Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Choices of a Teen Mom: My Mami's story

I could write a book on my mom.

And really, I’d prefer to do that. Because trying to type in every bit of admiration, respect and love I have for this lady is impossible. At least in this small space.

But I’m going to try.

Because my mom, Lydia Alicea, well... her story is one that needs to be told.

My mom’s story begins as one that is familiar to many first generation Puerto Rican Americans. Although she had full command of both English and Spanish, my mother was placed into a bilingual kindergarten classroom. The education system really struggled with defining what ‘bilingual education’ was back then and the content taught in these classrooms was focused mostly on the acquisition of English, even though many students knew both languages.

This less than great education, paired with frequent moves, transferring schools, and a barely present father, made for an uneasy childhood. My mom had to step up at an early age and help her mother, my Wela, with household duties like cooking, cleaning, and taking care of her little brother.

By the time my mom was in 8th grade, she seemed to care less and less about school. She didn’t put in the effort and was continuously mouthing off to her teachers. My Wela and Welo, my moms step father Juan, decided they needed to do something to provide my mom with a better opportunity for her future. They didn’t want her falling victim to the same fate that seemed to prey on other students in public school. They decided she was going to go to a catholic high school.

So my wela and welo made a plan to put together their resources for the hefty tuition and mother was enrolled at Madonna High School in Chicago. Madonna was everything my grandparents hoped it would be- all girls! No worries of boys causing problems and distracting her from her studies. And the nuns! They certainly helped keep worried parents at ease.

But Madonna became something more for my mom than an all girl school led by nuns. It became a place of true learning, of exposure to different cultures from all across Chicago and a place of friendship.

My mother took full advantage of her life in high school by joining sports like track, participating in plays and musicals, and her favorite activity of all- band. Band was the place where my mom made the most friends. Her band teacher created a space where all the students felt welcome and were eager to learn.

By the end of her Junior year, my mom seemed to truly find her footing in high school. She took this momentum into Senior year and graduated from high school. She started attending the University of Illinois at Chicago in the fall in hopes of becoming a psychologist. She was able to pay the $900 for her classes with money from her job stocking shelves at Walgreens. She was working hard, she was learning and she was proud.

It seemed as if my wela and welos’ sacrifices had really paid off and my mom was on the right path.

Until her first semester of college at 18 years old, when my mom realized she was ‘blessed’ with a child. She was pregnant with me.

To be honest, it’s ironic to say ‘blessed’ because at the time it was considered far from a blessing. In fact, my mom was so afraid and so unprepared for a baby that she and my father decided an abortion was the best option. They made a plan, made an appointment and set the date.

...Until my mom had a change of heart. She thought about the life she had and the life she wanted. She thought about the idea of giving up her baby and decided she wanted to keep her baby and make it work.
So she did.

After she made the decision on her own, she told my dad about her choice. Initially he was shocked but he decided to get on board. They were going to have the baby and raise it together.

And so life became ‘baby’.
And dreams were put on hold…

My mother’s pregnancy with me was so rough she couldn’t work anymore. She had to go on WIC and receive food stamps so that she could take care of us. She and my father tried to play house and live in the basement of my grandmother’s building. At the time, my father was an 18 year old pain in the ass who wanted nothing more than to hang out with his friends and play with me from time to time. He didn’t want to ‘parent’ and didn’t really know how. My mom said this was when she knew that her priority was to take care of me and her. My dad could hop on or hit the road.

She didn’t know what she was going to do, but she knew she needed to do something.

My dad’s mom, my grandmother Sylvia, knew this too. She asked my mom what she planned on doing with her life. “I don’t know,” my mom said “I think it’d be nice to be a nurse.”

So my grandmother brought my mom pamphlets from the nursing program at Truman City College of Chicago. My grandma knew the way to save her son, was to help the mother of his child.

