for his sorrows. Although they tried to be helpful, the others lacked faith themselves and only made Job’s troubles seem deeper. Ultimately, he found faith by accepting what he couldn’t control, expressing gratitude, and serving God by praying for the non-believers. He learned life’s greatest lesson. Achieving success through hard work wasn’t enough. Faith was the key to peace and happiness.

I’ve been on a similar spiritual journey for almost eight years searching for answers to my lot in life. I’ve always admired people like my mom and Sandra who rely on faith to guide them. They understand something I don’t. To change that, I reflected on my own Jobian journey.

 

My life sailed along smoothly for the first 19 years until I flunked out of college. I felt sorry for myself and sulked my way to dead end jobs and a hard-partying existence. I rebounded a few years later to finish college and start a career. I learned my first life lesson (or so I thought): It’s all about hard work and getting ahead. I pledged never to fail again.

I married the love of my life, bought a home, and experienced the elation of being a father when our first daughter was born. I was on solid ground and poised to make a big move when my dad died. I took on the challenge of a lifetime by running for public office. I lost the election. After my second daughter was born, I ran again and lost again. Two years later, the third time wasn’t the charm. That was three crushing election losses in six years.

Through their faith, my mom and Sandra tried to reassure me that it wasn’t my time yet. “Be grateful for your family,” they counseled. “Your time will come.” I tried to be grateful, but I yearned for more. I learned my second life lesson (or so I thought): It’s not just about working hard. It’s about working smart too. I realized that I wasn’t ready for public life, so I needed to prepare. I decided to do everything with a strategic purpose.

My plan was to build a career as a successful corporate executive and run for public office again when the time was right. During that time, my mom and big sister passed away. Losing both of them in the same year was devastating. I learned my third life lesson (or so I thought): Life is a mixed bag, so working harder and smarter was the answer. Focusing on my professional goals went into overdrive.

At work, I rose from manager to director to vice president in six years. I served on several community and non-profit boards to raise my public profile. In 2006, the high school board of trustees appointed me to an open seat. My plan was working. I left the corporate world for a leadership role in local politics. I was on the way to my ultimate career goal. With each accomplishment, I inched closer to self-fulfillment and the happiness that would surely come along.

On June 6, 2010, I was on top of the world. Everything was falling into place. The next day changed my life. First, a massive heart attack nearly killed me. Then I went into cardiac arrest. A rare lung condition caused by a crippling side effect almost finished me off. This time around, the third time was the charm. I survived. I was alive.

When I awoke from a medically induced coma later that summer, I was paralyzed from  the sleeping medicine and a couple of months in the intensive care unit. I worked hard to recover. After a year of intense rehabilitation, I went back to work. Things went well for a while until disaster struck again. My career came to an abrupt and heartbreaking end. I had a mortgage, two daughters in college, and bills piling up. I was lost and unsure about the future.

Questions came rushing into my consciousness like a raging river. WHY did I fail at college? WHY did I spiral into alcohol-fueled darkness after that failure? WHY did I lose my parents when I needed stability? WHY did I fail at elective politics? WHY did I have a massive heart attack? WHY did my lungs stop working? WHY did my career end so suddenly and painfully? WHY me? WHY? WHY? WHY?

I turned to Sandra, therapy, our parish priest, and the bookshelves looking for answers. Jesus, the Prophets, Muhammed, Buddha, Ghandi, Mother Teresa all talked about the same thing: acceptance of God’s will, gratitude for the tools He gave you, and using your tools to serve others in His name was the secret to understanding faith. I’ve taken many long walks reflecting and analyzing all that I’ve learned.

I slowed down to appreciate everything around me. For the first time, I heard birds chirping and singing outside of my bedroom window. Slowly and surely, I began to accept the course my life has taken.

I’ve accepted my college failure, thankful that being more mature improved the experience. I’ve accepted that the party years were a reality, grateful that Sandra entered my life during that time. I’ve accepted my parent’s early demise, indebted to the values they bestowed on me. I’ve accepted my election losses, appreciating the resilience the defeats built in my character.

I’ve accepted that the medical crisis during the horrendous summer of 2010 has left me unable to live the life I dreamed up for myself. Through it all, I’m sure many wouldn’t blame me if I lived a bitter life without gratitude. My thankfulness, however, is overflowing. I’ve surrendered to God’s will, grateful for what He has given to me, rather than waging a futile fight for what I wanted.

In addition to the miracle of life, God has given me an abundance of tools to serve Him. Sandra and the girls sustain my life and give me hope to carry on. I have a wonderful extended family that brings joy and happiness to my life. I have good friends that inspire me every day. With these tools, I want to give hope to others by telling my story. I’m sure this was the real plan all along.

Thanks to faith, family, and friends, I’ve learned life’s greatest lesson. It’s all about faith.

The Road to Faith: Part 2 – Gratitude

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My mom – Marie R. García – 1930-2003

In my last post, I began sharing my journey to understanding faith. It’s been an amazing voyage of discovery caused by a life changing heart attack and lung complication. Along the way, I’ve come to learn that faith is accepting God’s will, being grateful for what you have, and serving others. It took a major life event to get me on the road to spiritual discovery. On the road to enlightenment, I discovered that my mom had always understood what I sought to understand.

