Hispanas Organized for Political Equality (HOPE) hosts Latina History Day to celebrate accomplishments of Latinas (Photo Courtesy by Helen Torres)

HOPE inspires women to lead in politics and beyond

This is the fifth installment of Latinas empowering other Latinas to succeed in honor of Women’s History Month. 

Mayor Alicia Aguirre has always felt that she’s had to work harder than the rest. She always knew that she wanted to go into politics, but wasn’t always sure she would make it. So she was determined to be better than everyone else.

“I wasn’t sure that as a Latina I could do it. I’ve been looked over many times,” she recalls. “What I needed to do was work harder than the rest and prove that I had those skills because people don’t traditionally see us in those higher up positions.”

Aguirre certainly worked her way up, becoming the first Latina mayor of Redwood City, California. She credits Hispanas Organized for Political Equality (HOPE), a California-based nonprofit that works to empower Latinas to be leaders and advocates in their field, with some of her successes later in life. Although the group promotes Latina leadership in all fields including economics, education and health care, HOPE’s very foundations rest on promoting greater Latina political engagement. It was founded in 1989 by a coalition of Latina business women and community leaders who saw a need for an organized effort on behalf of Latinas by Latinas to ensure they reached political and economic parity.

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One of HOPE’s most renowned programs, the HOPE Leadership Institute, helps professional Latinas in California learn advocacy and leadership skills. The Institute has produced a steady pipeline of Latina leaders in California, dedicated to working in politics and helping improve economic parity. Many of the Institute’s alumna serve in public office, or state boards and commissions.

According to the Center for American Women and Politics, of the 97 women currently serving in the 113th Congress, just nine are Latina. Of the 76 women serving in statewide elective executive offices, five are Latina. In the state legislatures, a mere 1.1 percent of officials are Latina, with 79 of 1,776 women holding an elected office. Torres says that some of the challenges that prevent Latinas from going into politics include lack of access to mentors in the field. That’s where Helen Torres, HOPE Executive Director, wants to make an impact through HOPE.

“Latinas face clear challenges in getting access to those positions. A lot of the time they do not have a peer set that really, truly appreciates their talents. Once they’re in office they have to do a lot of consensus building that other leaders don’t necessarily have to do,” Torres explains. “What we do is provide them with a lot of opportunities to practice their skills, to share ideas, and give Latinas an opportunity to work with each other.”

Aguirre says that HOPE has played a crucial role in empowering her and allowing her to network with other Latinas.

“Networking is a huge advantage that Latinas don’t learn, especially for politics. You might say, I want to push this issue but what do I do and where do I start. HOPE gives you the tools to begin,” she says.

Other issues that Aguirre cites for the lack of Latinas in political positions is a lack of role models and figures to inspire young women to say, “I can be an administrator, I can be a politician.” Such was the case for Rita Medina, a former participant of HOPE’s Youth Leadership Through Literacy Institute and a current policy advocate at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. She says she would not have gotten involved with politics and political activism herself without inspiration from women she met through HOPE.

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“The younger generations need exposure to politics. Unless you’re an active voter, it is not an issue that faces you, that hits you over the head every day,” Medina says. “The program helped me open my eyes in terms of giving me the opportunity to see that I was able to be a part of this. They took us to Sacramento and we met with legislators.”

Looking back, Medina attributes her first job with a congresswoman to her exposure and network developed through HOPE.

“We hear so much about the boys network and not enough about the women’s network so it’s up to us to go out there and find other Latinas who can help give you a leg up and start developing yourself. I was able to find someone to help guide me and make decisions about my career,” Medina says.

But HOPE isn’t stopping at just getting women into political leadership positions. The program also has a corporate track designed to advance the role of Latinas in business.

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“We want to see a Latina in every leadership position if possible,” says Torres.

Dolores Arredondo is a former participant of HOPE’s Latina History Day, HOPE’s current board chair, and a Vice President at Wells Fargo. As the first one in her family to go to college, Arredondo never had more than a small network of friends at Wellesley College in Boston.

“I had never developed that kind of network once I moved back to California.  I remember walking into a room full, just full of professional Latinas of all ages, sizes, colors and suites. One was an attorney, another an Executive Director. I never had that chance to be surrounded by a group to this magnitude of successful women,” Arredondo recalls. “I knew it I always had it in me, but the network that I built at HOPE empowered me to step up and fostered that inner leader.”

For Aguirre, fostering Latina leaders in any field — not just politics —  is crucial because they will bring another aspect of leadership to the table.

“It is our responsibility to make others aware of issues they may not have been aware of before. Why are we not improving the parts on the East side? Why aren’t our libraries as good? Sometimes Latinos just say well, we have to deal with what we get,” Aguirre says. “It is our responsibility to continue asking those questions where there isn’t that voice.”

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