And so she went to nursing school. My mother was able to get grants from the government to fund her education and she took advantage of them. She learned the ins and outs of the CTA bus system and transfer cards. She took me to day cares and sitters using an umbrella stroller in rain, sleet, or snow. All the while, my dad worked odd jobs making minimum wage to contribute. But my mom wasn’t interested in a job. She was interested in a career.

In 1994 my mother graduated from nursing school. After initial experience with registry work, she found herself working as a registered nurse at Norwegian American Hospital in the Puerto Rican dominated Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago. She was one of the only Latina nurses on her floor. She said that many of the patients found solace in having a Puerto Rican nurse to care for them. She would hear the soft calls of “mira, nena….” when patients called to her for help. She was honored and loved helping the patients, who reminded her of her own Wela and Welo. But she often felt stressed and pulled in too many directions being the only Spanish speaking nurse.

Time and time again, her language skills provided her with an opportunity and platform to showcase her skills. When my father joined the military in 1998, my mother received a job offer as a clinical supervisor for a pediatric clinic in Oceanside California. Although she felt unqualified to even apply for the position, she gave it a chance.  Later, her managers told her they knew she didn’t really have much experience in supervising, but they could sense her abilities. They knew she could be taught to be great and her skills could be honed. Plus, she could speak Spanish.

This ability that was once deemed a handicap in school now turned out to be one of the greatest door openers of her career.

After sometime my family returned to Chicago and my mother continued to climb the career ladder eventually landing as the supervisor of a multi-million dollar clinic in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. She worked tirelessly at this clinic over 10 years eventually becoming the manager and running the entire clinic full of nurses, medical assistants, doctors, and a heavy flow of patients all day long.

That was until an opportunity came that peaked her interest and lead her down a surprising path. During her clinics implementations of the EPIC system and transformation from paper to computer based medical records, my mother found herself growing curiouser and curiouser of the process. She talked with the specialist, she asked questions, she explored the profession and in 2011 she joined the informatics team and began training with EPIC.

Now, my mom works for the University of California at Los Angeles, better known as UCLA, in their informatics system. After her initial  application for the job, the company flew her out from Chicago for an interview then relocated our entire family to LA.

The Lydia Alicea of today is the stuff little Lydia Varela of yesterday could only dream of.  

I have watched this woman grow as a mother, a wife, a nurse and professional. I have beared witness to her sacrifices and commitment that have made life better for herself and her family. I have watched in admiration as she takes on roles and task that challenge her and make her stronger. I have seen the respect she has earned from my entire family as she is sought after as the proofreader, the copy editor, the phone a friend, the sage and the confidant. I have experienced the beauty and fruits of her labor as our family has moved from basement apartments to rentals to a foreclosed fixer upper home and now to a beautiful townhouse in Los Angeles.

I know the hard work that has come with every vacation, every christmas gift, every dinner out and every sip of the good wine.

The life my mother lives today is beyond imaginable from where she started and it’s all due to her hard work, tenacity and grit.

She knows the struggles of young mothers trying to make it work and she knows the struggles of Latinas in education. Still she says, “Don’t let your youth define you.

Her message is full of powerful words of advice for young Latina moms.
There are too many young Latinas who have babies and think that their life is over. It’s not.

Because my mother decided long ago that her life was not over. Her words are what brought her to where she is today.
Opportunities came, not because I had a degree behind me, but because I never stopped trying. 

Click through the photos below to check out pics of my mama' Educated Latina photo shoot and a youngin pic of us from back in the day

"The Educated Latina campaign is designed to celebrate Latinas pursuing education in all their endeavors and to promoting a world where every Latina is inspired and empowered to seek education in college, career and beyond."

You can purchase an Educated Latina shirt by clicking the link here or the pictures on the right. All proceeds from the shirts go towards my tuition for Harvard Graduate School of Education.


Do you know an Educated Latina that should be featured? Email me at with their name and why you think their story is important to share!

Muchas Gracias!


  1. Well that would be nice if you can write a book on her life. It would be an interesting experience for you and that would be a great gift for your mother too.

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