Jose Antonio Tijerino, influencer and champion of Hispanic and Latino youth in America, is also the man responsible for stewarding the Annual Hispanic Heritage Awards – “established in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan to commemorate the creation of Hispanic Heritage Month in America.”
Serving as president and CEO of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation (HHF) for more than 16 years, Antonio has been entrusted with stewarding this important legacy for our community. The Awards “are among the highest honors by Latinos for Latinos, and supported by 40 national Hispanic-serving institutions.” He is also a strong advocate for Latino youth, including young professional Latinas, ensuring corporate America is connected with rising professional talent from our own community through a variety of programs, including: HHF’s Hispanic Heritage Youth Awards, Latinas on Fast Track Workforce program, and Leaders on Fast Track Institute (LOFT), among other initiatives.
This year, the awards ceremony took place on September 14th, 2017 at the Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C. The elegant evening was capped off with a stellar performance by one of this year’s honorees, cross-over recording artist Luis Fonsi (Despacito), who brought the crowd up to their dancing feet.
Other honorees included: “Gael García Bernal, Alba Colón, Rudy Beserra, The Latin Recording Academy, and the nation’s undocumented youth known as the “Dreamers.” The Awards will be broadcast nationally on PBS, Friday October 6th at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Antonio sat down with TFL in lead up to the 30th Annual Hispanic Heritage Awards. He shared his personal story and philosophy on what he calls the art of “imperfection” – while also underscoring the importance of taking initiative and being bold when it comes to serving our community. It is a philosophy of leadership and service that has helped shaped him, and overcome many of the challenges he faced as a young immigrant and Latino youth in America.
TFL: Thanks for your time today Antonio!
Tijerino: You’re welcome. Excuse my desk. Look at this, I’ve mastered the art of imperfection.
TFL: Yes, you seem really busy. Looks like you have a lot going on. So, first, tell us where you’re from and little about your background.
Tijerino: Well, I’ve written about this before, but I’ll tell you … I came over here when I was six years old from Nicaragua. My Dad got a job in Washington, D.C. We were a strong family. I also have an older sister and a younger brother. We ended up in Tenley Circle, here in Washington, D.C.
Now, I hadn’t gone to school before, and suddenly the day after I got here, they put me in first grade. And I didn’t speak a word of English – not a word! I had one teacher actually pinch me to make sure I wasn’t mute. They thought that I had challenges – learning challenges. And, I didn’t! I just didn’t speak a word of English.
TFL: Do you feel like you endured a lot of tough challenges as an immigrant child?
Tijerino: Well, you adjust. Kids weren’t the nicest in terms of me being different. I had a little “copete” (bangs), I wore different clothes. My parents didn’t speak much English – you know it was very broken English.
But it was interesting, because I found pride in the best baseball player at the time who was Latino, named Roberto Clemente. So my comeback, when the kids were being mean was: “Oh yeah? Roberto Clemente!” He was the best baseball player at the time, and I think they had just won the World Series.
And then my [childhood] hero, ended up being truly a hero by going to Nicaragua to help the victims of the earthquake. He ended up dying trying to help the people there. So, he was my hero all the way through death. I mean that guy is someone to really admire not just as a player, but as a humanitarian.
TFL: So you grew up in Washington, D.C.?
Tijerino: Well, were living an idyllic life in D.C. as a family, and then we would go to Nicaragua to visit family every summer. Except during this one summer when I was about 15, civil war was breaking out.
So my sister and my Mom went to Paraguay. That’s where my sister and mom were both born. And then my Dad sent my brother and I to relatives in kind of rural part of Illinois at that time … although we wanted to go back to D.C. It didn’t quite work out. I don’t think they were quite in the market for a sixteen- and fourteen-year old – boys with a lot of angst and … kind of feeling lost. But he had to get us out of Nicaragua, because at that time they were taking kids and putting them to fight in “la frontera” – both sides.
