Latinas becoming a force for change in Sonoma County

A growing number of Latinas in Sonoma County are graduating from college, starting businesses and stepping forward in leadership roles to inspire the next generation. Meet some of the people who are making it happen.

Guiding students toward success

Magali Telles is the kind of person any parent of teenagers would count their blessings to know.

As the college readiness programs coordinator at Sonoma State University, she visits high school campuses and works with students to ensure they have met their eligibility requirements, and that they understand the tangled college admissions and financial aid application process. At her fingertips are all the rules, requirements and forms. She's guided hundreds through it; she knows the drill.

But most of all, she knows the barriers that sometimes arise, from family expectations to the challenges of being the first in a family to go to college. In response, Telles puts on the Latino Family Summit, which provides parents with Spanish-language workshops that teach them about the admissions process, financial aid and college life.

Telles' interest is more than professional. It's also personal.

When she was young, Telles' parents had encouraged her to pursue college, something they didn't have the opportunity to do in their native Mexico. But there was a catch: they wanted their only daughter to live at home, and expected her to go to nearby Fresno State.

Telles couldn't wait to get out of the San Joaquin Valley, so she discreetly applied to Sonoma State University, 200 miles away in Rohnert Park.

“I was worried that my dad would freak out. I knew my mom was going to,” Telles said, recalling how she felt when she received the college's acceptance letter in the springtime 16 years ago.

As the oldest, Telles says she had to drive her mother to appointments and serve as her translator. When she left for college, her mother struggled with day-to-day tasks, like paying bills. She wanted her daughter to return home.

“I could have easily broke and gone back,” recalled Telles, now 34.

She's glad she stayed at SSU, which she says provided her with personal attention that she wouldn't have received at a larger campus like Fresno State. She also found support in the Latina sorority, Lambda Theta Nu, a chapter she started on campus with seven other Latinas in 2003.

Telles ultimately graduated with a bachelor's degree in sociology in 2005 and later returned for a master's in education. In her job, she frequently gets to work with young Latinas, who are wrestling with challenges similar to the ones she faced, including the guilt of leaving home.

“I hear a lot from Latina students, ‘my parents need me,'” she said.

Her parents now understand she made the best decision by going to SSU, said Telles, a Windsor resident who also works with the parents of Latino students, helping to ease their concerns.

Parents don't always understand college life and the all-consuming pressures that come with it. It is one reason Telles organized the all-day Latino Family Summit, which drew 300 students and their parents this spring. They received information on the college admissions process, financial aid, the California Dream Act and support services available on campus to students.

For Telles, the job is much more than just providing information about college and giving families a roadmap to reach it.

“It's about being an example in the community,” she said.


Introducing families to college life

Mariana Martinez likes taking things up to the highest level in her own life, and she encourages her students to do the same.

A Chicano studies professor at SSU, Martinez was elected last year to the Santa Rosa Junior College Board of Trustees, where she became the first Latina to serve on that board. She also works with the McNair Scholars Program on campus to help low-income and minority students prepare for the big step: pursuing master's degrees. This year, she reports, about half of the 23 students in the program are women, and many come from Sonoma County.

While these numbers are encouraging, getting students to go on to earn graduate degrees can sometimes require a bit of rousing.

The women in the program can be found on campus doing research into the wee hours of the night, sometimes angering their parents who don't want them coming home late, Martinez said. She also likes to take the women to education conferences outside the state and encourage them to apply to top universities, even those on the other side of the country.

“I don't get invited to the holiday parties,” Martinez said with a smile.

Martinez doesn't really mind. When she was admitted to college, she was living at home with two young siblings. Thanks to an adviser who knew she needed a quiet place to study and focus on school, Martinez moved onto the SSU campus as an undergraduate. To get her parents' approval, they misled her parents into thinking the college required her to live on campus.

Today, she encourages the McNair scholars to invite their parents to their symposium and introduce them to the work they do. She recalls that her own parents felt uncomfortable even visiting her on campus. Her father dropped her off on her first day, and returned to campus a second time - for her graduation. Martinez later went on to earn a doctorate in education policy, organization and leadership from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

She's come to learn that many parents mistakenly think college is an extension of high school, with an 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. schedule and minimal homework.

“It's a lack of understanding what college is,” she said.


Determined to give back

Denia Candela arrived in the United States as a 13-year-old with no English skills. Fortunately, there were two strong and supportive women in her life to guide her.

The first was her determined grandmother, who raised Candela in Acapulco and taught herself to read and write by flipping through magazines. The second was Betsy Chavez, a school counselor, who would serve as a supporter and inspiration for years to come.

Once in the United States, Candela worked hard in her ESL and remedial English classes, eventually making it into honors classes at Sonoma Valley High School. When she became pregnant at 15, Candela feared she would not be able to stay in her advanced classes and make it to a four-year college. She turned to Chavez.

Chavez helped her develop a plan to finish high school and go on to college. She also understood the pressures Candela was dealing with. That was “powerful,” said Candela, a 10,000 Degrees scholarship recipient who graduated last year from SSU with a bachelor's degree in applied statistics.

