Thursday, March 31, 2011

Our History Is Our Strength

By Guest Blogger, NWPC President, Lulu Flores

How often have we heard or used the phrase, “we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us”? I, for one, have heard it countless times; and for me it is a phrase that is filled with meaning. For truly, had it not been for the women who came before me, who paved the road to equality with their blood, sweat and tears, who provided me with hard-earned rights and opportunities and who taught me valuable life lessons, I would not be where I am today.  None of us would. Whether it be the sheroes of yesterday who fought for the rights we now exercise daily, or our mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, friends and neighbors who had a hand in shaping our character and morality, we owe all these women a huge debt of gratitude.  
The fact that many of us may not be aware of the contributions made by women is sad, but not too surprising given that until relatively recently, history was recorded by men, and thus only partially written and partially told. It’s as if we neglected to use vital colors in painting the portrait of this nation. Women were long denied proper, or even any, acknowledgment for the part they played in shaping their communities and this country. Because of this, generations before us were deprived of an important piece of their heritage; both girls and boys were denied important role models.  
So, it is only fitting that this country now recognizes the contributions of women and pays special tribute to them during the month of March every year. Honoring women's contributions went from an idea, to an act of Congress and grew from one week to an entire month. And this year’s theme, Our History is Our Strength, is fitting. The only way we are truly able to appreciate who we are is to know from where we came and to learn about the struggles and successes of those who came before us. By learning our history and understanding our culture, we cultivate self esteem and pride in who we are.
And as the Executive Director of the National Women’s History Project noted: “This year, rather than highlighting national figures,” the Project is “encouraging individuals to discover stories about the women in their own families and communities. (Because) knowing the challenges these women faced, grappled with, and overcame can be an enormous source of strength to all of us.”
My story begins here in Laredo, Texas in 1955 at Mercy Hospital. I am the last of nine children born to Francisco J and Ernestina Flores. My father was a lawyer and elected official here in Webb County. He practiced law for over 40 years and served as County Tax Assessor–Collector for 20 years. His brother Porfirio L. Flores was the Webb County Sheriff for over 20 years as well.
My mother, Ernestina, or Nena, as she was widely known, was the oldest of nine children born to my grandmother, Antonia Garcia Saldana and grandfather Miguel Saldana. My grandmother was widowed before 50 and she became the matriarch of our family. She was my first role model of a strong, wise woman. She was loving and gentle but strong as steel and she taught us all about love of family and the importance of always putting family before any material things.
My mother taught me about sacrifice: she gave up her college education so she could go to work and help her mother raise the rest of their family during the Great Depression. She then married and raised her own family of nine. When I was about 10, my mother became a teacher, then an apparel shop manager. Throughout, she was a community servant–she was active in church and civic organizations and never turned away a soul who was in need of help. Her sister Irene also went to work and eventually worked for US Customs for over twenty five years, starting as a clerk in 1943 and working her way up to Import Specialist in 1966. I admired her greatly because she was single and had a career–a good paying job that gave her independence, and she traveled the world with her friends. I wanted to be just like her–and probably developed my love of travel because of her. She was a strong role model who gave me the confidence to pursue a career and remain single until I found one.
I attended Ursuline Academy and learned many things from the Ursuline Sisters who were pioneers in education in Laredo and educated so many of our early civic leaders. Under their rigorous academic guidance, and that of many gifted and dedicated lay women teachers, I learned the value of education and to strive for excellence.
As the last of nine children, I grew up with a competitive streak. I not only wanted to do everything my older brothers and sisters did, I had the advantage of learning from them and my cousins’ mistakes and from their successes. My oldest sister, for example, declared that she would attend college–a privilege that, at first, my father had only considered for the boys.  Granted she did go to Incarnate Word so she could be under the strict eye of the nuns, but she nevertheless left town and set the standard for us to follow. Being only five at the time, it made a huge impression on me. From then on, I was college bound!
It didn’t take me long to figure out that i wanted to become a lawyer. Having grown up playing in my father’s office, and having my oldest brother away at UT Law–another standard was set for me–I pretty much decided by grade school that i was going to attend UT Law, become a lawyer and go into politics like my dad. The fact that i was a girl did not deter me in the slightest. I just knew that whatever the boys could do, i could do, maybe even better! It never dawned on me then that there would be many challenges and institutional obstacles ahead of me.
My sisters and I grew up playing with our brothers, cousins and neighborhood boys, so it was only natural that I started challenging the boys at the all-boys school I attended my senior year. (Ursuline had to close its junior and senior classes due to financial difficulties and so my classmates and I attended St. Joseph’s Academy, the school my three brothers had also attended). Having been my Junior Class president at Ursuline, I had ambitions of being Student Council President my senior year. I decided that I would not let the fact that I was in a new school and outnumbered by boys deter me. I ran–and won. This was 1973–Helen Reddy's I Am Woman was a hit, and i would go down the halls singing it! The women’s movement was catching steam–the National Women’s Political Caucus was founded in 1971 and women were flexing their political muscle. I was all for it!
I went on to college, attending Laredo Junior College (now LCC) on a $100 scholarship from LULAC; I graduated as the co-valedictorian and received a huge $500 scholarship to UT (back then, when college tuition in Texas was a mere $4/semester hour – this was a good chunk of change!). After graduating from UT Austin, I attended UT School of Law, but I almost didn’t go because I couldn’t afford it. When I called the dean to decline, he offered me an academic scholarship to come. While there I began my career in politics by becoming Chief of Staff for State Representative Irma Rangel. All along the way I had obstacles, struggles and I fell many times, but I had my mother, grandmother, sisters and even Irma to lean on and to help me up. Irma was a role model, a mentor and a life-long friend.
Irma Rangel grew up in Kingsville, Texas where she endured segregated schools and was denied entrance to restaurants and public facilities because she was Mexican American.  Undeterred by this ugly aspect of our state’s history, she went on to improve and change it:  she became a teacher, a lawyer, and later the first Mexican American woman elected to the Texas Legislature in 1976. I had the privilege of working for Irma and had the opportunity to get an inside view of the world of Texas politics. Irma served for 26 years and served as Chair of the Higher Education Committee where she passed significant legislation creating equal opportunities in education for all. 
As I honor these great women who shaped my life I also remember that there are countless other heroines who labored to enrich all our lives and our communities and who we must also remember to thank. We must challenge ourselves to live up to their legacies by doing the best we can in our respective jobs and lives because remember, we are writing tomorrow’s history NOW. We all need to be aware of the present, live in the moment, and make the most of opportunities before us. The actions we take today build towards tomorrow’s accomplishments and it is these achievements that our children will study as history. Let's make sure we take good care to write the best one we can so that our daughters and sons and future generations will have our shoulders to stand on.

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