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Thrive In Your Brilliance: Latina Leader, Author on How To Create Change

Denise Padín Collazo

You may not have heard of the artichoke capital of the world—Castroville, California—but you definitely need to hear and know more about Denise Padín Collazo, a leader, advocate, director and author who coincidentally was born in Castroville.

Senior advisor for external affairs and director of institutional advancement at Faith In Action, (formerly PICO National Network), the nation’s largest faith-based, progressive organizing network, Collazo is an inspiring leadership expert and social justice advocate with the mission to encourage women of color to lead with vision and to thrive.

Great granddaughter of a bold woman born a few years after slavery ended in Puerto Rico in the 1900s who had six daughters, Collazo says her legacy emanates from a line of very strong women. One of those six daughters was Collazo’s abuela, or grandmother, who left Puerto Rico for New York City in the 1940s with five sons and one daughter, escaping spousal violence. One of her sons was Collazo’s father, Rafael.

“Fifty years after my abuela made that impossible choice to try to support six children alone, I had the opportunity to graduate from Harvard University,” Collazo says. “Our ancestors tried to catapult us as fast as they possibly could.”

The author of Thriving In The Fight: A Survival Manual for Latinas On The Front Lines of Change, says that on her graduation day from Harvard she pictured her grandmother. “I imagined I was standing on her tiny little shoulders,” she says.

She wrote her book, Collazo says, because “I want to encourage, inspire and energize these women of color and Latinas to find ways to thrive in all their brilliance.”

Growing up in Castroville, Collazo was invited to apply to Harvard in her junior year of high school where she excelled academically and on standardized tests. She applied early and got in, but did not receive financial aid. Her father, who was working at PG& E, and her mother working as a civil servant, moved out of their house, and stretched their finances as far as they could, at one point filing for bankruptcy because of high tuition bills.

“At 17, when I started college, my parents dropped me off, and my mom didn’t cry, but my dad did,” says Collazo.

As a pre-med student, she studied Spanish language and literature, but soon realized she did not want to pursue medicine. “I couldn’t stand to hear sick babies cry,” she says.

After graduation, Collazo joined the Faith in Action National Network, in local Oakland community organizations in 1992, working as an organizer. It is work she has done every day since, moving up to leadership on the national level, and writing her recent book to help others also in social justice movements.

“I wrote the book because I’ve been in the movement for social change for many years. It is hard work and people who do it regularly get up every single day and face down giants.” Collazo adds, “”People are wrestling with COVID, dealing with families losing children to gun violence; they get exposed to a lot of trauma.”

She adds, “I wanted to honor my ancestors. I wanted to tell people my story and say that it takes a lot of failure and mistakes to succeed.”

Centering her lessons on Latina leaders, Collazo says, “Latinas are taught to serve humbly behind the scenes. But if you want to have a bigger impact, you need to lead from the front.”

Writing the book at a time “when COVID was strong and we are in a pandemic and an international reckoning with race,”  Collazo says her book outlines three keys to leadership for WOC.

The first is to lead, “or lead into your vision.” Secondly, “Love into your fullest self and show up as the fullest version of yourself.” Third is to “love past the negatives that hold us back.”

She adds, “Often as Latinas, WOC, we don’t show up as the fullest version of ourselves in places we don’t feel were made for us,” she says, like Harvard. “We show up as a smaller version of ourselves, so I encourage us to show up as we would at a family gathering. We are the bones that bring together the flesh of our family.”

Latinas are historically faced with low levels of accurate representation in leadership roles in real life and on screen.

A new study from University of Southern California-Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found “despite making up about 20 percent of the U.S. population, the Hispanic/Latinx community ‘remains almost invisible on screen,’” according to Women and Hollywood.

“Only seven percent of 2019’s top films featured a Hispanic/Latinx lead or co-lead, and just 3.5 percent of leads/co-leads across the 13-year sample were Hispanic/Latinx. Hispanic/Latina girls/women still represent only 1.9% of all leads/co leads across 1,300 films.”

The report continues, “Less than six percent of speaking or named characters in 2019’s top films were Hispanic/Latinx; 35 of those movies featured zero Hispanic/Latinx speaking characters. Just five percent of all characters across 2007-2019’s top movies were Hispanic/Latinx; 567 of those 1,300 films, or 43.6 percent, didn’t have a single Hispanic/Latinx character.”

Without role models to look for in TV and films, Latinas also may struggle with observing powerful Latinas as role models in business and leadership.

Latino USA reports that in 2019, “Hispanics are the largest minority group in the U.S. at 18.3%. Statistics from 2017 show that Hispanics make up 17% of the labor force. However, they occupy only 4.3% of executive positions in the U.S. .Hispanic representation is roughly equal to that of Black executives and somewhat lower than Asian American executives.”

Most of those Latinx leaders are male.

Latino USA reports, “The gap between labor force and executive representation is wider among Hispanics than any other group.”

The rarity of Latinas and WOC in leadership is despite gains made in college graduation and employment rates. According to Catalyst, of total bachelor’s degrees earned by US citizen women and permanent residents in 2017–2018, Hispanic women earned 14.9%, Black women earned 11.4% of college degrees and Asian/Pacific Islander women earned 7.6%.

Catalyst reports that in 2020, “women of color represented 18% of entry-level positions, but few advanced to leadership positions. This includes managers (12%), senior managers/directors (9%), Vice presidents (6%), Senior Vice President (5%), and C-suite positions (3%). 

The Catalyst research shows that “While White women held almost one-third (32.8%) of total management positions in the US in 2020, women of color held a much smaller share, with Asian women at 2.2%; Black women at 4.1% and Hispanic women at 4.5%.”

The realities of being a rarity in leadership positions presents challenges and Collazo advises on how to deal with those issues.

When faced with opposition, Collazo says, there are three warning signs that you might be surrendering, “or treading water, not having the impact you want.”

These signs are wishing, meaning ,“You are wishing for a future and not doing anything to happen.” Next is wondering, meaning you wonder “where the limits are but don’t push yourself” beyond them. Third is waiting for “permission and answers to come form other places.”

Collazo has examples from her own life. After she had applied for the executive director position, she says she got the news she did not get the job in a hotel room on a business trip. “Not getting that job, while it broke my heart, it broke my heart open to stare down my gifts and my gaps.”

She adds, “Just because I failed, did not make me a failure.”

Leading in a $65 million organization that is a national network of 45 affiliates in 26 states  with 300 staff members and 3,000 aligned religious organizations, Collazo says her work is critical. The organizations faces issues of “access to healthcare, public education, funding, revenue, policy,” and “making sure everyone has dignity.”

Leading in a way she describes as “open and authentic,” Collazo says there are five areas of leadership. The first is integrating family and work. The second is “leading from the front” which is much less comfortable than being behind the scenes. The third is naming, noticing and disrupting. She intends to challenge “the anti-Blackness is our cultures of origin and challenge it in the Latinx community. I want to reach across difference and build real relationships,” says Collazo.

The fourth aspect of leadership is to be clear about purpose. The fifth is to raise the resources you need to be successful in your work.

Collazo recently moved back to her father’s native Puerto Rico. “Part of the reason I wanted to move back is because this is where all of  my ancestors poured their blood, sweat and tears,” she says. “I feel at home. I think, ‘Is my grandmother proud of me?’”

Few would argue the answer is yes.


Michele Weldon

Author: Michele Weldon

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon www.micheleweldon.com

This article originally appeared in Take the Lead Women on October 1, 2021.