Kelly is a 37-year-old graphic designer living in Albany, California. She moved to the U.S. from El Salvador four years ago and has since adopted an English Springer Spaniel named Clementina, who keeps her on her toes.
Prologue: I believe the stories we tell one another have the power to change the world. Especially the stories we tell one another about ourselves.
As a society, we focus so much of our attention on the bold-faced “success stories” of CEOs and best-selling authors, the famous and infamous. We get accustomed to glossy, polished anecdotes that are fun to read but hard to relate to. Too often — especially during these times of isolation and separation — we miss the remarkable stories that live all around us.
The neighbor across the street.
The woman behind the cash register.
The co-worker we see every day.
Captivating, inspiring, powerful stories live inside each of us. This series celebrates those stories with 15 interviews of women whose voices you likely haven’t heard before. (Since March is Women’s History Month, it seems like the perfect time for it.) I asked each of these women to share some of their personal story, and talk about how they have found — or are still finding — their own voice.
Today, we hear from Kelly.
In her own words:
You know the saying, “Behind a great man is a great woman.” To me, this sums up what the culture I grew up in values about women. It’s the belief that women ought to be the backbone of the family; be graceful, patient, and underneath all the good manners, have thick skin to endure it all. Men are at the front and center of everything, while women are the center and in the background.
From my personal experience, the role of being a girl and filling the shoes of a woman one day weighted heavily in my upbringing, especially in a sexist society. I was taught that a woman is the one that tends to all things house and family, and works only if it’s a necessity, meaning that the man is usually the breadwinner. It seemed to me that pursuing a career for women was more of a fail-safe, you know, in case you didn’t find a man who could take care of you. And so, concepts like independence and ambition weren’t really fostered; and, I dare say, they even had a negative connotation.
These ideas didn’t sit all that well with me. I think that because I grew up mostly among boys (my two older brothers and their friends who were always around), I always had this conflict of wanting to be and behave as freely as they did. But I was constantly reminded that things were different for me. As a result, I felt very overprotected and even sidelined. I really hated this and challenged it every chance I had, proving that I could do just the same and even more than what the boys did, or voicing out that boys should do the same things that were expected of a girl. All in the name of fairness.
I was born and raised in El Salvador, where I spent much of my life in a small, quiet town called Antiguo Cuscatlán, not too far away from the chaotic liveliness of the capital.
By the time I was born, the country was well into its fourth year of civil war, with peace accords arriving in 1992. Just in my lifetime, the nation has survived 12 years of armed conflict, quite a number of natural disasters, rising crime violence, and inevitable economic crisis. Yet, for all of its thorny history and frailty, you will find that Salvadorans are unstoppable, super industrious, warm, and optimistic people.
I grew up in a family of six. I’m the third out of four kids, two boys (the older ones) and two girls (there are nine years between my youngest sister and me).
My dad, an industrial engineer and entrepreneur, was the head of the house. A reasonably strict guy, very loving, and with a good sense of humor. My mom devoted herself to raising us, and still managed to pursue her artistic passions whenever she could make space for herself. A very restless but loving woman.
My parents deeply believed that faith had to be key in our upbringing, which made something of a conservative home. My siblings all went to single-gender Catholic schools, yet for some reason, I went to secular mixed-gender school for the majority of my pre-university education. I guess we were a somewhat-pretty-regular family who did work and school from Monday to Friday, went on trips on the weekends, and (almost) never missed church on Sundays.
We lived in the house my parents built some 30 years ago — this beautiful hacienda-like house with lush gardens, always with people coming and going. This house has seen all sorts of rites of passage: baptisms, first communions, and even my own wedding.
As we grew older and went on to build our own lives, we kept coming back to this house. We started this tradition where every Saturday we would all get together and have a feast of a family lunch. The boys cooked something delicious on the grill while drinking beer, always talking about work — my dad established a family business which was solely run by the men in the family — and the girls worked on the complementary dishes, making sure the table was set and ready for everyone. We would then spend the rest of the afternoon stuffed, chatting about everything and nothing.
What are three things about yourself that you did NOT get to choose?
