In an exhilarating ceremony Thursday night in Houston, HispanicBusiness Magazine honored Frances Garcia, Inspector General of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, with the 2009 Woman of the Year award.
Four other finalists were also honored as part of the 7th annual gala, titled "Women of Vision."
"We sit on the shoulders of those unnamed and solid pioneers who made great sacrifices, forced doors open and raised consciousness for our benefit," Garcia said. "Those early pioneers would be blown away today seeing the number of Latina professionals and business owners and how we are changing the face of the United States."
As Inspector General, Garcia oversees the audits and investigations of the GAO, which tracks how Congress spends taxpayers' money.
Born in Wichita Falls, Texas, Garcia was the first member of her family who earned a high school diploma.
Throughout her life she has broken barriers. She was also the first Hispanic woman to be employed by the accounting firm Arthur Andersen in Dallas. After she broke several bones in a car accident, which kept her bedridden for three months, she decided to go back to school and get a bachelor's degree in Business Administration from Midwestern State University.
In 1972, she co-founded the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting. Later, she was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to a seat on the Copyright Royalty Tribunal. Throughout her career she's been a mentor and a role model for young Hispanic students.
Garcia credits much of her success to her mother, family and friends.
"They believed in me beyond all odds, and I cannot take it for granted," Garcia told the crowd.
Garcia also offered some words of advice to Hispanics who are raising children. She said parents must help their children to finish their education.
"The value of education cannot be overstated," Garcia said.
In his opening remarks, Jesus Chavarria, founder and publisher of HispanicBusiness Magazine, said that the 2009 finalists were chosen because they have reached a high level of achievement and they represent "a resolute and growing community of outstanding U.S. Hispanic women."
Laura Murillo, CEO of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, welcomed the audience and noted that in the last two years the membership of the chamber has gone from 500 members to more than 3,000.
Many of Thursday night's speakers said having personal drive and strong support networks are keys to achieving success.
"As Latinas, we must be committed to self-improvement, to realizing our full potential and to support each other in advancing to the highest level in what corporate America has to offer," said Monica Diaz, Director of Global Diversity and Inclusion for Microsoft Corp.
She said that Hispanic women are driving forces in America. "We are helping to shape the future and ensure the sustained social and economic opportunities for everyone."
The four other finalists honored were:
Lily Eskelsen, Vice President of the National Education Association, which has 3.2 million members and is the largest professional employee organization in the nation, delivered an emotional, moving and inspiring speech to the crowd.
"Education is how you build your economy," Eskelsen said, adding that she felt honored to be recognized.
"I am a very powerful person because I have changed the world through changing the life of a child, and as a teacher it is my job description to perform miracles on an hourly basis," Eskelsen said.
Marion Luna Brem, President and CEO of the Love Chrysler dealership in Corpus Christi, Texas, and author of two business books, noted the challenges the auto industry is facing today.
A cancer survivor, she encouraged women to use their intuition, creativity, resilience and passion to do business.
"What can't be measured in any of us is our passion, and we as Latinas have been criticized for so many years for being too emotional; that's so necessary now," she said.
Amelie Ramirez, Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and Director of the Institute for Health Promotion Research in San Antonio, was honored for her work in health awareness and disease prevention. One of her goals is to encourage Hispanics to seek preventive medicine and to have health screenings regularly.
She encouraged Hispanics to work together to open opportunities and create the conditions for "a very healthy and educated Latino population."
Ramona Romero, president of the Hispanic Bar Association, said the group has worked more than 20 years for the appointment of a Hispanic member in the Supreme Court.
"Just about a week ago we achieved that goal," she said, in referring to U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Romero is also the Corporate Counsel for Logistics and Energy at DuPont.
She described Sotomayor as a "strong Latina who is unbelievably well-qualified." She urged the audience members to write a letter to their U.S. senators, Democrat and Republican, and ask them "to give this woman a fair and prompt confirmation."
She also urged the successful women in the audience to give back to their communities and help young people achieve professional goals.
HispanicBusiness Magazine also honored Ana Cisneros Alvarez with the Winner's Circle Scholarship, sponsored by Comerica Bank. Cisneros obtained a degree in Sociology from Pomona College two years ago.
"This scholarship is a symbol of the power of our community," said Cisneros, who will attend Loyola Law School this fall. As a daughter of two Guatemalan immigrants, Cisneros assured that her work as a lawyer "will add another piece to the struggle of justice. It might be a small piece, but it can grow."
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