Jun 7, 2021
I grew up being ashamed of my Mexican accent and the more nervous I was, the more my accent became more noticeable. As an adult, I have come to embrace it. I am proud to be a first generation Mexican-American in the US. This includes the language, the culture, the beautiful people and all the customs that come with it, like the Posada, which is celebrated during my favorite time of year. Posada means “shelter” and is a religious celebration of the birth of Jesus and includes a lot of singing and sharing with family and friends.
As a kid, I didn’t know that I was “first generation” and that my parents were immigrants, but was aware that we were different. I used to be my mom and dad’s interpreter during parent teacher conferences, at the grocery stores and at the doctors. I don’t think most of my friends had to do that. My family was also unique in another special way…we were a large family. It was interesting to see people’s facial expressions when I said I had 9 siblings and that I was the 9th child. I am happy to say that we were and still are a very close-knit family and extended family. Our weddings and large gatherings have often hosted 200 plus guests.
Having a big family has been great but also challenging at times, especially for the women in the family. My three sisters and I grew up helping my mom cook, clean the house, and pick up after all my 6 brothers. It was a huge task. The image that stays in my mind is the mountain of dishes after every meal. Imagine the dishes and cookware after 10 people eat. And I was tasked to wash them most of the time…..it took me 30-40 minutes to complete.
I don’t remember exactly when I started, but I grew up questioning why only the women of the household had to clean and the answer I got was….” That’s how it is, that’s how it’s always been, accept it, and hurry up and finish”. I did not accept this answer. Day after day, year after year, I kept asking but never got a satisfactory answer. It became more of a problem when all the chores were conflicting with my school work. I was a good student that loved to read and loved math. I loved math so much, I learned most of the multiplication table within a week or two. I remember I would ask my dad to test me and would go back to practicing them until I knew them all. Yes, I was a nerd and proud of it. So, I rebelled, questioning why my brothers could not clean their own rooms, cook meals, or even help my mom. I got the same answer with the emphasis that a women’s place was at home as a homemaker. This was just not consistent with what I envisioned as my future.
This coincided with the time that some of my mentors had planted the seed that I was smart and that I was going places. One of my middle school math teachers said “you have to go to college and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t”. I did not have formal mentors but did have several guiding lights during my adolescence that inspired me to go to college. There was my 6th grade teacher that was impressed of how easy math was to me. My “big sister” from a high school program that gave me and a small group of high school students a tour of her Aerospace company. We got to see the Hubble telescope, which eventually went to space and is still there taking pictures of the galaxy. It was so amazing!
It was these defining moments and hard work that got me to where I am today. I have been a Propulsion Engineer and a Program Manager throughout my career over 25 years. During this same time, I have also been mentoring kids from kindergarten through college, in hopes that I can be a guiding light in their journey. I do not blame my parents for their beliefs on women but I am glad to say that things did come full circle. I recently had a heart-to-heart conversation with my 80-year-old mom and she said “I don’t know why I thought women had to stay at home (paused a little), they can do and study anything they want.” I guess all those years of me questioning paid off. My parents are proud of who I have become. I catch them bragging about having a daughter who is an Engineer.
Maria Ortiz holds a bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Irvine and a program management certificate from UCLA, and presently designs, builds, and tests propulsion systems for the commercial satellite industry. She is an active mentor in the BRDG bridge to connect nonprofit, providing first-in-family college students wraparound support to transition to the workforce.