Respect is paramount in my family. Not only respecting the elders and our traditions, but – most important for me as a Hispanic teenager – respecting my father, “the lawmaker.” In a traditional Mexican family, this respect is not only expected, but demanded.
As far back as I can remember my father has been the lawmaker in our household. Father gives us permission, provides us with food and shelter, and maintains order in the family. We don’t live in a Confucian society, where the father rules in the family, but a social hierarchy has been established in our home and he has placed himself at the top of it. Anyone that dares to break his house rules faces the consequences. He has never hit my older brother, sisters or mother but he verbally scolds you in such an intense way that he makes you completely and immediately comply. He never shows emotion and rarely communicates with his children; if so, it’s usually because one of us is in trouble and will be scolded. He is a traditionalist and is not open-minded.
So when it came time for me to ask my father for permission to take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I knew I had to be prepared and have a strong strategy before I approached him. I had applied to work as an intern for Congresswoman Grace F. Napolitano, and later had been sponsored to be a Congressional Page this summer in Washington D.C., although my position had still not been confirmed. The opportunity is fabulous enough for a teenager but the fact that I was born and raised in East Los Angeles made it almost inconceivable; opportunities here are few and far between – this stuff just never happens!
I knew I would be facing a major struggle because I have never asked my father permission for something this big and I also because I have very limited direct contact with him. I just never really talk to him about personal things; he hasn’t even given me the sex talk. I knew that this would definitely be breaking the ice in our relationship.
Before doing anything, I asked my eldest sister, “what are my chances of getting permission?” She was completely honest with me and answered, “If you were my little girl, I wouldn’t let you go because it’s for a whole month and it’s all the way on the other side of the country. I just don’t think he’s ready for that.” Those sharp, painful words haunted me. I started questioning my existence and my reasoning for always trying my best in everything I do. Did I really work all this time just to run into a dead end? Or maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough. Whether I wanted to or not, I had no choice but to leave the room in burning tears. I just couldn’t breathe anymore. I ended up crying myself to sleep that night.
The next day I woke up furious as hell and I decided to take action. I knew I had been working my whole life to make something good happen and I wasn’t ready to let this opportunity go by. I guess you could say this was my “dare to be fabulous” moment! I had cried a river and now it was time to stand up and rebel against “the lawmaker,” no matter how tough this was going to be.
I printed out a copy of the internship application and waited for him to come home from his daily, exhausting truck driving job. He didn’t come home until 10pm but I stayed up, ready to explain the internship and ask for his permission. I honestly felt like I would stand before him with my mouth open and the words wouldn’t come out, but fortunately the neurons in my brain functioned and I told them to speak. I could tell he was tired and wanted to knock out already but I knew that it was now or never.
I started off by introducing him to some basic information about the program and how I came to be sponsored. He immediately started interrogating me. He questioned why the heck I wanted to go and what it was good for. For once in my life, I didn’t shut-up. I knew I had earned this opportunity on my own and that it was vital for my future. I kept fighting for myself and my life; I knew this internship was something I had rightfully earned and deserved. I was clear and direct, presenting him with all the facts. What surprised me was that I never stuttered. I knew that if I wanted my dream to come true, then I would have to fight against all odds – even if I peed my pants, I was determined to get my point across. Somehow between the previous terrible teary night and the next morning, something had changed inside me: I was confident and completely determined to start making my own laws for my life and give my father no other choice but to obey them.
I implemented my strategy: to show my father the world that was opening up to me. I told him I had already scheduled an appointment with the Congresswoman’s Field Representatives, Benjamin Cardenas and Evelyn Herrera, and I expected him to come. For once I was the one making my demands and I pushed him to fulfill them. He seemed stunned by my certainty and agreed to go to the meeting.
I remember we went to the meeting the same day that the famous, former math teacher at my school, Jaime Escalante, died (March 31st, 2010.) I wondered if that was an omen of the misfortune that was waiting to happen . . . I tried to breathe deeply and go with the flow. He picked me up from school and boy! The ride from East Los Angeles to Santa Fe Springs seemed like a trip to the moon! It was so long, silent and just plain uncomfortable. He was in his working uniform and I was in plain old jeans and a t-shirt. I know we should have gone more appropriately dressed, but looks didn’t really matter to me at that point because attaining permission was the only thing on my mind.
We arrived at the District Office and right away, I felt like I was in a safe place. Mr. Cardenas and Ms. Herrera welcomed my father in such a warm and friendly way that I thought there was no way in the world that he would say no to me. It felt really good when Mr. Cardenas and Ms. Herrera put in a good word for me, telling my father what a great asset I had been to their office when I was an intern there. (I had recently helped out in their office for the months of January and February after my Senior Army Instructor scored me the job).
My father was in awe the whole time – his mind was blown away – I guess it’s partially my fault for not telling him all that I’m involved in, whether it’s in school or in the community. Hearing and seeing the Congresswoman’s staff made my father realize that this kind of opportunity doesn’t just fall from the sky, it takes a great deal of hard work and he should feel proud that his daughter can take part. In a way, I was really a reflection of all his hard work and proof that his wish of achieving the American dream had been granted, or at least that’s what they made my father understand.
A month after I sent in the application I received the letter from Nancy Pelosi officially inviting me to become a Congressional Page. I felt a huge relief. The twenty page application seemed like nothing compared to getting my father’s approval. I showed him the letter of confirmation and I told him to get the airline tickets because…I’m going to Washington D.C.! I’m going to be the first one in the Ortega family to go to the nation’s capital! That is the best feeling in the world because I’m proving to him that I appreciate all his work and sacrifice and that his coming to this country was completely worth it.
Our relationship is better now because we actually talk! I call him more often from my cell phone and am around him more, too. We recently took a trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and thank God we did, because I finally felt like his little girl again. We shared laughs and swam together in the beautiful blue water off the gorgeous beaches. I truly felt like his daughter.
It took me 16 years to stand up to my father, but I did it. Throughout my life I have found that the key ingredient for being brave is – determination. Some people don’t even come up against these sorts of pressures at a young age. While I wish I didn’t have to struggle as much as I have, in a way I’m glad I did because it has taught me to be a better, stronger person. Now I see how civil rights activists like Antonia Hernandez or Latin attorney Monica Navarro have the strength to do it in the real world. This is only the first big step on my journey to becoming the person I want to be, but that first step always starts with daring – daring to take a position, daring to do what you know is right, daring . . . to be fabulous.
Rocio Ortega lived in East Los Angeles and attended high school there. The daughter of two Mexican-born parents, she is bilingual and proud to represent her Mexican culture. This story was written while she was in high school. She’s since graduated from Wellesley College, worked with the U.N., lived abroad, and won notable awards. She currently works with the ACLU.