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Speak Up

No amount of words will ever be enough to finish telling the stories of girls today and of yesterdays and their struggles to attain an education. The challenges we face, the potential impact we can create to this world and all the untold stories of girls around the world who will go on living without the basic literacy of reading and writing will go untold – unless we start speaking now.

Whatever one may be thinking that gets in the way of a girl’s education… cultural biases, lack of respect for women, economic constraints, lack of mentors/confidence, etc… check “all of the above,” please!

All these challenges can be summed up in one word: tradition.

Personally, tradition is one of the greatest challenges I face in my community and even across the border where my mother and oldest sister were born. Tradition is one of the biggest villains in almost every culture to women – like me, first generation Mexican-American.

I was born and raised in an unincorporated community with a 99% Latino population. You see, once someone from Latin America enters the United States, unfortunately, not all traditions are left behind. The role of a man and woman are very distinctive and well-defined in the household. Woman and girls stay at home, cook, clean and take care of others while man goes out and works and is the main provider for the family. Traditional. Quite frankly, I know of some women in my community who do the job of a man and woman but their efforts go untold. Whether you live in my community or in Mexico like my mother’s side of the family, you are still facing traditional roles of man and woman. When man and woman begin to realize that there is no such thing as gender role definitions, then we will begin progressing.
While women are already moving towards the right to an education by creating non-profits, teaming up with United Nations Foundation like Girl Up campaign that gives girls access to education in Malawi, Liberia, Ethiopia and Guatemala, it’s still not enough to get every girl living in this world an education.

In the United States of America, where it’s the law for every child to attend school and where incentives range from free or low reduced lunch prices, and a promise to attend college and ultimately achieve a career - this idea has been proven most effective. My family and I broke most traditions of a family coming from a developing country when my older sisters and I pushed ourselves to graduate from high school and go on to college. While the solution here may seem to be to enter the United States of America, I suggest otherwise.

My sisters and I faced a number of challenges to get to college. The one barrier we all had to overcome was tradition. While my father heavily installed in our lives that college is the only way to succeed, he was reluctant to letting us make our own decisions of attending a school of our choice. I witnessed my oldest sister give up a scholarship to a school a mere 380 miles away from home, I witnessed my other sister cry herself to sleep because my father wouldn’t let her attend a school 25 miles away from home. So when it was my turn to make a college decision, I already knew attending a school across the country was going to be impossible. But after months of mental and physical preparation from my mother and sisters, I learned I had to speak up to attend the school of my dreams. Of course my father was the evil green monster I knew but after tears and an explanation of financial aid, he told me I had the choice. Tradition of a close family and being at home to help the family out, almost didn’t allow me to attend my dream school.

While going up against my father and his traditions may not seem like the hardest thing to overcome in this world, these barriers are present in my community and worldwide to girls of all ages.

Malala Yousafzai, 15 year old girl shot in the head by the Taliban for standing up for women’s right to an education is today’s revolutionary example. She is a champion in the eyes of girls like me. She has to go against tradition and even though she suffered such tragedy, she is still in school today as we speak.

The best way to overcome these barriers is by speaking up.

In 2012 I presented my first ever TED talk at the TEDxYouth@SanDiego Conference where I shared the barriers I faced as a Latina to attain a higher education to hundreds of high school students.

Now it’s your turn to speak up.

This story was written for World Pulse’s Girls Transform the World Digital Action Campaign.

World Pulse believes that women's stories, recommendations, and collective rising leadership can—and will—bring girls greater access to education which will transform their lives, their families, and communities. The Girls Transform Campaign elicits insightful content from young women on the ground, strengthens their confidence as women, and ensures that influencers and powerful institutions hear their stories.
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pelamutunzi's picture

well done

congrats for speaking out. more voice to you its what we need to start a revolution

we may be powerless to stop an injustice but let there never be a time we fail to protest.