When I was a kid, she taught us to say, “thank you, God, and thank you, mom” after every meal. Of course, I understood why I was thanking mom. She cooked the meals. The real reason for thanking God never really dawned on me. It was a ritual, I thought, like everything else about church: sitting and standing at the appropriate times, praying the “Our Father,” taking Communion, and reciting responses after the priest gave a blessing.

For my mom, all of these actions and words were rooted in her deep faith. Through the course of a day, you could hear her say, “si Dios quiere” (God willing), “gracias a Dios” (thank God), and “Dios te bendiga” (God bless you), as part of any kind of discussion she was having with someone. Those weren’t mere sayings to her. She was a person who put herself in God’s hands. She was patient, understanding, and thoughtful no matter the situation, good or bad.

And, she was grateful. As I became older and more financially secure, I started to notice the beautiful simplicity of her life. Her children and grandchildren were her prized “possessions.” When we bought our homes and filled them with, in her words, “nice things,” she beamed with pride. When she passed away, she had the same round kitchen table, simple living room furniture, basic dinette, and plain bedroom set that I remember as a boy. She appreciated every bit of it. I never heard her yearn for more or complain about what she didn’t have.

While tirelessly climbing the corporate ladder trying to redeem myself from life’s “failures,” I found time to visit my mom in the morning on the way to work about once a week. I loved to see her eyes brighten and the smile on her face when she opened the door. She would give me a warm hug before escorting me to that old round table in the kitchen so she could fix breakfast for me.

I felt safe in the comfortable cocoon of 48 Viewmont Avenue. With a plate of papas and a couple of over-easy eggs, a cup of coffee, and warm tortillas in front of me (she usually didn’t eat), mom would want to hear about the girls and ask me to regale her with tales about my business travels. She wanted to hear all about places she had never visited: Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

Her favorite stories were my descriptive narratives about the Lincoln Memorial, the U.S. Capitol, and the White House. She always thanked me saying how much she would love to see those places someday, “si Dios quiere.” After saying “thank you God, and thank you mom,” I would head for the front door to walk out into the wild and wooly world that was my life. With a hug, she said, “have a good day mijo, que Dios te bendiga, give my love to my babies,” and sent me on my way.

Gratitude, and its connection to contentment, is the foundation of almost every religious and spiritual movement in the world. Fredrick Koeing, an 18th century inventor, put it this way, “We tend to forget that happiness doesn’t come as a result of getting something we don’t have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have.” The concept is simple. To live a happy and fulfilling life, one only has to be truly thankful for all that God has provided.

My mom understood that. She lived that. I really believe that she had a happy and fulfilling life. The struggles of living and the heartbreak of losing loved ones didn’t deter her from being grateful. She didn’t know her father, and experienced the grief of losing a daughter, her husband, and her mother. She wasn’t surrounded with “nice” things and she never visited the places she dreamed about. Nevertheless, she was truly thankful for what she had and appreciated every day of life God gave to her.

In my obsessive pursuit of redemption from failure, I believed that I would find true happiness and fulfillment. With each accomplishment, I thought I was taking another step toward that special place. All the while, I never once stopped to reflect and appreciate what God had given to me. I single-mindedly marched forward to reach for additional professional responsibilities, a bigger office, more prestigious titles, and showed my appreciation by acquiring “nice things” for me and my family.

I didn’t understand what it meant to be grateful the way my mom understood it. It would take a life-threatening medical crisis to feel the grace of God the way my mom did. I hope to share more about my faith and the power of gratitude in future posts, “si Dios quiere.” Stay tuned!

 

The Road to Faith: Part 1 – Acceptance

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Several days ago, on a group chat with some friends and family, a few of us were discussing the power of trusting in God. At the end of the chat, I reflected a little more than usual on my personal faith journey. For those who endured the summer of 2010 with me, the life-changing 100-day nightmare in the ICU, hospital, and rehab miraculously came to a joyful end almost eight years ago. For me, the experience is a daily reminder of the power of faith.

I’ve learned that having faith is the key to understanding our place in this uncertain and ever-changing world. As is my nature, I went to the bookshelves to unravel the mystery of faith. A dear friend introduced me to the writings of 1st-century Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius and Pope Francis. My brother David shared New-Age writings about God. Other friends recommended that I delve into the works of Muhammed, Buddha, Gandhi,  and Paulo Coelho.

Reading such diverse viewpoints on a common theme inspired me to dig deeper into my own religious upbringing and tradition. The words of Jesus Christ and the Gospels are more meaningful to me as a result of studying the recommended literature. I came to realize that faith can come in many forms, yet the foundation of faith in all its forms is based on making a full commitment to acceptance, gratitude, and caring for others. Upon deep reflection of my literary exploration, I also realized that a devotion to faith is also at the core of happiness.

It all seems so simple: Belief in God (or your version of a higher power) + faith = peace and happiness. Unfortunately, like almost anything that brings true joy in life, adhering to that equation is easier said than done. Can you imagine what the world would be like if everybody applied that formula to their own lives? We would live in paradise. Of course, we know that not to be true.

