Beneath a blistering Texas sun, a little girl pulled onions from the ground, knocked off the soil, and set them aside to be cut. By mid-afternoon, her arms were covered in dirt, her fingers stained yellow, her body aching for sleep.
The next morning, before the first glimmer of light, she climbed out of bed to begin another 12-hour day in the migrant fields. Days bled into weeks. Weeks melted into months. Then, at last, summer came to an end for a 7-year-old who would become the first lady of San Antonio.
School was more like a vacation for young Erika Prosper, a respite from hard labor, but it also posed a challenge. As much as she enjoyed learning and earning good grades, she didn’t want anyone to know how she had been marked by the fields in the Texas Panhandle. Erika chewed off her fingernails so friends would not see the dirt. She scrubbed her fingers, embarrassed by the discoloration from onion juice.
Eight years later, 15-year-old Erika received an unexpected gift. Her stepfather recognized her college potential and decided against taking her to the migrant fields. Instead, Erika spent the summer with relatives, a decision that cost the family hundreds of dollars.
“That was a turning point for me,” she said. “We were a man down. Hundreds of dollars is a big deal to a migrant family. I remember saying to myself, ‘I need to get out of this life so I can pay back my family.’”
Erika not only made it to college, she rose from the migrant fields to become an accomplished business executive, community leader, and civic volunteer. Her journey from the onion fields of Muleshoe (pop. 5,158) to the board room in San Antonio (pop. 1.4 million) has been unconventional and inspirational.
Erika graduated fifth in her class of more than 500 and then enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa with two bachelor’s degrees in four years. Though raised in the Rio Grande Valley, where 12% of public school students earn a degree of any kind within six years after high school, she holds a master’s from the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School of Communication, where she met her husband, Ron Nirenberg, a curly-haired student who would become mayor of San Antonio.
For the past decade, Erika has distinguished herself as a small business owner and as director of customer insights for H-E-B. She serves her community through multiple platforms – from the executive board of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to the H-E-B Corporate Diversity Council and Health and Literacy Task Forces. She’s won numerous awards, including Outstanding Alumni from the Association of Migrant Educators of Texas.
The migrant fields shaped and propelled her in ways few understand. Using scissors to cut the heads off onions from sunrise to sunset, Erika learned stamina. Working with her parents and siblings to fill buckets and sell produce, she learned collaboration. Dealing with a tool that broke or a family member who fell ill, she learned resourcefulness.
“I was taught how to solve problems in the fields,” she said. “I learned to respect the hungry. I learned humility. When you are covered in dirt, you realize you’re not better than anybody else.”
Erika’s humility and problem-solving skills shine at H-E-B. She leads a team charged with developing the company’s strategic vision by providing insights to improve the business.
Customers provide a wealth of insight, some related to product line, some to life issues, not all of it positive.
“You have to be open to the good news and the bad news,” Erika said. “My upbringing has taught me that, ‘This may not be a good situation, but what can we do to improve it? How can we do better with a product?’”
Several years ago, customers expressed concern about child literacy. In response, H-E-B donated 3 million books to children in need and developed Read 3, a program that encourages parents to read to children three times a week. “We helped to provide those initial insights into what mattered to parents,” Erika said. “And children’s literacy really mattered to them.”
As first lady, Erika will continue to focus on literacy and other efforts, such as Latino and Latina empowerment, that she has long supported. If there is overlap between her passions and areas the mayor wants to address, “I’ll gladly support those projects as I can.”
The plight of migrants remains close to her heart. Through the Association of Migrant Educators, she speaks to migrant students in Northeast Texas Region 8 and in the Rio Grande Valley. As first lady, she will support their access to higher education and continue to inspire with her life story.
The next time Erika addresses migrants, she can share how the stamina she learned in the fields helped her in the recent mayoral race. Her husband battled history and long odds. No challenger had defeated a sitting mayor in 20 years. Ron trailed Mayor Ivy Taylor after the general election, 42% to 37%, and also in fundraising. The uphill fight required Erika to add campaigning to the long hours she already spent at H-E-B, volunteering, and raising her son, Jonah.
“If I take all my jobs under consideration, then I worked 18 hours a day and tried to sleep at least six,” she said. “You have to have stamina to go with Ron on an unconventional path.”
The couple met in the spring of 1999. Ron was visiting and considering the University of Pennsylvania for graduate school. Erika was assigned to be his guide for the weekend. “He had long curly hair and was in love with the ‘70s,” she recalled.
Ron remembers a short tour of the libraries, the public policy center, and the Annenberg School of Communication. He remembers Erika introducing him to faculty members.
After a dinner for graduate students at a neighborhood bar, Ron walked Erika to her apartment and called a cab. As Ron climbed into the car, the driver noticed Erika. “Nice looking girl,” he said. “Are you going to marry her?” Without hesitation, Ron said, “Yeah, I am,” and the cab sped away.
Erika forgot about him. Three months later, Ron enrolled at Penn and looked up Erika. He asked her out. She said “no.” He persisted. She resisted.
“This went on for three months,” Erika said. “I finally relented after Thanksgiving. I fell in love after one date. Once that man makes up his mind about something…”
Ron fell in love with a woman whose character and dreams were forged in the fields.
“She’s taught me what working hard really means,” Ron said. “Her work ethic comes from recognizing early in life that success and making it out of a cycle of poverty meant she had to rise above expectations people had placed on her.”
Early in their marriage, before Jonah was born, Erika mentioned that if they could raise a child with good grammar and good manners, then their son or daughter would be a step ahead in the world.
“It was more of an aside,” Ron said, “but [it] was insightful about the things Erika valued as a parent, which I did as well: compassion, kindness, and showing respect to others. She’s a beautiful person and I’m an extraordinarily lucky guy to have her.”