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Posted: May 01, 2008

Athena Award Winner: Sister Alicia Cuaron

Latina activist gave up a prominent career to become a Catholic nun

Rebecca Cole

Thirteen years ago, Alicia Cuaron took stock of her life. She was a successful professional in her mid-fifties with a doctorate in education, a respected leader in Denver’s business and Latino communities and the heart of a network of friends and colleagues.
In many ways, she had made it, surpassing even the wildest aspirations of her Mexican immigrant parents, who had instilled a desire to achieve the American dream.

But instead of feeling fulfilled she was empty inside. After a painful divorce, and with her daughter becoming an independent young adult, Cuaron’s priorities changed from striving for "the good life" to making peace with her inner self.

She returned to her faith, a constant in her life but for the most part relegated to the back burner. After a period of deep reflection and help through the guidance of the church, she decided to follow her heart and became a nun, joining the Sisters of St. Francis.

"I had a profession, a great job, a nice house — all the things I thought I had always wanted. And I thought, so now what? There was still a gap in my heart; something was still lacking," says Sister Cuaron, this year’s recipient of the Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce Athena Award.

Touched late in life by a calling — "I’m a baby compared to some sisters who’ve been here for 65 years" — Sister Cuaron says her decision shocked her close circle of friends. But she knew her mission was to give back to the Latino community, especially its women, by using her business acumen and networking skills to help others reach their own American dream.

"(God) gave and gave and gave to me," she says. "And all of a sudden he said, ‘Now I want you to give back’ — so I started all over again."

Sister Cuaron’s passion for the Latino community and personal strength are evident in her long career of community service. Now 69, Sister Cuaron is the director of Bienestar Family Services at Centro San Juan Diego, part of the Archdiocese of Denver.

Stylish and prone to wearing simple, elegant clothes and silver jewelry, Sister Cuaron is funny and real; there’s no pretension about her, just the genuine warmth and openness that comes from self-acceptance.

Raised in El Paso, Texas, Sister Cuaron says as a child she was shy — "I couldn’t say ‘boo’" — but came into her own in the early 1970s when, after moving to Denver, she started teaching for Head Start. She received her doctorate from the University of Northern Colorado and soon connected with other area Latinas — future movers and shakers such as Romaine Pacheco, Polly Baca and Patricia Barela Rivera — who welcomed her and encouraged her to find her voice.

Along with Linda Alvarado, Rivera and Sister Cuaron traveled the country in the late 1970s, holding workshops for the League of United Latin American Citizens on education, economic development and women’s empowerment.

"The Hispanic community had minimal leadership skills at that time," Rivera says. "There were women like us emerging, but we were really at ground zero. We realized we could help these women who were smart but just didn’t have much self-esteem or mentoring."

By 1980, Sister Cuaron was the first Hispanic woman to serve as the executive director of the Colorado Economic Development Agency; in 1981 she was the first woman to serve as the executive director of the National Hispanic Contractors Association. In 1985 Sister Cuaron founded her own consulting company, and by 1990 she was an executive vice president and principal for Source One, a Denver firm providing management systems, educational workshops and training seminars to government and corporate clients.

Friends for nearly 30 years, Rivera says she nominated Sister Cuaron for the Athena Award to honor her as a pioneer who has taken the brunt for women and in doing so made changes in their lives.

"As women, we have to support other women who’ve done great things," Rivera says. "Alicia truly epitomizes what women should be doing for women to make society a better place to live. She’s built places that are safe and comfortable, where we can nurture the Latino community and help them to not feel helpless and hopeless."

The first place Sister Cuaron had to make "safe and comfortable" was the run-down school in the St. Joseph Redemptorist Church, a Catholic parish in downtown Denver that served a low-income population. She got to work turning it into Centro Bienestar San Jose, now a vibrant, thriving model center that provides outreach services to the area’s Latino immigrants. Today as the director of Bienestar Family Services she’s focusing on Centro San Juan, developing many of the same programs and services.

Her spirit for community service stems from her mother, Sister Cuaron says. While her father stressed the importance of education, her mother told her along with the privilege of a good education is a responsibility to help others. Sister Cuaron has taken that message to heart.

"I say to women who have a lack of expertise, ‘Come along with me, I can help you,’" she says. "Look, I started from scratch. Spanish is my first language, and I’ve struggled, too."

A big part of that struggle was discrimination — for being female and for being Latino. Back in El Paso, Sister Cuaron says, she had to repeat first grade twice because she didn’t know the language, learning early that many people brand others as ignorant rather than recognizing the difficulties of a language barrier. Even after she received her doctorate, people often didn't take her seriously or treat her with respect until they read her resume.

Now she sees it in the professional women who’ve emigrated from Latin America; women who were engineers, teachers and CEOs in their home country but now have low-paying jobs and are often judged as just another immigrant. Through the Latina Leadership Initiative, a program developed for Bienestar Family Services to help transition Latinas' professional expertise and education to the U.S., Sister Cuaron is helping them rediscover their confidence and regain their self-esteem.

"Don’t let people tell you you’re not worth it, or seat you near the back door," Sister Cuaron says. "You are an individual person, and you have to defend your own dignity as a human being."
Starting as she did in the 1970s, when the feminist movement was just building steam, Sister Cuaron butted heads with a lot of men who weren’t used to women in positions of authority or power.

"We crashed important meetings where we weren’t invited, to make a point," she says with a chuckle. Yet behind the laughter is firm tenacity. Nun or not, Sister Cuaron says that although she’s "tamed herself," if her buttons are pushed hard enough she can still be pretty tough.

Even while striving to reach the top and shattering sexist stereotypes, Sister Cuaron still found time to serve on the boards of 100 different charities and to help other Latinas new to the Denver area.

One was Judy Miranda, an artist and photographer who moved to Denver in 1988 from California. Hired by the city to photograph construction on the Colorado Convention Center, Miranda didn’t know a single person when she arrived.

"I didn’t even know the mountains were west," she says. "But people told me to look Alicia up, and when I did she just opened her day-timer and said, ‘Call this person, here’s a good contact, use my name.’"

Miranda says that with Sister Cuaron’s influence she and her business were able to survive. "I think I would have gone back to California if it weren’t for her. And now, when she’s on a crusade for something and needs an art donation to auction off, she reminds me of my humble beginnings."

Miranda shares a secret about Sister Cuaron: She loves to dance salsa.

Sister Cuaron admits she likes to dance and laugh with her friends. "Hey, just because I became a nun doesn’t mean I don’t like a glass of wine or a nice restaurant," she says, her eyes sparkling.

But she turns serious when asked how she’d like to be remembered.

"I want to be known as someone who’s made a difference," she says. "I want to know my life has been worth it, that I have a purpose; a special destiny God has given me. Making a difference and helping others is probably the thing I want to do the most."

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Rebecca Cole is the online editor at Rocky Mountain Institute, a non-profit "think-and-do" tank that drives the efficient use of energy and resources. Learn more about RMI's latest initiative, Reinventing Fire, to move the U.S. off fossil fuels by 2050.

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