Earlier this month, the First Lady spoke to six Latina moms about the key issues impacting today’s families. Here, four of those wise Latina moms reminisce about their day with Michelle Obama and share what they said, she said, and all they wish they had said.
Monica Olivera: A homeschooling mom and publisher of MommyMaestra.com.
When I first got the message asking whether I would be free, my husband immediately told me to say yes, that we would make it work. “After all,” he said, “how many people get invited to speak to the First Lady?” And my kids were excited as well, my daughter going so far as to pick out several books from her very own bookshelf to give Malia and Sasha Obama, to whom she refers to as the “Second and Third Ladies.”
I will remember how when Mrs. Obama walked into the room, she immediately walked over to greet and thank each of us, for taking the time to talk with her, with a warm hug. We had been told that Mrs. Obama wanted a conversation, not a question and answer session. She wanted to know our concerns. We were not coached, though we moms did meet for breakfast earlier that morning to get to know one another and talk about the issues we were going to address.
As a homeschooling mom and publisher of a site for Latino parents with school-aged children, education was naturally my top priority. I felt a tremendous amount of responsibility to bring up issues that other Latina moms across the country were worried about. Unfortunately, 30 minutes is not nearly enough time to share the concerns, struggles, and issues that we as a community are thinking about.
In addition to focusing on early education with emphasis on preschool, I think there is a desperate need to recruit more bilingual teachers. We also need more bilingual counselors to reach out and engage Latino families, because without parental involvement, it is very difficult for a child to finish high school and go on to college. There is also a growing demand to make dual-language programs available across the country. As more and more parents become determined to raise bilingual children, they worry about their kids losing their mastery of Spanish. And this ties in with the issue that all parents should have the right to choose where their kid goes to school.
We must also talk about how we are going to support our DREAMers, who through no fault of their own, lack a simple paper granting them the official title of “CITIZEN” of this wonderful country that they love. We need a law that grants them the same rights and privileges as all the other kids who grow up in America.
Shirley Rodriguez: A single mom and a commercial and editorial photographer and producer.
Her smile lit up the room and suddenly it hit me; I wasn’t watching her on the Food Network talking about childhood nutrition—she was actually there. I was surprised that this powerful woman was genuinely the way she seemed on television, even when the cameras were off. I would soon be expected to speak and the nerves began to roll over me. I worried my hair was frizzy from the Miami heat. Should I cross my legs or not cross them…was my necklace hitting the lapel mic?
I couldn’t remember my talking points. I found my thoughts wandering aimlessly, so I paused, and came back to the now: It was a moment in time where a First Lady was one of us. Where we were just moms, talking about reminding our kids to pack underwear for a sleepover or how amazing dinner table talks can be, and hearing funny anecdotes about her husband, Barack. She said “Barack,” and I remembered who she was again.
Before long Maria Cardona, calm and collected, gave her flawless introduction. When she stated that one sentence about my son Kian’s diagnosis, my throat closed up as it sometimes does when I speak of his autism. I looked over to the first lady whose face completely changed. She looked at me, and she seemed empathetic and curious. Perhaps she saw my lip quiver a little—I don’t know—but I felt she knew this issue hit home. Her reaction was compassionate and it calmed me.
By the end of the taping, she mentioned her extremely hardworking mother and I saw her get choked up, too. When the segment ended, we each had our photo taken with Mrs. Obama. When it was my turn, I said: “Mrs. Obama, I noticed you got choked up when you mentioned your mother.” Her voice cracked as she replied admitting that she had, adding what an impact she’d made in her life. I handed her a framed photograph and simply stated: “This is my father.” She let out a small gasp as I told her the most condensed version of my dad’s story: “He worked in garment factories for over 30 years. His hands wouldn’t close when he came home from work so we sanded them with emery boards. He didn’t have health care.”
“This is amazing,” she said. I explained that the photo of his hand was the first shot in my latest series about American laborers. She said she wanted me to keep her posted on its progress. Later, I realized the First Lady had kept the photograph. I don’t know what they do with the millions of gifts they receive, but at least she saw his cracks and crevices—the remnants of a tortured hand that sacrificed everything to get food onto our table. And I feel like somehow she related.
FOOD & FAMILY VALUES
Yvette Marquez: A mom and author of the Muy Bueno cookbook.
We were escorted into a classroom that had been transformed into a beautiful living room stage set with lights and cameras. As we sat in our assigned spots on the couches, the First Lady told us all about her busy morning, which included working-out and then rushing to get one of her daughters ready for her day. She was a mom just like the rest of us. The longer we all chatted the more comfortable I felt with her. Then the countdown started 5, 4, 3, 2, and then the signal—1. Cameras were on and it was show time.
I’m a huge fan of Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move campaign and days before the taping I fretted about what I wanted to discuss with her. I kept asking myself what issue is most important to me and how I’d have the courage to speak with her about it? After a few days I realized, I needed to speak from the heart and about what I’m most passionate about: food and familia. I am an author of a Mexican cookbook and eating home cooked meals is important to me. So, discussing with the First Lady the importance of creating healthy eating habits for our children seemed like a natural fit.
Honestly, I can’t remember anything I said; it was all a blur, but I do know I was very happy. Before Mrs. Obama had to leave, I gave her a signed cookbook. She read my dedication and then flipped through the book, complimented it, and asked me questions about some of the recipes. This conversation I remember perfectly. She told me she loves Mexican food, so you can imagine my excitement. After a few photos, Mrs. Obama had to leave for a rally at the same high school’s gymnasium.
Afterwards, I turned on my cell phone and the outpouring of congratulations began. I think that was when I realized the magnitude of what we’d just experienced. We, as Latina mothers, focused on issues important to all mothers. Loving and caring for our children has no color. I am honored that I was chosen for this historical event.
THE ECONOMY & WOMEN’S INTERESTS
Melanie Edwards: A mom and the founder and editor of ModernMami.com.
As the other moms and I waited for her to enter the room, the seriousness of the situation suddenly hit us. Something about seeing the secret service, being told she was on the way, and the silence in the room, made for extraordinary ambiance. We only had thirty minutes for the entire session; it was the fastest thirty minutes of my life.
While many of our concerns and stories overlapped, we each shared an anecdote with the First Lady. Monica Olivera kicked off the discussion with the importance of early childhood education, Shirley Rodriguez shared her concerns about healthcare, Yvette Marquez talked about her passion for proper nutrition, and I touched on busy, modern Latina moms and my desire to keep young girls interested in STEM fields like math and science, which are dominated by men.
If I could tell Mrs. Obama more, I’d tell her about my mother, who is sixty-two years old, uninsured, and doesn’t qualify for Medicare. She’s unable to work, because she is a full-time caregiver for my father, who suffers from dementia. In turn, this makes me a part-time caregiver for both of them, and a full-time caregiver should my mother fall ill or injured. I’d tell her my concerns regarding the status of the economy; the fact that several of my husband’s coworkers have been laid off and how we think about this each night we lay our heads on our pillows. I also know many women who have either been laid off themselves or have spouses who were. The economy is an issue that has affected each and every one of us.
The surface was only scratched during this conversation, opening the doors for more discussions in our communities. I believe it was a solid start and look forward to more conversations like this in the future. What would you have told Michelle Obama?