Dare to be different! That’s the message Olympic gold medalist Jessica Mendoza is sharing with young Latinas.
The 31-year-old Mexican American softball star—who helped lead the U.S. women’s national softball team to a gold medal at the Athens 2004 games—says young Latinas can differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack by going to college and dedicating their energies to sports.
“In the Latino community there are many cultural barriers and pre-established roles so that girls remain inside the home and do not devote time to sports,” Mendoza told Efe. “Playing sports, in particular, causes Latinas to have more confidence in themselves, they are a road to education.”
Born in Camarillo, California, the former 4-time First Team All-American softball player, is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants. She graduated from Stanford University, where she was the school’s Athlete of the Year in 1999, 2000 and 2001.
Along with a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Mendoza has helped lead the U.S. women’s softball team two world cups (2006-2007), two world championships (2002 and 2006), two gold medals in the Pan American Games in 2003 and 2007 and a silver medal in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, among others.
“A problem in the Hispanic community is that many girls and boys are overweight,” said Mendoza, who is a reporter and analyst for ESPN. “So we have to provide the incentive in Latino homes … to get out of the house to play sports.”
Mendoza said that her love of sports started during her childhood because her father coached baseball, but as a Latina she grew up seeing that there were few Latina role models in sports.
“I started playing baseball at 4, but I only played with males and at 8 I began playing softball with other girls, the model to follow was my dad, who is a bilingual coach and on the field would direct one person in English and, at the same time, he’d give tips to another in Spanish,” she recounted.
“My father played a lot in school and because of his talents in sports he was able to study in good schools and do well in all academic areas to be successful in life,” Mendoza said.
Married to a civil engineer and the mother of a 3-year-old boy, Mendoza also devotes herself to giving motivational talks to young people in U.S. schools and abroad.
“I like to focus myself on seeing how I can help in the Latino community with my words,” she said.
Mendoza said that she knows very well that in the Latino community there is a cycle in which girls begin to have children at an early age and don’t continue their studies at college.
“We new generations of Latinas have to be different and to dare to be the first in the family to think differently about enrolling to study at community colleges or universities,” she said.