CARE Executive Director Wins Maddie’s Fund 2022 Avanzino Leadership AwardOctober 24, 2022
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Growing up, until I was 18 years old, I spent my nights sleeping on a broken couch in the living room of our one-bedroom home in Barrio Anita located in Tucson, AZ. Before bed, I would lay in resentment, fear, and anxiety about my future until I eventually fell asleep. I spent hours drowning in the shame of growing up “poor” and equal time strategizing how to hide and change the parts of myself that I grew to resent. I was intentional and tactical about how I presented myself, always striving to dress, speak, and relate to the people whose lives I admired. This was the beginning of code-switching and diluting foundational parts of my Chicano identity.
My mom on the other hand, was incredibly proud of being Chicana. I remember when she was promoted at work and had just bought herself a new-to-her car, which was a big deal! One day, she picked me up from school in her “new” Lowrider blasting “Suavecito” by Malo. She had a huge smile and infectious sense of accomplishment on her face-I can still see it when I close my eyes.
My mom loved her barrio and her gente. She spent years working in the Tucson community to educate and provide support to those living with HIV & AIDS. Earlier this year, I spoke to her former boss, and he explained that he hired her because she could access the most at risk and hard to reach people. It took someone like my mom who lived and was raised in these communities to connect and provide support to the black and brown people in barrios, who were otherwise impenetrable by the predominately white non-profit staff. It has been incredible to realize the parallels between my mom and me. All this time, I thought I was forging my own path, when in truth, I was following her altruistic footsteps.
Through my development and growth over the years, both personally and professionally, I discovered a foundational truth: Who you are, is how you lead. This credo is my North Star and is why I dedicate time and energy unpacking and understanding my values and leadership style. For years, I attributed my “success” and leadership from the teachings of Oprah, Simon Sinek, Brene Brown and others alike. I held an untrue narrative about who was responsible for cultivating the person and leader I was striving to be. My mom deserved so much more credit than I ever gave her. In life, especially when you experience childhood trauma, it can become the central lens through which all experiences are filtered. At least that was true for me.
In Spring of 2021, my mom underwent a major surgery that took away her ability to walk. She spent several months in a rehabilitation center which gave me the opportunity to remodel our family home, which had become semi-uninhabitable. I was not only repairing and renovating my childhood home, I was also repairing and rewriting the ideas and preconceived notions I held of my childhood and the barrio that raised me.
While self-discovery was unfolding in my personal life, professionally, I was leading DEIB (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging) efforts at Best Friends Animal Society. This kind of work requires deep self-reflection and more importantly, self-accountability. For the first time in my adult life, I was reflecting and reconciling my experiences as an openly gay Latino in the workplace. I was having conversations about race in predominantly White spaces at a frequency I had never experienced before. It was enlightening, educational and taxing.
It felt like a cultural and professional renaissance-a rediscovery of my roots. I began to observe systems, patterns, and behaviors that I never noticed before, both in myself and in others. This is when I discovered that the values guiding me come from my mom and the barrio wisdom that raised me.
I call these, The Five Lessons my Chicana Mom Taught Me:
1) Stand-up for Yourself and Have Difficult Conversations:
As a kid, I spent a lot of time observing the adults, particularly my mom. She was not afraid to advocate for herself and speak her mind. Whether it was having a difficult conversation with a friend, family member, or in a professional setting, my mom was a very open and direct communicator.
From a young age I found myself having to practice these lessons. For over ten years I played violin with Mariachi Sol Azteca, a community mariachi group that turned semi-professional. We were a group of teenagers operating in what I would now call, a holacracy model. Each of our opinions were heard, whether it was about how the business should be structured or what songs we performed-we could always speak our minds. This collaborative environment also created tension at times. I found myself speaking up and leading difficult conversations. Being a member of Mariachi Sol Azteca instilled confidence that carried me to the next chapter of my life, working in an animal shelter.
2) Be Generous:
Growing up, I believed generosity came through having financial wealth, something our family didn’t have. I could not have been more wrong. We lived a humble life, and it did not matter how much we struggled, my mom always shared whatever we had. One evening, after my mom spent hours in the kitchen frying tacos, a guest walked in our home complaining about the people living in tents across the street. She quickly stood up, took her plate of food with the remaining tacos, and sat down and shared a meal with them. She would tell me, “José, be careful how you judge people. You never know what life has thrown their way and what they have lived through. If you can help someone, always do it.”
Those words carried me through all the years working in the trenches of an open admission animal shelter. It is what informed my ethos of meeting people where they are. It is why I embraced open adoptions, waiving fees, and working with people who are experiencing homelessness to adopt or reclaim their pets. It was my way of not forgetting where I come from.
3) Forgive Often:
Over the years, I saw my mom experience a lot of heartache and disappointment and yet, she always moved forward with optimism. I remember the phone conversation that drove this lesson home. My mom and younger brother had gotten into a bad argument earlier that week, resulting in my brother moving out of her house. She called to tell me that they spoke and that he was moving back home. My first reaction was frustration. How could she forgive him after all that was said and done? But then, I had an epiphany and recognized that forgiveness was my mom’s super-power. She knew that people were more than the mistakes they made and that we all need second, third and fourth chances.
My mom also knew the power of a sincere apology. She taught me the importance of saying “I messed up and I was wrong.” Never too proud to apologize, she always tried to be accountable for the impact of her words and actions. That’s what good leaders do, too.
4) Relationships are Everything:
My mom loved her familia, friends, and animals more than anything. She taught me that no material possession or career accomplishment would ever matter as much as the relationships we build and nurture.
When we transitioned my mom to home-hospice this past January, I didn’t know what to expect. One of the many beautiful things to come out of this tragic experience was the re-connection to my family and all the wonderful people who loved my mom.
For six weeks, family and friends showed up each day to sit with her. I learned a lot about her during that time. The biggest take-away was how loved she was and the impact she made on so many people’s lives. The love didn’t just extend to her, I experienced so much kindness during this time too. My husband, family, friends, and colleagues all came together to surround sound me with support. It was another moment seeing how my life and that of my mom’s was intrinsically connected. This is when I realized just how rich we’ve always been.
5) Anything is Possible:
From the moment I was born to her final days on earth, she told me I could be and do anything in this life. “I’m proud of you”; “I love you”; “You are capable of anything you set your mind to, mijo.” These were the phrases I heard my entire life. She instilled in me that I mattered, and she gave me the confidence to speak my mind and to work towards my dreams. She taught me to reject the status quo and to use my voice to advocate for change, whether that be in my personal life or professional one. “Never settle” she would tell me “If you work hard and are good to people, anything is possible.”
On September 24th, 2021, we finished the renovation of her home, and it was the first time in 16 years that I slept there. There I was again, on the couch in the living room processing all that had transpired over the years. It was poignant and poetic. Time and introspection allowed me to rewrite my story as I was no longer resentful, scared, or anxious. That night I laid there with pride, gratitude, and a deep sense of belonging. I made a commitment to myself to not compromise or dilute my identity for anyone’s comfort or ease. After all, I am the son of Margaret Olivas Cocio, a bad-ass Chicana women who always remembered where she came from and whose legacy I am proud to carry on. Si se puede!