Mayor Ivy Taylor speaks at the Latina Leadership commencement ceremony. Photo by Scott Ball.

The San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce hopes to close the gap between leadership aspirations and opportunities with Latina Leadership Institute (LLI), a program that celebrated its inaugural graduating 21-member class on Thursday.

The six-month program met one day each month to provide local Latinas with the training needed to increase community engagement, develop leadership skills and successfully run for elected office. Classes featured noted speakers like state Rep. Ina Minjarez (D-124) and former Secretary of State Hope Andrade.

“When it comes to leadership, it’s still a male-dominated world,” said Melessa Rodriguez, an LLI graduate and an account executive for the DeBerry Group. “I think this will serve as the foundation in the future, and continue building a sisterhood in the city.”

A guest walks through the Rosenberg Sky Room at the University of the Incarnate Word. Photo by Scott Ball.
A guest walks through the Rosenberg Sky Room at the University of the Incarnate Word. Photo by Scott Ball.

The graduates enjoyed pastries and coffee in the Rosenberg Skyroom at the University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) as Mayor Ivy Taylor congratulated the graduates at the Commencement Ceremony.

“It’s obvious that I am not a Latina, but I am a woman and I am a leader,” Taylor said. ”Growing up as a little girl, I never imagined that I would be Mayor of our nation’s seventh largest city. I remember thinking that the extent of my happiness was limited by the color of skin that I was born in.”

Taylor went on to mention the importance of setting personal and community-wide goals, and encouraged the women to “think about the vision that is greater than you are, but not yet tangible.”

Latina voters are a key demographic for politicians throughout the country, but as of 2014, Latinas are represented by less than 2% of elected leaders in U.S. Congress and about 1% of state legislators.

“I think a lot of the women on the board are already very accomplished women, but if no one tells you and you don’t know anyone who has been on a board, then you have that gap in your knowledge,” Dr. Barbara Aranda-Naranjo, UIW’s associate provost for civic engagement said. “I look to this group to be on more boards here in San Antonio, at the state level and also on the national level, because there’s not enough Latina representation on boards at all three levels.”

The UIW Ettling Center for Civic Leadership is working to increase the number of Latinas in these leadership roles through a mentorship program on campus. Ten LLI graduates have agreed to mentor 10 Latina students who are members of the UIW Cardinal Community Leaders. Now in its pilot stage, the program starts during a student’s sophomore year and continues over the next three years.

The mentorship program was recently approved by the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. Aranda-Naranjo noted that if the program is successful, all students could be paired with mentors in the future.

Henry Muñoz III, the finance chairman of the Democratic Committee and chief creative officer of Muñoz & Company spoke to the audience, urging them to push for political change in communities throughout San Antonio.

Henry Munoz III raises his hand as he speaks with guests. Photo by Scott Ball.
Henry Munoz III raises his hand as he speaks with guests. Photo by Scott Ball.

“You heard from the Mayor, who I happen to love and respect, but I have to ask this audience, ‘Why don’t we have a Latina mayor?’” he asked rhetorically. “‘What is it about this community, that is over 60% Latino that you don’t motivate yourself, because you’re not angry enough, or hungry enough to turn out and vote and elect someone who shares your story and values?’”

Muñoz mentioned the importance of the Hispanic vote in the 2016 presidential election, but encouraged the women in the audience to start shifting national and local conversations and political expectations through strong leadership.

“You can help run this country,” he said. “That’s what this leadership program is about.”

Click here to learn more information about the LLI or upcoming application opportunities.

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Lea Thompson

Lea Thompson is a Texas native who has lived in Houston, Austin and San Antonio. She enjoys exploring new food and culture events. Follow her adventures on Instagram, Twitter or Culture Spoon.