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Latinx Heritage Month: The Trials and Tribulations of Being Latina

Puerto Rican born Melissa Lugo is Head of Marketing for Eskalera Inc, a company that specializes in Diversity and Inclusion education in the workplace.

I begin by acknowledging the country where I came from, Puerto Rico, in all its beauty and challenges; it is my homeland that makes my identity unique and rich. 

“Where is Puerto Rico? What is Puerto Rico? Does that mean you’re Hispanic, Latina, American or what?” – the all too common questions when identifying myself in any setting.

  • Puerto Rico is located in the northeast Caribbean Sea, approximately 1,000 miles southeast of Miami, Florida
  • Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States (aka the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico)
  • By definition, I am Latina and an American born citizen

As history narrates, Puerto Rico and its people were conveyed from one sovereign to another, destined to be the gem of the Antilles—the best governed, happiest, and most prosperous island in the West Indies and remains as a Commonwealth of the United States. What does the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico mean? We have a governmental administration but are governed with full jurisdiction by the US and enjoy freedom of movement between the island and the mainland as US citizens. It’s important to note that even if 100% of Puerto Ricans did vote for a change in status, a plebiscite could never actually be a path to statehood or independence. In the current status, the people of Puerto Rico do not have the legal authority to decide their own fate. That power still rests with the United States Congress.  Are you confused yet? That’s what being a native Puerto Rican from the island often feels like: confusing. In a nutshell, Puerto Rico’s complex history and relationship to the mainland are complicated and reflective of my own experience in the workplace – complex and ever-changing. 

In the early days of my career, I launched myself into the financial space; a role where my bilingual language skills were highly valuable, on-demand and “celebrated”. I was humbled and excited to feel so valued, while supporting an under-served community. As time went by, my clientele grew, my productivity was at an all-time high and I felt proud to be honoring the ‘value’ placed in me. My success in my role provided hyper-visibility which opened doors to new opportunities within the organization. Unfortunately, management didn’t have a development plan for me because allowing me to advance meant they would lose their only Spanish speaking employee. Rather than look for others with my same skill set, they denied me the opportunity to grow. How was this possible? Why were they not prepared to service the fastest growing demographic? Unlike my colleagues, my hard work and dedication didn’t translate to growth. It’s safe to say, I thanked them for the opportunity and moved on to a new employer and vowed to ‘never’ use my bilingual skills as the main reason why I’d accept a job.  

Fast-forward a few years, I transitioned my finance marketing skills to the world of consumer packaged goods, more specifically, wine. I was given the opportunity to work in an industry that has a $57.6 billion in state economic impact and $111 billion in national impact and to come work for one of the top five wineries in the US at a time when the organization was relatively small, the marketing team was new, and the portfolio had limitless possibilities. I dove right into the prestigious, romantic, lucrative world of wine, learned the complexity of distribution, legal regulations and embraced the creative marketing techniques it takes to get the product into stores and the hands of consumers. I had landed my dream job! 

As the years went by, our team and portfolio grew, we welcomed South-American wine brands into the portfolio and I was deep in the trenches of staying up-to-date with market and consumer trends and leveraging my skills to help expand our efforts and achieve business goals. Needs to service Spanish-speaking markets quickly came about and I found myself volunteering to translate go-to-market materials. But how does a Puerto Rican woman explain the intricacies of marketing to different Spanish-speaking audiences and the importance of speaking to each with the correct accent? Hispanic and Latin cultures aren’t a one-size-fits-all and no, not everyone speaks the exact, same Spanish. For the first time in my role, my ‘difference’, my heritage, my experiences made me feel ‘foreign’. Why had the business overlooked investing efforts in the fastest-growing consumer base? Why were we still a predominantly white business? Had we collectively failed to take notice of the unconscious biases we had as a business? How had we not acknowledge the loss of business opportunities?

Let’s briefly review a few workforce data facts:

  • Hispanics currently make up 16% of the overall U.S. labor market and will account for one out of every two new workers entering the workforce by 2025 and 66,000 are turning 18 every month.
  • The more than 83 million young people born between 1982 and 2000 are more diverse than any other generation of Americans, and about one-quarter of all Millennials are Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
  • Hispanics are poised to transform the U.S. economy and, by extension, thousands of workplaces in this country in the next three decades. 
  • The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that Hispanics represented 17.4% (55 million) of the U.S. population in 2014 and projects that Hispanics will represent 28.6% of the population by 2060.

Let’s review a few category consumer data facts:

  • Hispanics actually consume wine just as much as beer —31.6% and 31.4% respectively
  • Nielsen estimates Hispanic buying power will reach $1.7 trillion by 2020, this is a missed opportunity for the wine industry

With these facts hard to ignore and my feeling othered, after eight years, I decided to take a leap of faith and say farewell to my marketing career in wine. I accomplished great things in eight years, worked with some of the most amazing and hard-working people in the industry (many whom I’m blessed to call friends), grew tremendously as a professional but what advancement opportunities would the future hold? Would the industry embrace more of my fellow Latino or Hispanic professionals? How could we break down the unconscious biases so deeply engrained in the every-day? As a marketer, would I be able to service and grow my fellow consumer base? Contrary to my financial experience, in this situation, my ‘identity’, my ‘skill-set’, my ‘difference’ made me invisible and it was time to pursue change.

As I embarked on my journey to pursue change, I experienced marketing from a global standpoint, worked on some high profile brands and realized it was time to shift my focus in finding my ideal employee experience. It was now time to find a role with a deeper purpose; a role where my diversity would be an added value and not an isolation trigger; a role where inclusion and company culture is a priority; a role where I could take my marketing efforts to full potential and without boundaries; a role where I could be my authentic self, lead and help pave the way for other Latinos. 

Like many fellow Latinxs and Hispanics, I live between cultures and languages. ‘Ni de aqui, ni de alla’, as we say in Puerto Rico — “Neither from here nor from there” but regardless of the challenges, it is our collective duty to use our resources not just to continue investing and empowering ourselves here, but to build bridges. Organizations have a lot to gain from a diverse and inclusive workforce and we must not retreat. At Eskalera, I am blessed to have leaders such as Joe Reid, who believed in my skills and leadership, Dr.Tolonda Tolbert who is a leader, a mentor and a role model (finally someone who I can see a piece of myself in!) and our CEO, Tom Chavez who took a chance on me and is truly dedicated to find hard-working, overlooked, talent. Our diversity and our experiences bring great value to our communities and our workplaces. My identity, my roots, my heritage are complex but I’m grateful to be in a place where my complexity and difference doesn’t mean being excluded; I am at a place where I can be accepted and a champion for myself and those around me.

If you are curious about other ideas involving workplace culture, diversity, and inclusion, we recommend Eskalera’s blog. It’s full of helpful info for learning about and navigating culture related challenges in your workplace. Climb the ladder!


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