So how do we apply this commitment of faith to our day-to-day lives? For nearly four years, this question has consumed my thoughts. Life is a winding road filled with potholes and roadblocks that can keep us from getting to our destination. To overcome these challenges, we need a roadmap that can lead us in the right direction. That map is the word of God delivered through his many disciples.

I value and respect the right of people to practice their religion or philosophical tradition, including those who don’t believe in God. Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson once told a friend that his grandfather said, “religion is like a mother. However good your friend’s mother may be, you cannot forsake your own.”  In the spirit of Gandhi, I trust in the roadmap drawn by my Catholic Christian tradition.

The first step in understanding faith is the full acceptance of the way things and circumstances are, rather than how you want them to be. Marcus Aurelius put it this way, “Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.” That’s powerful advice. At first glance it doesn’t jive with a “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” philosophy.

On one hand, God tells us to accept what we have and on the other hand He didn’t settle for a small following. I struggled with this inconsistency. Recently at Sunday mass, the priest shared Jesus’ Parable of the Three Servants (Matthew 25:14-30). The moral to the story is that God gives us all a set of tools and rewards those who make the best of what they have. That resolved my dilemma. God gave Jesus the means to expand His flock. In other words, He wants us to accept what we have and do the best we can with it.

Three major events reveal how the road to fully accepting God’s will has impacted my life. The first incident happened in 1983. After a rocky start at San Jose State University, I failed miserably. The university disqualified me for poor academic performance at the end of my third semester. I couldn’t accept what happened. It was a crushing blow that spiraled into years of drinking, partying, and working dead end jobs.

Rather than accepting the disqualification as a mere technical hiccup on my academic record, I sought to cover up the pain of that “failure” by vowing to never fail again. I worked tirelessly to get reinstated to SJSU and continued working relentlessly after graduation to rid myself of the failure demons that haunted me. I married Sandra and we had a family. I found success in the corporate world and in public service, but the demons never went away.

The second episode was a series of “failures” between 1996 and 2008. Although I eventually had the great privilege to serve my community as a school trustee, I lost four elections during that time. I refused to accept what happened after each defeat so I worked hard to erase these “failures” from my psyche. As an appointed school trustee, I labored restlessly and prepared for election as a popular incumbent in 2010.

The third life event was a massive heart attack and a rare lung complication that struck that summer. There was no election for me. All my dreams came crashing down. When I awoke from a medically induced coma two months later, I was paralyzed as my muscles deteriorated while I lay motionless on a hospital bed. I didn’t want to accept what happened to me. I was depressed and contemplated giving up, something I had never done before. Sandra summoned the hospital chaplain. Her name was Terry Becker.

Terry talked about the power of accepting God’s gifts. It was a miracle to survive two harrowing medical events, she said. I was paralyzed from loss of muscle strength, instead of blunt physical trauma like a car accident. Physical rehabilitation will make me like new. God had given me the tools to recover. I just needed to accept what happened and use what God provided. I took a chance and decided to give myself completely to God’s will.

That changed everything. The story has a happy ending. It started with accepting what is, rather than what should be. I also turned to acceptance to expel the college disqualification and election failure demons from my soul. I now understand that those events weren’t failures, but merely stepping stones toward fulfilling my destiny. I’ll write more on that in future posts.

The end of that part of my story doesn’t mean that challenges disappear. Real life is quite the contrary. The loss of my executive salary and financing two college educations make our financial struggles seem impossible to overcome at times. Parenting two adult daughters is no easy task. Advising and coaching replaces scolding and reprimanding when they make risky and unwise decisions. This leads to many sleepless nights. The rollercoaster of managing personal and professional relationships is never ending. That’s life.

All of these obstructions on the roadway of life can cause extreme pain if we don’t have a trusty map to get us through safely.  Each of the world’s religions and philosophies has a map. I rely on God’s word as told in the accounts of Jesus and his Apostles to chart a safe course forward. Their stories provide me with a guide to confront any situation that may cross my path.

The first step in the journey is accepting what is. Gratitude and caring for others come next, there will be more on that later. Taken together, practicing these three acts of faith have brought true joy and happiness to my life. It can do the same for you. You just have to have faith.

Latino Leadership Alliance & Servant Leadership

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Professor Tomas Jimenez working with Cohort 9 on the beautiful Stanford campus – August 2017

In 2015, San Jose City Councilmember Raul Peralez joined four of his colleagues to co-sponsor the creation of the City’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. The office, established a year later, is the first of its kind California. Public school administrator Sandra García served on the design team that created Adelante Dual Language Academy in east San Jose. In 2013, the Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce named her “Principal of the Year” for her contributions to the award winning school.

Marco Ramirez, President and CEO of the DeHaro and Ramirez Group, founded the firm eighteen years ago. His company specializes in concrete construction for major public and private commercial projects. Lupe Rodriguez is on the front lines of women’s advocacy in Silicon Valley. As Chair of the Santa Clara County Commission on the Status Women, she signed a memorandum of understanding to create an innovative Jail Monitoring Program designed to protect women.