And so we ended up in Illinois. And again, when we first got there, hearing a lot of the horrible names thrown at us, because we were the only Latinos really that were there … and I fought a lot.
TFL: Do you feel as though you faced a lot of racial discrimination there?
Tijerino: I don’t know if it was discrimination. I try to be realistic with it. I think we were brown. Now we didn’t have accents or anything. By then, our Spanish already kind of sucked.
If anything I remember going back to Nicaragua and all of sudden my Spanish wasn’t good enough. And that was my first language! And I was like, what’s going on? And then they look at you, and call you “gringo!” So it was really weird. I went from not fitting in when I got here, to not fitting in when I went back, to then not fitting in when I came back to Illinois.
So when I was in Illinois – I just have never been somebody who puts with someone getting away with things like that. So I would get in fights all the time. And then I remember the principal saying, “hey listen, you have to stop doing this.” And I would say, “well, they have to stop doing it.”
And at that point, it wasn’t even like I was mad. So it wasn’t like I was hurt by being called “wetback” and “beaner.”
TFL: Were you seriously called those names?
Tijerino: Oh yeah, yeah, all those things. And I was like, “hey, I came on a plane”.
But, out of respect to anyone [who] is called that, [and] actually had to come across the border – it’s not that they were actually attacking me personally – it’s that they were attacking everyone [who] had circumstances, worse than mine, that actually came here for a better life. All the immigrants – and not just me standing in front of them.
And, I still feel that way. When I represent our community, I don’t represent myself. I represent everybody that can’t be in that room.
And you know, you are in a service industry by running a nonprofit. You are a servant to your country, to your community, and certainly to your family in everything you do.
TFL: Did it ever get better for you – like you felt you fit in?
Tijerino: Well, the turning point is interesting. It was when the teachers started calling me those names – like “beaner” and “wetback.”
I remember getting out of gym class and having taken a shower, and the teacher saying: “Hey, you missed a spot.”
I would say, “What?” And, he’d say, “Your back’s still wet.”
But it was a teacher doing it. And the kids that had been calling me that, suddenly didn’t feel comfortable laughing. It was bizarre. It was like an uncomfortable laugh. Of course I said, “you can’t talk to me that way.” And of course, I got sent to the principal’s office for being insubordinate.
But it was interesting, the kids suddenly stopped calling me that.
TFL: They were in solidarity with you?
Tijerino: They were weirdly in solidarity with me. So then, we had a common enemy (chuckle). So then after that incident, there were no problems.
We were getting along with everyone. But it didn’t work out with my aunt and uncle [in Illinois]. So we stayed in other people’s houses, or stayed in the car sometimes, and we just kind of pieced together … those years.
And there was this girl. I asked her to one of the dances. And she was really nice, and she actually said, “yes”, which was great. And then she said, “when you come over, I think we can get away with it. I told them you were Italian.”
Even through all the other stuff I had gone through, this was a real moment when I suddenly put a big huge “L” across my chest.
TFL: Oh really? Instead of feeling ashamed, you put the “L” on your chest?
Tijerino: Oh yeah, I put the “L” on my chest, and a cape, and the whole thing. It was different than before. Because the times before, it was like someone making fun of me because I was short … or making fun of my clothes.
This was different. This was somebody who actually liked me saying, hey listen, pretend you’re Italian. And I said, “I’m not going to do anything of the sort.” And, I moved on.
I just had a bit more of a constructive “chip on my shoulder.” I was just never being good at being a victim. I just never was. And to this day, I say that to the kids in our programs. I tell them – “we are part of the solution. We are not victims in all of this. We are way too resourceful and creative, and innovative and hard-working to be a victim to any circumstance, as Latinos…”
TFL: How was your transition to college?
Tijerino: So then I met this lovely young woman who became my girlfriend. And her parents asked us to move in with them. Then suddenly you are kind of taken aback – by the sincere kindness …
So for the last part of high school, I had an idyllic situation. I was part of a family. They embraced us. I got along with everyone at school – I was playing sports and hanging out, and everything else. Everything was fine, but I knew I wanted to get back to D.C. And I always dreamed of going to the University of Maryland. I attended, and was a journalism major there, and again got involved.
