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Latinos in Leadership: ‘The door has been cracked open. Somebody’s got to try to hold it there'

Sec. Xavier Becerra and Sen. Alex Padilla say they're holding the door open for the next generation.

CALIFORNIA, USA — For the first time in California history, the reins of leadership are being held people who both look like and, more importantly, share a culture with nearly 40% of the nation’s most populous state.

In 2021, some of the highest levels of leadership were filled by Latinos. For Xavier Becerra and Alex Padilla, they are the sons of immigrants who left their homes in Mexico to provide opportunities in America that might not have been possible elsewhere. Whether it be the honest and hard work of a short order cook, a housekeeper, or laborer, it instilled in their kids the value of what it means to wake up, go to work, move toward a better future and help clear that trail for the next generation.

“That type of humility, that type of work ethic, I hope never leaves me… I get to see and do things that a guy who didn't go past the sixth grade, a woman who didn't come here till she was 18, from Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico probably didn't see in their horizon,” said Xavier Becerra, former California Attorney General and current Health and Human Services Secretary for the U.S., an office held for the first time by a Latino.

WATCH MORE: Extended Interview: Sec. Xavier Becerra talks growing up Latino and more for Hispanic Heritage Month

In the same vein, a short order cook from Jalisco and a housekeeper from Chihuahua probably didn’t imagine that their son would his make way to the United States Senate. But for Alex Padilla, the first Latino U.S. Senator from California, the foundation and values from his parents were clear. It was the value of serving the public, whether it be by making a hot meal or simply keeping a home clean, and emphasizing an education.

“I know that is not just sort of an American dream come true for me, but so representative of so many working families, so many immigrant families with equally big dreams and equally strong work ethic,” Padilla said.

Padilla and Becerra represent the milestone at the end of the map, proving to many Latinos working toward a newer and better future that the destination can be realized. However, it’s an end that, while clearer, is also on a path that isn’t exactly worn in.

Citlalli Martinez, a junior at Stanislaus State University, is at the beginning of that figurative map. The daughter of a single mother from Mexico City, Mexico is a first-generation student, learning the ins and outs of the college world on the fly as she tries to make her way into the medical field. And she’s far from being the only one. According to a 2019 Excelencia in Education study, 44% of Latino college students were the first in their family to attend college. Nearly 3/4's of Stanislaus State's students are the first in their family to go to college.

For Martinez, it’s a big weight to shoulder, having a mother who left everything she knew in Mexico to provide a newer and better foundation for her child. Her mom originally wanted to be a teacher, but as Martinez says, life just got in her way and her mother prioritized her family.

“There's this overwhelming pressure of, wow, am I going to do things right? Am I picking the correct major? I don't want to let my parents down -- this constant pressure of just wanting to go do good,” Martinez said.

While social mobility is the goal, it can sometimes feel like a solo effort, even despite the support from family. Something seemingly as simple as filling out an application to a school can leave you with few people to turn toward. She had her mother by her side while filling out an application to college, but the unfamiliarity with the process proved to be overwhelming at points.

“It was kind of stressful, me and her over computer filing an application for college and like, I didn't know what it meant. And I looked at her and she's like, ‘Well, you're the one who speaks English.’ But I was like, ‘Yeah, but I don't know what English they’re speaking,’" she said.

“I realized that there's going to be situations throughout college that my mom really wasn't going to be someone I can turn to when it comes to colleges, education and college questions because simply, there's she really didn't know what to do, which is totally understandable,” she added.

Martinez realized moving forward would sometimes means going it alone or hunting down the resources and helping yourself.

Back in his time as a sophomore at McClatchy High School in Sacramento, Becerra faced his own questions about where he’d be going to college. In an anecdote where he warned people “do not try this at home,” the future secretary initially applied to one college, UC Davis, after getting high praise at one of their summer programs.

He ended up applying to Stanford after one of his friends was about to throw away an application to the school. Becerra said he talked his friend into giving him the application, then he filled it out and sent it away.

“I didn't know where Stanford was -- two hours from Sacramento, but I still didn't know where it was. I got in, didn’t know where it was until the day I drove there with my mother,” he said.

For Padilla, he says that he initially didn’t see his way forward taking him to the U.S. Senate. In 1994, he had a degree in Mechanical Engineering from MIT, but his way forward ultimately took him into the world of politics.

WATCH MORE: Extended Interview: Sen. Alex Padilla talks growing up Latino and Hispanic Heritage Month

“As I was getting ready to start my career… to hear from political figures at the time that, if California is struggling, it's the fault of immigrants, fault of Latinos. It was offensive. And so that's what moved me from my engineering trajectory to getting involved in politics and government,” Padilla said.

Padilla, Becerra, and Martinez share at least one thing in common. They are all the children of immigrants, achieving or striving to achieve things that their parents might not have thought was possible for their family. While Becerra and Padilla have reached the end of their figurative map, they both recognize that simply getting to the other side of it isn’t enough.

“That's the beginning, that the door has been cracked open,” Becerra said. “Somebody’s got to try to hold it there, so others have an opportunity. It's as I said, I'm getting to see things that my parents never got to see over that horizon.”

In a word, Becerra says its about “ganas.” In a simple translation, it means desire.  But to Becerra, there’s more to it.

“To me, it's guts, grits and game put together. And hopefully, that's one thing I bring whether it's as Secretary of Health and Human Services or as the California Attorney General in the past or as a member of Congress before. I hope what I can say is that one thing I leave is what Xaver Becerra got from his parents, and that’s ‘ganas.’”

It's a sentiment that echoes with the words that Padilla heard from his padrino, or godfather, the day after he won a seat on the LA City Council. Padilla visited his uncle, who he described as being "calm, cool and collected" when he told him something that he'd never forget.

“He congratulated me but then tells me in Spanish, 'Bueno hijo, ahora, vay que complir.' Congratulations, but now you go to do the work. All the things you promised, now it’s time to deliver,’” Padilla said.

“When you're the first Latino to do something, that's an important milestone to be celebrated, like I said, but more important is what you do with that opportunity. The only way people's lives get better is if I'm able to deliver on what we set out to do,” he added.

He said that if he’s able to make the pathway a little bit clearer for others and maybe even a little bit more real for them, then that’s part of the responsibility he'll carry. Becerra likewise said that he hopes to hold the door open for more people to succeed and help others do more than what they thought possible.

And for at least one undergraduate, from the city of Turlock, they did.

“As you see several people like take charge and become leaders… you see, some of them are Latinos who shared similar stories to, personally, to myself. And I'm like, okay, it really doesn't matter where you come from, where your background is. The possibilities are endless. It's just your willingness to pursue your dream,” Martinez said.

She said that people like Becerra and Padilla are paving the way for their generation and setting up role models for college students like herself.

Padilla said this is only the first step, but the opportunity is there now. And Becerra hopes others will follow.

“Celebrate, enjoy, and understand what it means to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month in a country that lets us all celebrate, because it does give us a chance to dream and look over that horizon,” Becerra said.

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