These four exceptional people are talented and visionary leaders in their communities. They have another thing in common – they spent nearly a year sharpening their leadership skills with the Latino Leadership Alliance Leadership Academy (LLA) and Stanford Summer Leadership Program. The LLA, a non-profit organization, was established in 2006 to empower civic leadership in the Latino community by identifying, developing, and supporting leaders.

In 2010, the LLA launched its Academy to help build leadership within Latino communities by putting into practice the philosophy of servant leadership based on the Four Pillars of Community Leadership – an operational model pioneered by one its founders. The four pillars are: Business, Community Service, Education, and Politics and Government. Academy alumni have demonstrated that effective management of the model leads to meaningful and lasting change in the community.

The Academy is a unique three-phase executive leadership training program that incorporates a: (1) Monthly Seminar Series, (2) Stanford Summer Leadership Program, and (3) Cohort Network. The Monthly Seminar Series includes leadership skill development, free flowing discussions, and influential guest speakers. The Stanford Summer Leadership Program is a three-day, two night retreat hosted by the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity on the Stanford University campus. The Cohort Network provides for ongoing discussion and resource sharing among the Cohorts.

To date, eight cohorts (ninety-eight participants) have completed the academy. In addition to the leaders mentioned above, cohorts include scores of business and non-profit executives, school administrators, and elected officials. Together, they serve on over 50 local, state, and federal government commissions and non-profit boards. Many LLA Cohorts have become lifelong friends who collaborate on projects that benefit the Latino community.

Although the LLA is a family of servant leaders passionate about the Latino community, the organization doesn’t participate in political campaigns, advocate on behalf of issues, or provide frontline community services. The mission is clear: it’s a leadership training and development organization. The LLA  provides a safe learning environment for leaders to explore innovative ideas and sharpen the skills necessary to effectively do all of the above.

This week, the LLA released its application for the 2018 Academy. We seek smart and talented professionals who aspire to lead. Through a rigorous process, the selection committee focuses on candidates with a sincere passion and commitment to serve others. The application is due on January 15, 2018.

If you want to be part of the LLA family and support our philosophy of servant leadership, we would love you to consider joining an amazing team of leaders by applying for Cohort 9 today!

For questions or to request an application, please e-mail info@latinoleadershipalliance.org or eddie.m.garcia@comcast.net

 

 

 

 

 

Taking a Knee for America

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Eric Wright and Colin Kapernick. Image by Michael Slate

The guy in the White House got to me last weekend. He ruined my NFL Sunday. My stomach churned with frustration, anger, sadness, and helplessness. It was like someone punched me in the gut. I wasn’t even watching my awful, but beloved San Francisco 49ers. This time,the reason for my discomfort was the president’s attack on NFL players who kneel during the national anthem.

The unpleasant sensation stayed with me all day on Sunday. The contention that kneeling is disrespectful to our nation’s veterans and military personnel has been nagging at my insides since the media frenzy produced the usual suspects of pro and anti talking heads. The ensuing rhetorical storm has me rethinking my lifelong beliefs when it comes to the Star Spangled Banner.

My dad was a World War II veteran. Although he rarely talked about his experience, I beam with pride every time I mention his service to someone. I’ll never forget my first baseball game with him, the Dodgers vs. Giants in 1971. When my dad and every other fan in windswept Candlestick Park stood in unison for the traditional pre-game song, I was a proud 7 year-old with hand over heart standing right alongside him.

My dad’s service in World War II led to my fascination and lifelong love of American history. I went on to earn a college degree in history. I appreciate why our Founding Fathers risked their lives to start a new country. I understand the Constitution and the discussions that led to its ratification. I researched how our nation rose to be a global superpower and a force of good in the world. From the deepest part of my core, I believe in the values outlined in the Bill of Rights.

I also know all too well the devastation brought on by America’s dependence on slavery, and the tragedy of Native American genocide in the name of progress and destiny. I’ve studied the Civil Rights Movement and America’s brutal reaction to each gain made during that era. It’s not a pretty picture, to be sure. The United States of America is far from the “more perfect union” envisioned by the Founders. Nevertheless, we are the greatest and freest nation the world has ever seen.

With that said, the Star Spangled Banner holds a special place in my heart and soul. I still get chills every time I hear it. With hand on heart, I listen to the familiar tune and watch the Star and Stripes freely wave in the wind. I think of my dad serving on the USS Wasp in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. I think of our heroes – George Washington to Barack Obama, Ulysses S. Grant to our commanders in the War on Terror. I’m proud to be American. I’m proud of our flag. I’m proud of our national anthem.

From the moment that Colin Kapernick set his knee upon the turf, I’ve been torn by this issue. Emotionally, I couldn’t imagine not rising for the anthem. It’s been part of my life since that cold windy night at Candlestick Park. Intellectually, I have absolute respect for the Bill of Rights and what it means to our democracy. For a year and half, I’ve managed to straddle the line between emotional allegiance to my boyhood and intellectual adherence to everything I know about what the United States represents, good and bad.

The president’s attack and the players’ reaction, however, have forced me to rethink my position. In terms of personal integrity, I know that I can no longer be on both sides. The fundamental question is whether the action taken by the players is disrespectful or a peaceful exercise of freedom of speech.

