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Prominent Latinas see need to develop new generation of leaders

JuanBallesteros Peers for Progress Coordinator Alivio Medical Center works health screening booth FiestDel Sol Cermak St. Chicago Friday July 26

Juana Ballesteros, Peers for Progress Coordinator at Alivio Medical Center, works at a health screening booth at Fiesta Del Sol on Cermak St. in Chicago, Friday, July 26, 2013. | J.Geil ~ For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 5, 2013 6:38AM

Two or three decades ago, Sylvia Puente could gain visibility in Chicago with relative ease. But that’s because so few other Latinas in the city held leadership positions.

“What it’s taken me 25 years to do, I see it happening for younger women in a much shorter period of time,” said Puente, 54, who directs the Latino Policy Forum, an advocacy organization.

Today, some of those trailblazers say they and others should feel obligated to mentor that growing Latina workforce into a new generation of Latina leaders.

“I truly believe that as Latina women we need to help our fellow Latina women,” said Juana Ballesteros, 37, a manager at Alivio Medical Center, which helps uninsured patients in Little Village, Pilsen and Cicero.

Ballesteros grew up in Little Village and still lives there, she said, because she and other community members want to set a positive example for children in the neighborhood and remain involved in the area’s development.

“It irks the hell out of me when women don’t feel that sense of responsibility,” she said.

The city’s Latina workforce has grown — and grown increasingly educated — in the past decade. Data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey shows that women of Hispanic heritage made up 11 percent of Chicago’s workforce in 2011, up from 9 percent in 2000. Among Hispanic women 25 or older, about 14 percent had at least a bachelor’s degree in 2011, compared with 9 percent a decade earlier.

And a greater percentage of those women — 23 percent — have moved into professions such as science, business, health care, law and education than have Hispanic men. Only 12 percent of Hispanic men work in those fields.

“We’ve been identified as a wonderful talent base,” said Gloria Castillo, 58, president of Chicago United, an organization that promotes diverse business leadership.

Latinas in leadership roles often point to mentors — teachers, bosses, relatives, community activists — who helped early on put them on a different path than their peers. Many feel an obligation to carry that spirit forward.

“My grandmother wasn’t going to be able to get me to the top ... or show me how to navigate the company,” said Alicia Gonzalez, 35, executive director of Chicago Run, a nonprofit that promotes health and wellness. “The generation growing up now has mothers who can network.”

Juanita Irizarry, 44, a senior program officer at the Chicago Community Trust, started a mentorship group in her living room two years ago after several women sought her out as a mentor. About a dozen women, mostly nonprofit heads, meet monthly to swap career advancement advice and work-life balance tips.

“Some of us need strategic planning for ourselves,” said Dulce Quintero, 35, who sits on the board of Orgullo en Accion, which supports LGBTQ Latinos, and is a former director of operations at La Casa Norte, a nonprofit that helps homeless families.

Maricela Garcia, 54, CEO of Gads Hill Center, a Pilsen nonprofit that focuses on early childhood education, said too much emphasis is placed on one-off trainings for young Latinas instead of sustained, long-term mentorship that can help teach important soft skills like networking, the art of negotiation and office politics.

Latinas need to introduce the next generation to their high-level connections, Garcia said, and encourage teens to join boards.

“Developing leadership is an investment,” she said. “It takes a long time.”

Support for this article was provided by the Local Reporting Initiative, part of the Chicago Community Trust’s Community News Matters program.

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