The Arizona Biltmore was the venue yesterday for the annual “40 Hispanic Leaders Under 40 Awards.” More than 300 people crowded into a ballroom to honor these people, from a variety of industries and backgrounds, for their commitment to “building upon the greater good of our community.”

In the midst of a persistent economic downturn (despite reports this week that the recession is over), it was heartening to see so many attendees at this gala. The event is only four years old, and it maintains the momentum that got it rolling. With 120 leaders under its belt, conference organizers should be pleased by the legacy of service they’ve nurtured.

Emceed adroitly by CBS5 news anchor Catherine Anaya, the luncheon moved along at a smart pace. Adding an artistic touch was the musician Joey Ebach, who sang the National Anthem as well as other songs as he accompanied himself on guitar.

Honoree-lawyer Dawn Valdivia

Congratulations to organizers Univision Radio–Phoenix and Chicanos Por La Causa, and to BlueCross BlueShield of Arizona, which was the presenting sponsor. (And kudos to my colleague at the State Bar of Arizona, Alberto Rodriguez. He now is in the Bar’s Communications Department, but he has been the event’s producer since its inception, back when he worked for the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The State Bar encouraged him to continue in this essential role, so we had the benefit of another remarkable event. Good for the Bar—great decision.)

The heart of any ceremony can be the keynote speaker—though that’s not always guaranteed. But yesterday, Paul Luna, President and CEO of the Helios Education Foundation, brought his A game.

Paul Luna, Helios Education Foundation

Like any good speaker (and thinker), he began by giving attendees a particular anecdote, which ended up being perfect for the event’s message. He recalled that when he worked for I.B.M. years ago, he attended a retreat as part of its 100% Club, for the company’s high-performers. At the retreat, the poet Maya Angelou spoke to them.

Luna said that Angelou admitted she did not know a lot about those in the room. But she did know two things:

  1. Each person there was successful at what they did.
  2. No one in the room achieved that success by himself or herself. In each person’s life, “Someone else paid the dues for you, to have the opportunity for success.”

Luna wisely reminded the honorees—and everyone in the room—that we all stand on others’ shoulders. Thank those who paid your dues, he told us, and be prepared to pay the dues for those who come behind.

“That’s what this is all about,” he concluded.

Honoree-lawyer Andrew Pacheco

Among the honorees, I was pleased to see that there were two lawyers. Dawn Valdivia is a partner at Quarles & Brady LLP. And Andrew Pacheco is an attorney in his own firm. (Two law students also were honored, both from the ASU Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law: Daniel Rodriguez and Joaquin Rios.).

I congratulated Dawn and Andrew, but then I asked them to tell me whom they credit with their success. And here is what they said.

Dawn Valdivia:

“It would be my great grandmother and grandmother. They were both strong determined Latinas who did not allow their status to affect their ability and desire to achieve success. My great grandmother started a Mexican food restaurant in Globe, Arizona with $100 and a mean tasting enchilada. At that time (1940s), women didn’t own businesses and Mexicans were largely segregated as a class and were forbidden from certain schools, churches, and business. From that restaurant grew another 15 over the State of Arizona. With each restaurant, she empowered another family member to have a stake in his or her future and to be self sufficient. My grandmother eventually took over and expanded the one here in town (Los Compadres). Their strength taught me to be strong, but it was their work ethic that provided me the opportunity to have an education and enjoy the opportunities and successes I enjoy today. For that reason (and others), I am responsible for helping others achieve their fullest potential. I agree with Mr. Luna that education is the key to opportunity.”

Andrew Pacheco:

“I would have to acknowledge the role that my father continues to play in my life as a mentor. He was born to migrant farm laborers who instilled in him the values of self reliance and personal integrity. My father’s parents were too poor to send him to college and preferred that he stay at home to help on the farm that his parents were eventually able to buy. He nonetheless applied for and received scholarships in order to obtain both an undergraduate degree and a Ph.D. As you may know, my father went on to become the president of several universities, including The University of Arizona. In part, the example my father set for me and my siblings was that hard work is part of success. But perhaps even more importantly I learned from both of my parents that a person’s good character traits should include service to others. As a result my personal goals include professional success as well as public service.”

Great answers, both. We all might want to take a few minutes to pose the same question to ourselves.

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