There are those who believe that this discussion is trivial in light of the natural disasters that have impacted so many around the world lately. I disagree. The debate goes to the heart of our nation’s value system and it’s worthy of discussion even during these trying times. The American spirit can multi-task. We can still hold our government accountable to natural disaster response while the anthem conversation continues.

To understand my thought process on this issue, a brief history lesson is required. The United States was born under the compromise of slavery. When the Civil War settled that issue, the law and social structures created two Americas: one for white men and one for everyone else. With the exception of a few victories like allowing women the vote, almost no progress was made until Rosa Parks sat at the front of the bus nearly 100 years after the Civil War.

Then, to quote my dad, “all hell broke loose.”

Civil rights, the Free Speech Movement on college campuses, hippies, the Equal Rights Movement, the LGBTQ Movement, and race riots all came raining down on the established social structure that made rural white America comfortable. The backlash began with Richard M. Nixon’s election as president. Rural white America wrapped themselves in our flag and proclaimed it as their flag.

The backlash reached its first boiling point at the 1992 Republican National Convention when Patrick Buchanan, a candidate for the Republican nomination for president, stepped up the podium to deliver what came to be known as his “Culture War” speech. We rarely hear about it today, but his angry tone and his words are seared into my memory. He was literally calling for war.

Buchanan is a former Nixon speechwriter and an ancestor of the current Alt-Right Movement – the guys who are against everything that’s not white and Christian. His speech began by outlining the cause for ills in our society: people of color, feminists, non-Christians, LGBTQ. He finished the speech with these ominous words, “we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country” to an adoring and cheering crowd. It was clear who he meant by “we” and “our.”

Thank God he lost. The culture warriors – Neo-Nazis, KKK, white supremacists, all other assortment of racists – were forced to recede into the shadows. Then everything changed when the 45th President of the United States was elected. Their messiah had arrived and the dream of a white Christian only America became a de facto possibility.

I’m not sure if the president is a stooge for the generals prosecuting the Culture War or the Culture War Commander in Chief. I guess it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that we are in the midst of Pat Buchanan’s Culture War. For me, the fight isn’t about the American flag. The fight is for the American flag. We can’t stand idly by and allow the culture warriors to claim sole ownership of our flag. We must engage the battle to ensure that our flag belongs to all of us, even those who disagree with our government.

The flag is a symbol of the freedoms that makes us Americans, not of any one person or event. It’s been a long and tortuous journey of reflection since Kapernick kneeled down. I have friends who praise him and others who demonize him. That’s their right. I’ve thought long and hard on what I should do. That’s my right. And I want to keep it that way.

Of all the awful things the president had said and done since he descended the escalator more than a year ago to announce his candidacy, this one has impacted me the most. I’m an American, a third generation American. I resent having to write that sentence every time I do. But writing it reminds me not to allow anyone tell me otherwise. No person, no president has the right to question my birthright or tell me how to honor my country.

Until our government gets serious about resolving the issues raised by Colin Kapernick, I plan to honor our flag and our song by placing my hand over heart and kneeling or sitting whenever and wherever I hear the Star Spangled Banner.

I will do this in honor of my dad and all others who have risked their lives for my freedom. I will do this in honor of all those who bravely fight everyday for equal treatment guaranteed by our Bill of Rights. I will do this in honor of the country I love.

This hasn’t been an easy decision for me. My stomach feels queasy as I write, but my conscience is satisfied. I know some people will call me a fool or unpatriotic or worse. That’s okay. This is a personal decision. I’m not encouraging others to flow suit. Each one of us should do as we choose without fear of reprisal. Thank God, our flag gives us that right.

Be a Trailblazer

Inside IT: Blazing Trails of Innovation
Image by managingamericans.com

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to work with two Latino high school students from Los Banos, California. They sought advice and coaching on their oral presentation for a national science competition. The boys were freshmen who had defeated older and more experienced students at the local, regional, and state contests. They wanted to sharpen the presentation that led to the national finals in Philadelphia.

The duo had collaborated on creating a prosthetic arm. The device was an impressive contraption. Their presentation was excellent and needed just a few adjustments on style and substance. It was clear to me from the outset that these young men were engineers in the making who have the talent and potential to be executives someday.

I was giddy about their unlimited futures until reality set in. The Washington Post printed an article in February that confirms what Latinos in Silicon Valley already know to be true – Latinas and Latinos are grossly underrepresented in the valley’s workforce, especially in management.

Apple, Inc. was highlighted in the Post article. The piece indicated that “only 7 percent of the (company’s) leadership is Latino and 3 percent is black, according to Apple’s website. Blacks and Hispanics each make up 8 percent of the company’s tech workers.” That’s double the percentage of other major high-tech firms. Twitter is in the basement with only 2% of its workforce identifying as Latino.

Unfortunately at Apple, the lack of diversity isn’t changing anytime soon. The Post article cited an Apple spokesman speaking off the record “that the company prefers to promote within its ranks, so change at the senior level will take time.” Without a doubt, the rest of Silicon Valley maintains the same hiring and promotion practices.