Dear Rocio:

You have achieved so much already in 19 years - congratulations, and all best wishes for continuing success. I watched your TED Talk, and heard you talk about your challenges in persuading your father to let you take part in the Pages program in Congress and also to attend Wellesley College.

While you talked about tradition as being a barrier for you, I also found myself seeing your father as a person who has challenged tradition himself. Leaving your home country to make a new life somewhere else is a big step, not taken easily. I was thinking that you could, one of these days, have a wonderful conversation with your father about what it feels like to change a tradition. You both seem to have experience with doing so!

I wondered what it was about that conversation, where you talked about how you wanted to be in the Pages program, that persuaded your father to agree. Was it that he saw that you seem wise beyond your years? Was it because possibly you might have sounded like him when he decided to leave Mexico to go to live in the United States?

You said that your father instilled in all of you the importance of attending college, but was reluctant to see his daughters go far away from home. So he knew education was vital, and in that sense, it does not seem tradition held you back. I wondered if it was as much concern for you that inspired this reluctance. Sometimes I think parents fear for their daughters' safety, especially if they are far from home. But I think for a parent, it is not always easy to talk about this with one's children. Malala's father is very supportive of his daughter; I also think he must worry about her safety when she returns home, and my heart goes out to both of them.

One thing I have learned, in my years of researching peacebuilding in various places, is that - for many people - the ideas of 'family' and 'family obligation' differ in North America from much of the rest of the world. We tend to think, in North America, that the goal is for children to become independent and likely to leave home; but in many other parts of the world, a child growing up means that they are now able to contribute to the family. Part of promoting education for girls, which I agree with you is vitally important, means addressing this view, it seems to me.

Thanks for sharing your story, and the TED Talk; I enjoyed reading and listening. And I wish you much success in continuing to speak up for girls' education - you are the voice of the future!

Best regards,

Lea's picture

A powerful speech

Dear Rocio,
I watched your presentation on TEDTalk and read your powerful essay and I have to say that you exhude true maturity and strength at such a young age. You clearly show that you are a determined and tenacious person who would not give up, knowing full well what you were up against.
I agree that tradition is extremely hard to break, especially when no-one up until that point dared to challenge it. I can imagine the frustration and the fear of having to oppose your father's expectations in order to fufill your goals. It takes a lot of courage to stand up for yourself and to convince him that your decision will benefit you in the future.
It's unfortunate that in a traditional society, women are still perceived as inferior and are not encouraged to get an education.
I completely agreed with you when you said that those of us who are fortunate enough to have access to an education, should see it as a privilege. We should demand that every girl get an education in order for to feel empowered and to become aware of all of the opportunities at her disposal.
There needs to be more young women like you who speak out and who want to support girls' education at whatever cost.
Thank you for sharing your powerful story!

Lyndsay's picture

Thank you for speaking up!

Rocio, I really enjoyed both reading your story and watching the TED talk - thank you for sharing! You are such a poised and articulate speaker, and this comes across in your writing as well.
I like that you present your personal story as your motivation for speaking up on behalf of girls worldwide. You don't undervalue the challenges you faced and the courage that it took to confront your father, but you also acknowledge that barriers may be far greater for girls in other countries and culture much more rigid than your own. This is a powerful approach to advocacy.
Keep writing and good luck on your path!

Anna V's picture

Standing up for what you believe

Hi Rocio-

Your post did a wonderful job of showing how difficult it can be to stand up for what we believe. Those in our lives that love us most are often the ones who want to keep us safe in our traditions and avoid the unknown.

Though you write that your father was the evil green monster, I imagine that his decision and the conversation was as hard on him as it was on you. I hope that you can find a way to grow into who you want to be while maintaining of the traditions that keep you close to your family. You may find comfort in them during difficult times in your life ahead.

Thank you for sharing!

Khaiwana's picture

A born leader!

I watch your video and I was inspired, I had to share it. Keep been great.
I too want to be an Architect of my destiny

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