And at that point the “L” never came off my chest. So I made sure I represented there. But I also liked working across cultures – I had African-American friends, Asian friends, disabled friends, and white friends. In college you really gain an understanding that you’re not the only one minority in this world – or the only group …
You start feeling that sense of bigger community, by understanding what everyone else had gone through … You start realizing we are all in this together.
From there I went on to work at Burson-Marsteller – a PR firm. But it took me a while to finish school, because I was working. I was working at an all-you-can-eat seafood place as a waiter. That fried stuff! I was telling my daughter the other day … I actually had to find a date smelling like shrimp all day long. Cats followed me home. (Laughter)
TFL: How do you think those experiences shaped you?
Tijerino: To this day the one thing that I credit in my career is waiting tables – the skills that I learned that helped me in everything I do. And it’s funny – most of the people that work here – I ask if they have any experience waiting tables.
At Burson-Marsteller I worked on a lot of different accounts. And you know, you get a mindset where you have a client, and you work backwards from what your client is trying to achieve.
But it also means that you have to have a threshold in terms of what clients you will take on. And it is the same thing in the nonprofit world … I enter a partnership with my sponsors … you really do have to work with them to come up with ideas.
TFL: What do you love most about your job, and what kind of legacy do you want to create for Hispanic Heritage Foundation?
Tijerino: Hispanic Heritage Awards is how Hispanic Heritage Foundation got started.
This is our 30th anniversary, if you count that first [awards ceremony], and it was created by the Reagan administration. And there was a guy on the inside name Rudy Becerra, and a whole bunch of other people that were involved, but we are honoring Rudy this year. Those guys pulled together a coalition of Latino groups… to honor Latinos and to commemorate Hispanic Heritage Month being created in this country – which is really important. In 1988, they saw the value of the community and they said, this shouldn’t be a week, this should be a month. So, that is the legacy.
I came on board 17 years ago. And the best guy I know, Dr. Pedro José Greer – Dr. Greer – out of Miami was on the board, and he was the incoming Chair. They needed a new Executive Director and he picked me. It was right after 9/11 … and from what I understand I didn’t have the most orthodox interview.
I actually said when I got here, you need to expand … I was working at Fannie Mae Foundation. We worked on the concept for the Youth Awards program … at that time it was very small. So then it was about expanding the Youth Awards and providing a pipeline of talent … and after five years you then funnel them into the workforce, and you funnel them into leadership positions. And that has worked out.
And, so the Latinas on Fast Track Program [LOFT] was created more than 13 years ago. That program has really taken off. We are now working with companies to diversify their workforce. We are going in a thousand different directions.
And this is something I feel very strongly about on my own. That I am very proud of the naiveté that I have, that we can change things – the audacity to think that we can change things – and to some extent, delusional enough to think that we can change things. But also being bold enough to try and change things.
So, having the naiveté, the audacity, and the delusion doesn’t work if you’re not bold and willing to try different things.
TFL: So, how can professionals in our community guide and encourage young Latinos starting their careers?
Tijerino: We are coaches, we can guide them [young people]. I throw “leña” (wood) in their “fuego” (fire). That’s my job.
Look, anybody can make it into LOFT [Leaders On Fast Track Institute]. We just have to make people feel special. That is a great motivator …
If I can make someone feel special, it should disarm someone … and if not, well that is a great person to walk away from. You have to be able to access energy from people, if not, you are in a great deficit …
I love people that are concerned, and are positive about what our community is capable of. I love that …
Look, leadership is servitude. Don’t get it twisted. I serve on a bunch of boards. I’m the only Latino on a lot of those. And, I consider that I am there for a reason.
I am there to make sure our community is represented. Some of the kids you are talking about, some of their parents, aren’t in that room.