Silicon Valley managers have long pointed out that there’s a lack of qualified Latino candidates and the education system isn’t providing a pipeline of talented people of color. This is a common response for organizations and institutions that claim that the problem exists with the talent pool, not hiring practices. It’s noteworthy that the National Society of Hispanic MBAs alone has over 30,000 members in 40 chapters across the country, including Silicon Valley. Somehow that fact has evaded Valley decision-makers.

It’s clear that Silicon Valley has some work to do in recruiting Latino talent. According to a 2015 Washington Post article, Valley executives were beginning to understand that there are “unconscious biases that have given preference to white men.” Two years have passed without any progress and it could be decades before the bias demons are exorcised.

Latino professionals can’t afford to wait for society to catch up with the reality that there is a large pool of candidates already in the pipeline. In the meantime, what are smart, talented, and ambitious Latina and Latino professionals to do?

Be a trailblazer. Take matters into your owns hands.  Here are few tips to get you started:

  1. Work Hard

I’m not going to sugarcoat this. Getting ahead takes an enormous amount of effort, commitment, and perseverance. There’s no other way around it. All of the successful people I’ve ever encountered were passionate and dedicated to their craft. This can take a million hours a week or far less, it just depends how you manage your time. Just make sure to give it your all. A college education gets you to the front door. Hard work gets you to the corner office.

As I made my way up the corporate org chart from manager to director to vice president, I was the first to raise my hand when upper management was looking for someone to take on an extra project. When the corporate office executives needed support for an initiative, I packed my bags and traveled throughout the country to lend a helping hand. It’s not just about working hard, it’s about working smart too. The hardest and smartest working employees get first crack at a promotion.

  1. Find a Mentor

Learning to master a craft from a successful person is the best education you’ll ever get. Former U.S. Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice once said that aspiring leaders should, “search for role models you can look up to and people who take an interest in your career.” In my career, the best mentors have been people who truly cared about my future. I’ve been blessed to have five men in my professional life that fulfilled that role.

The most valuable asset each of these men brought to me was a sincere interest in my growth and development as a leader. There are people like this in everyone’s life. You need to identify them and seek their guidance. One more piece of advice from Secretary Rice, “you don’t have to have mentors who look like you.” Just make sure that they genuinely care about your potential as a leader.

  1. Keep Learning

According to Pulitzer Prize historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, this concept is one of the ten qualities that made President Abraham Lincoln a great leader. Lincoln spent countless hours with generals in the White House and on the front lines of battle to better understand the science of warfare and the causes and effects of his decisions. He’s perhaps our nation’s greatest wartime president.

Make your personal development a priority. As a student of Goodwin’s theory, I’ve never hesitated at an opportunity to take advantage of leadership development. I studied community leadership as a fellow with the American Leadership Forum of Silicon Valley and corporate leadership with the Comcast Executive Leadership Forum. Today, I continue to learn from the talented people I encounter in my role as an executive coach.

The most exciting thing about the Latino future is that it’s happening right now. As a Latino professional, you have a chance to chart your own leadership path until the rest of society recognizes that you have what it takes to move into the corner office. There are countless Latinas and Latinos in the pipeline. Those two young men from Los Banos and others like them are counting on you to lead the way.

P.S. The boys earned second place in the national competition!!

Be a Risk-Taker

36080059-businessman-and-businesswoman-shaking-hands-in-modern-office
Image by 123RF.com

In my last post, I wrote about how the ability to take a risk is a key factor in growing personally and professionally. Not possessing the inborn inclination to step out of comfort zones could be a major barrier to that growth. Can people who aren’t natural gamblers learn how to undertake calculated chances? The short answer is, “yes.” I believe that anyone can learn how to take on new opportunities that are uncomfortable.

In my work coaching emerging Latina and Latino leaders, I’ve learned that the fear of losing a well-paid and comfortable position keeps many talented people from seeking leadership and executive roles. From my own experience and through many years of thinking about this issue, I believe that the way society views Latinos and our acceptance of that perspective are the leading causes of the reluctance to push the career advancement envelope.

I can’t say for sure what comes to mind when non-Latinos think about the Latino community. Given a lifetime of interactions with people from all walks of life, I can say that the perception isn’t very good, not to mention grossly inaccurate. Images of Latino drug dealers, gangsters, “illegal” immigrants, and welfare moochers flood the media.

The good news is that in recent years we’ve reversed the “lazy” myth as most Americans now believe that Latinos have a strong work ethic. The bad news is that belief applies only to those who toil in menial and back-breaking physical work. The white-collar Latino hasn’t even reached the American consciousness yet.

Despite a growing population and modest inroads in economic and political influence, generalized (and negative) Latino impressions still result in unjust misunderstandings. How do I know this? In more than two decades working at the highest levels of the corporate, local government, and education worlds, I’ve heard non-Latinos say the darnedest things about us. I don’t believe these off-the-cuff comments are made in malice or with racist intent. The comments are just plain ignorant.

Latino professionals subconsciously participate in the perpetuation of these images. We tend to play it safe once we’ve “made it.” When the discussion in the conference room gets heated, we shy away from engaging in the ruckus. Our working-class upbringing teaches us to work hard, and keep our heads down and mouths shut. Let’s be honest, white folks in power positions can be intimidating. We’re worried that we might say something wrong, or worse, something stupid. We’ve all been there.