Candela now is returning the favor. She is reaching out to other young Latinas, in hopes her story will encourage them to get involved in the community.

At 22, Candela is the enrollment and outreach manager at North Bay Children's Center, which serves 400 to 500 kids from low-income families in Sonoma and Marin counties. She also sits on the board of Los Cien, a group of local Latino community leaders that has been trying to boost the number of Latinos at the voting polls, in elected seats and in higher education.

“I believe in the importance of giving back to the community that has seen me grow,” said Candela, who also serves as a youth commissioner on the county's parks and recreation board.

Latinas like Candela are bringing much-needed “energy and passion” to create changes in the community, said Herman Hernandez, president of Los Cien.

Six of the 10 board members at Los Cien are women, and five are Latinas. Hernandez estimates that Latinas now comprise 60 percent of the membership at Los Cien - which has grown to 1,000 members in eight years - and he believes that number will continue to rise. The women represent various professions, including businesses, city and county government agencies and nonprofits. Typically, they are the first to step up to volunteer and take on leadership roles in the group, Hernandez said.

“I always remember my mother was behind my dad. She was never by his side. ... That was the old way. Today, I'm taking orders from Latinas,” he said, adding “I'm the one lavando los trastes,” or washing the dishes.


Breaking away from the expected

Growing up in Windsor, Jenny Chamberlain saw few Latinas taking on leadership roles in the community or pursing college educations.

But that is changing, said Chamberlain, president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. There are a growing number of Latinas in Sonoma County who are graduating from college, building careers and stepping forward to inspire younger women.

“We're breaking out of the expected,” she said. “We're going out of those cultural roles and being mentors to the younger generation.”

Chamberlain's mother, who went back to school as an adult and earned an associate's degree, encouraged her to go to college. Chamberlain said she was one of the first group of students to enroll in Santa Rosa Junior College's Puente Program, which helps educationally underserved students transition to college.

She later moved to Los Angeles, where she got a job working for a Japanese airline. After seven years, Chamberlain decided to return to school, ultimately earning a bachelor's degree in business administration.

In 2004, she moved back to Sonoma County, where she enrolled at Empire College's law school but left after realizing it wasn't for her. Chamberlain now works as a district director for Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore.

She wishes she had met a Latina in college who could have steered her into business or public administration early on in her life. Chamberlain is now working to provide that mentorship to young Latinas and Latinos. Several years ago, she started a young professionals group with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, where 60 percent of the chamber's 400 members are Latinas.

“We support our young people throughout elementary school, high school and college. Once they graduate from college, those support systems are gone,” she said.


Fiercely challenging cultural norms

Despite the gains Latinas have made in Sonoma County, Mariana Martinez said more work is needed to challenge cultural norms that make it more difficult for girls to go to college.

At Santa Rosa Junior College, where Martinez serves on the board of trustees, a group of Latina students have formed a club to challenge stereotypes, give women a voice and allow them to vent about the struggles they face at home and school.

The group is called Mujeres Xingonas. Although spelled differently, the word chingona means “badass.”

“I don't have deal with machismo at home. But, unfortunately, I deal with it in school,” said Jennifer Cabrera, one of four founding members of the club, for which she is co-chairwoman.

She said the women in the club were tired of being ignored by men in class and other clubs. They often dismissed their ideas and listened more closely to the males in the room, she said.

It wasn't much different at home for some of the members. Their brothers were allowed to show up at home when they wanted, while the women got in trouble for staying on campus too late, Cabrera said.

While her dad is open-minded and helps out around the house, Cabrera said he didn't like her staying on campus too long.

“My dad was very concerned of me coming home late because I was a woman,” said Cabrera, 20.

Since it started last spring, the club has nearly tripled in size to about a dozen members. They're trying to change the view of Latinas by inviting parents to see what students do on campus and reaching out to young girls about the importance of education.

“Many didn't have the support they wish they had at home to be students,” said Malena Hernandez, club advisor and coordinator of the campus Multicultural Innovation Center for Academic Success & Achievement, known as MI CASA.

In addition to wrestling with machismo in Latino and American culture, she said the students are “confronting their mothers' assumptions” of what it means to be a woman, while still embracing their roots.

During an elementary school career fair, the members played “Lotería Feminista,” a spin on a Mexican game of chance similar to bingo. The club created their own lotería using images of activists such as Angela Davis, reading a short description of the women every time their card was pulled.

They're also trying to change the negative connotation of the word “chingona,” which historically has been considered vulgar slang to describe an annoying woman. Cabrera argues the word better describes a strong and empowered woman willing to stand up and try to change their community.

“There are a lot of mujeres (women) in Sonoma County who don't call themselves ‘chingonas' but who are,” Hernandez said.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or On Twitter @eloisanews.

EDITORS NOTE: Mariana Martinez is the first Latina to serve on the SRJC Board of Trustees. An earlier version of this story incorrectly described her as the first woman to serve on the board.

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