Being a woman. A Latina. Born Salvadoran.
What are three things about yourself that you DID choose?
1. To pursue a career in design. I always had the creative bug, and sometimes it manifests in different ways. Design allows me to focus on what is in front of me. To look at one problem and explore solutions from different angles, and in the process, make something beautiful.
2. To become an immigrant. I refused to accept the circumstances around me as my reality/fate. I had this need to expand my horizons, test myself, discover and define how far I want to go and what I can make of my life.
3. To be a realistic optimist. It’s not easy, and it’s more a choice that get’s tested every day, but I truly believe there is no option but to persevere. To try and try and try, and hope that by preparing to the best of your abilities and giving it your all, you will get closer to achieving what you desire.
What fears hold you back?
I have always struggled to show myself and speak up. It feels more comfortable and safe to go unnoticed and take the backstage. Maybe this could be largely linked to those foundational ideas about my role as a woman. Of course, my introvert personality doesn’t help.
But also, the past four years of the political climate have really exacerbated my fears. As an immigrant, I think that (maybe not so subconsciously) I have felt singled out, and have feared that the things that make me different aren’t fully welcome; and this has exponentially increased my immediate desire to go unnoticed.
To an extent, this relates to my fear of being put in a box . Certain biases dominate the collective perception — if you have a given set of characteristics, then you fit within one particular box. This takes me to a place of thinking: “You are a woman, so you must work 2x as hard.” But also: “You are a brown woman, and an immigrant, so you have to work 5x as hard and prove your worth.”
It’s like on top of doing what you should be doing naturally and with ease, you’re adding all these extra layers that use up more mental space, creating double the load. This is not sustainable; it can take its toll really quickly and burn you out.
How have you worked hard to overcome a fear?
Well, I’m always working on it. I haven’t found any shortcuts or life-hacks for this.
Even working on this interview has been incredibly hard! I have to come up with this sort of special concoction that mixes braveness with a bit of surrender, then some patience with a bit compassion, but also some self-acknowledgement and appreciation…which don’t come easy!
I’ve searched for help, which is a bit harder than you’d like to think. But asking for support from my family, from my friends, and even my colleagues has been crucial in finding a way forward. I’ve also been doing a lot of reading, looking to understand our human behavior and how biases work, how to navigate them without losing faith in myself and in others.
What aspect of your personal history most shaped who you are?
This is a tough one to answer… Because I uprooted myself from my home, from all the social and familiar contexts, and was planted here not too long ago, I’m still working to understand and define this…I think that in many ways I’ve made myself in counteraction to what I should have been, especially in terms of gender role. And even as I’m constantly trying to carve out that self-definition, I find myself falling into the traps of the ideas and beliefs that were such a constant in my life.
As you’ve gotten older, what parts of your identity have you shed and what have you embraced?
I experience this struggle between what I feel the world demands me to become, and who I know I am and what my values are, especially in the dog-eat-dog Silicon Valley. There are times when I feel like I will get voraciously chewed up and tossed out, and I won’t even see it coming. Still, I refuse to become a cynic. I prefer to err on the side of naiveté.
What aspect of your identity is most precious to you?
I can only think of this in terms of a value: authenticity. Even when more often than not, it is more an ideal.
Four years after moving to the US, I still find myself constantly having to calibrate and adapt. There is so much learning happening all the time. It has been very strenuous, and I sometimes wonder how much of myself will get diluted in this process. But I don’t want to get diluted. I want to be able to embrace every bit of what makes me me, otherwise I don’t think that I’ll ever be whole.
I am still building myself from what feels like zero; embracing being a Salvadoran woman in a foreign country, a graphic designer, a graduate from a school in a place you most likely haven’t heard of — or heard negative things from; and here, trying to make space for myself.
What gets you out of bed in the morning on the worst of days?
I just love this journey that we call living, even through the hard and ugly parts. What gets me out of bed is this deep belief that I’m lucky to be alive, here and now; and it’s like I really don’t have a choice but to make the most of it. It’s a challenge in itself; and in trying, I get to discover the stuff that I’m made of. I’m like: “Oh, I did that. I wasn’t sure I could (either because of self-doubt or lack of motivation) but I did! Alright. Cool. What’s next?”