There’s some justification for that reluctance to speak out. This reality was played out last week on the national stage when Senator Kamala Harris (a black woman who served as a prosecutor and California’s attorney general before election to the senate) was rudely reprimanded by Senators John McCain and Richard Burr for “harassing” Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a senate hearing. No other senator on that panel was subjected to that kind of intrusion. Senator Harris, a seasoned interrogator, continued her questioning without missing a beat.

Society has a way of making people of color, even those in leadership positions, appear a cut below their colleagues. That could lead to self-doubt. How can we respond like Senator Harris? The solution is for you to just believe in yourself. Sounds easy, huh? Confronting the fear of taking risks and fighting negative stereotypes can be discouraging and tiring. But you have to step out of your comfort zone to advance.

I don’t mean the “fake it ‘til you make it” philosophy that seems to be all the rage today. That doesn’t work. You should never fake it! By definition, that means that you’re not qualified. I’m talking about taking stock of your successes and confirming that you’re the real deal.

I’m currently working with a Latina executive who’s contemplating a career change. She has extensive experience in her field and has progressively advanced to higher leadership roles in the organization. Her teams have earned several industry awards in addition to the individual recognition mementos that gather on her desk.

She has three options in front of her: (1) make a lateral move into management at her organization’s headquarters, (2) seek advancement opportunities within the industry, or (3) stay in her current role. I’ve advised her to take a serious look at options #2 and #1, in that order. Both are risky. Her initial response was to question her own qualifications and preparedness.

We did a simple exercise to get that absurd notion out of her mind. She dusted off her resume and started listing her professional accomplishments and accolades. When the dust settled, she had an amazing resume that impressed even herself! She had been so busy being successful that she didn’t realize the extent of her experience and preparation.

Once it was on paper, I could see in her eyes that she truly believed in herself. She’s still nervous about the possibility of taking a leap. The natural sense of anxiety that comes with stretching one’s boundaries will still linger as she thinks about her next move. At least she now believes that she has what it takes to achieve her goals.

The moral of this story is to block out influences that are barriers to your success, obstacles like fear of taking professional risks and the negative effect society has on our tendency toward self-doubt. These are powerful forces in keeping talented Latinas and Latinos from striving to occupy the corner office.

As a Latino professional, you’ve educated yourself and work hard. Learn how to take regular stock of your accomplishments to remind yourself that you have professional value and worth. This will give you the confidence needed to take that risk that will lead to the next level in your personal and professional life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Take a Leap Into Leadership

Washington
Image by google.com

Freezing rain couldn’t dampen my excitement the first time I went to Washington, D.C. Looking out of the window into the night sky during the unsteady landing at Ronald Reagan National Airport, the sight of the glowing Capitol Dome, Washington Monument, and Lincoln Memorial was mesmerizing. This was also my first trip to the east coast. I was in my mid-30s and a manager at a large telecommunications company.

The regional VP of the department had asked if I was interested in participating in scheduled meetings on Capitol Hill in place of her boss who was unable to go. I saw this as an incredible opportunity given that I had been with the company for just 6 months and no one else at my pay grade would attend. I had never left Sandra and the girls for an extended period of time – Marisa was 4 years old and Erica 8 months. This was uncharted territory for me.

When I told Sandra, she asked if I had to go. I hadn’t thought of that question and didn’t know how to answer. We both grew up in working-class neighborhoods where it was common knowledge that extra work meant overtime pay. I learned in my first job out of college that that wasn’t the case in the professional world. Added to the fact that there was no financial benefit to going, I had a young family at home to think about. Did I have to go or did I want to go?

Making the trip would be a calculated risk. If I made a fool of myself, a career with that company probably would have ended sooner than later. If I stayed home, I probably could have had a comfortable career as a manager. If I performed well during the trip, my opportunities with the company could grow. I came to realize that the question was a false dilemma. The answer to both questions was “yes.”

Twenty years later, the thought of deliberating about such a simple opportunity seems quaint. But at the time, it was a big deal. When I decided to make the trip, the conversation with Sandra was somewhat tense. Sandra and I lived in our childhood homes until we were married, our fathers worked at the same jobs for decades, we rarely ventured out of the neighborhood. Family first and being home for dinner were considerations when making social or career decisions.

I remember being a boy listening to my dad’s friends talking about work. Hourly wages, fringe benefits, and keeping a good job forever topped the conversations. The men I looked up to would list the many reasons not to seek advancement: too much pressure and responsibility, salaried employees didn’t get overtime pay for extra work, too risky.

Sound familiar? For many working-class families, taking chances could lead to disaster. Giving up a good job for something that might not work out could put paying the bills in jeopardy. Once you have a good job, the older men would say, playing it safe and not rocking the boat is the smart thing to do. However, I was now in a different world with different rules.

I encourage those who were raised in a similar environment to be confident in your education and experience. Take a leap into the world of leadership and opportunity.