What is something you do that brings you deep joy?
I love learning, helping, solving problems, listening! I love feeling useful and helpful and that what I do has some impact. I love creating, in general. Those “Aha!” moments of finding the answer to a puzzle and of self-expression, putting my creativity and skills to the test: be it a design, a photograph, an illustration or a piece of writing, baking, cooking, playing the guitar. Really, anything that sparks my curiosity and gets me out of impending boredom.
How has did 2020 change the way you do things?
One thing I have noticed, since working from home because of the pandemic, is that I feel more comfortable being me. There’s something about having my own space that really helps me. When in the office, I found myself constantly having my guard up, which led to a lot of exhaustion. I’ve never really had time-management issues but more like energy-management. Now, at home I can focus more on the work, rather than in performing and showing up in a certain way.
Show us something you’ve made that you’re super proud of.
I created these images for a project I collaborated in. I have very little experience using photography as a medium, and I was really surprised at how these turned out. This was definitely one of those times where I have had to step so far out of my comfort zone, but had so much fun in the process!
Who in your life history most shaped your values?
From about age 11 and up until my late teens, my parents put me in piano lessons. Many years later, thinking of my teacher and reflecting on the example she set, I realized the value of putting love in what you do. When I think of her dedication — even with lousy music students as myself — doing what she loved, it truly inspires me.
I mean, here was this woman, a widower in her late sixties; independent by fate; a music teacher who for sure went largely underpaid; and she would drive in her old car to all these different houses and teach music to children, the thing that she loved the most. It strikes me that when you love what you do, whatever that is, it inevitably makes it meaningful for yourself and even for others; it’s something impactful and lasting.
What are the rooms or situations that are hardest for you to speak up in?
Definitely a room with inflated egos where opinions just fly like blazing bullets. These are the toughest ones for me to navigate, and I’m still trying to learn how not to get caught in the crossfire. Words and how we choose to use them, matter. We should remember that there’s a difference in speaking up for attention and speaking up with intention.
What are the situations that are easiest for you to speak up in?
Where people show up as real as possible, with genuine interest in finding common ground, with genuine interest in seeing the humanity in one another, and where there’s a tacit respect for the differences inherent in each other.
How do you want to use your voice in the future?
I would love to help give a voice to so many of the underrepresented talent from the Central American region. I’ve experienced firsthand how difficult it is be a creative in a developing country where opportunities are so scarce, especially in the creative field.
It can be very damaging to your confidence and self-worth to feel like the world is not opening up for you and your ideas. So I don’t know yet what shape this has, but I think it would be such a gift to the world to bring these voices to the surface.
Read more VOICES…
Jamae Tasker is a Warrior of Love
Shayna Hodkin is a Spellbinding Poet
Sam McWilliams is an Intrepid Cliff Jumper
Hattie Anderson is a Confident Black Goddess
Elizabeth Schroeder is a Swashbuckling Peacemaker
Nikka Diaz is a Natural-Born Empath
Tiffany Miller is a Nurturer of Dreams
Emma Rekha Marty is a Guardian of Hope
Natalie Patrice Tucker is a Mother of Dragons
Ruth T. is a Queen of Hearts
Tetyana Borshch is a Radical Daydreamer
Brittani West is a World Class Risk Taker
Tiffani Jones Brown is a Lionhearted Listener
Kathy Azada is a Bright Side Enthusiast
The titles for the VOICES Series come from Exercise #2 in the Permission to Speak Workbook. The exercise, “You have more power than you know,” encourages participants to choose a title from a list that is offered, or — if none of those titles feels right — to make up one of their own.
“Each of us is our own harshest critic, most of the time,” the workbook says. “We don’t always see ourselves as we are. We instinctively try to hide many things about ourselves — our failures, our mistakes, our weaknesses, our obsessions. …But the things that make you you also give you power.”
Each woman interviewed for the VOICES Series either chose a title for herself from this list, or gave herself a title of her own making.