The ability to venture out of comfort zones is a rare quality. Those who are born with this trait are innovators and game changers. They’re not afraid of failure and rejection. They keep taking chances with the sincere belief that the next attempt at success will be triumphant. Thomas Edison personifies this type of person with his oft-quoted observation, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

In my work developing, supporting, and advising Latino leaders, I’ve seen how reluctance to take risks can be a barrier to personal and professional growth. I understand the hesitation. I’ve been there. This is a common thread with both mid-career professionals and high school students. The pros get anxious about losing a job or a title on a business card. Kids fear putting themselves out there to be ridiculed by their classmates.

We all know that getting ahead requires hard work and dedication. But that’s just part of the equation. Stretching oneself intellectually and professionally is needed as well. Those who don’t have the natural tendency to embrace uncomfortable situations must overcome their concerns about the prospect of failure. The best way to do that is by taking on uneasy and unfamiliar roles.

That’s what I did during my first trip to Washington, D.C. two decades ago. Although I had a minor function during the meetings, I held my own. When the VP noticed me chatting with my congressional representative and local elected officials in the hotel lobby after-hours, she recognized me as someone who could provide value to the company. That week turned out to be the first step in a climb up the corporate ladder.

I learned an important lesson on my first journey back east. Taking risks, although riddled with unknowns, results in personal and professional growth. Can taking risks be learned? I think so. I’ll share my thoughts on that topic next time.

 

INVEST IN YOURSELF

latino_professionals
Image by eliteinterp.com

Taking a scroll through social media could lead you to believe that Latinos are thriving in Silicon Valley. This is partly true. Although a vast majority of Latinos continue to struggle economically in the one of the country’s most expensive places to live, there’s a burgeoning Latino middle class driven by higher college enrollment and graduation rates. As a community, we still have a long way to go. Fortunately, we’re headed in the right direction.

Those of us who have taken advantage of education and career opportunities invest in comfortable living spaces, luxury cars, and exotic vacation destinations. Who can blame us? Growing up on the east side, I never imagined that one day I would be able to relax on the shores of Maui or sip a rum and coke in old San Juan. When I was promoted to a VP position, I literally ran out and bought my dream car.

We deserve these opportunities as fruits of our labors, right? Damn right…with one caveat. These are short-term investments that may or may not yield more opportunities for the future. I’m not just talking about financial investments. I’m talking about you investing in yourself. Investing time into your personal and professional development is just as important as maxing out on your 401K plan (I hope you’re doing this).

Here’s why: Smart, talented, and compassionate Latinos like you need to seek out leadership roles in business, education, politics, and community service. These four sectors form the core of any successful community. State demographers project that more than one out of every two Californians will be Latino by 2030 (that’s only 13 years from now, folks). Economists say that the 24-55 age group needs to be successful for a community to be economically stable.

Today, California is the 5th largest economy in the world. I’m not that great at math, but I can see the numbers clearly on this one. California needs Latinas and Latinos to fill business, education, political, and community leadership roles for the state to maintain its role as a global economic powerhouse.

The statistics today in all four sectors are abysmal. For example, Latinos represent just 9% of public school administrators in California, and that’s the highest rate of the four sectors. The tech industry doesn’t even release those numbers. Recently, Google shared with Congress that Latinos make up 3% of its entire workforce. One can only imagine what the executive suite and management offices look like.

This data brings me back to Latinas and Latinos making investments in personal and professional growth. I’m not suggesting that you stop treating yourself to fancy (my mom’s word) things, cars, and vacations. I encourage you to balance those investments with a solid retirement plan, personal growth opportunities, and community service. Investing your time and treasure in yourself will pay financial, self-fulfillment, and public benefit dividends many times over.

Beside earning a college degree, the two most valuable investments I made in my personal and professional growth was participating in the American Leadership Forum of Silicon Valley and the Comcast Executive Leadership Forum. Combined, these programs came at a busy time in my life. My family and career were growing. I participated in both programs my own time and partly on my dime. Fortunately, Comcast financially sponsored my participation in these high-profile leadership development organizations.

For two years, I invested time in what equated to having an additional part-time job, without pay. Raised in a working-class Latino family, doing work without getting paid wasn’t looked upon too favorably. Once I overcame that cultural barrier, I embarked on a set of experiences that was priceless. I learned from and worked alongside some of the country’s top executives and academics. The skills culled from the forums laid the foundation for my future leadership endeavors.

It’s time that you too invest in yourself personally and professionally. It will make all the difference in the world when you walk into a conference room with confidence or knock on your boss’s door to explain why you deserve that coveted promotion. Self-investment comes in many forms: leadership programs, additional education, a personal coach, spending quality time with a trusted mentor. The best results come from taking advantage of all of the above.

Self-investment is a concept that we Latinos are still trying to understand. We’re taught to take care of everyone else first, but we need to understand that taking care of ourselves will make us better caretakers. Don’t fall into the trap of, “I don’t have time” and “I don’t have enough money.”

There will be an abundance of executive, administrative, and public service positions available to smart, talented, and ambitious Latinas and Latinos over the next two decades and into the foreseeable future. You’ll need the personal and professional skills required to step into a leadership role when opportunity comes knocking.  Balance how you use your money and time. Invest in yourself. You’ll be happy that you did.