Gisselle Acevedo Former President and CEO of Para Los Ninos
When her Costa Rican immigrant mother was humiliated because she sat a table on the “wrong” side of a racially segregated café, five-year old Gisselle made a life-changing decision: to never feel inferior and to always stand on her own two feet.
After fifteen hours of driving through a blinding snowstorm to get my daughter to an audition for admission into a college performing arts program, she breathed a giant sigh of relief when we arrived on time. Looking at her, I smiled and said, “Have you forgotten whose daughter you are?”
I am an immigrant, born in Costa Rica, and raised by a single parent. The first time my mother and I came to America, we landed in the South during the throes of the civil rights movement and racial segregation in the 1960’s. I was six years old, and neither of us spoke a word of English. My mother’s vision was to give me an education, something she never had. What happened next proved to be one of the most pivotal moments in my life.
After the airplane ride, I was hungry so we went to a small café and tried to order food. Suddenly, people started shouting and yelling at us in a language we couldn’t understand. They called the police demanding that we be arrested. I clutched my mom in terror when they arrived and tried to take me away from her. My mother was unaware of the crime she had committed—sitting at a table on the “wrong” side of a racially segregated café.
We went back to Costa Rica thinking that maybe I couldn’t receive a good education in this country after all. I still recall the fear that I experienced in that cafe, but I can only imagine how my mother felt as an immigrant Spanish-speaking woman trying to defend herself with a small child and no husband. I also remember thinking, “I will never allow myself to feel inferior. And I will never be yelled at or treated like this ever again.”
I decided that whatever I was going to be, I would be somebody who could stand on her own two feet. Somehow my mother and I were going to make it. It was almost as if I saw my entire future knowing that everything I did from that moment on would move me toward success. Five years later we returned to America, this time to Los Angeles. My mother still had her vision of giving me an education.
She worked three or four low paying jobs at a time to make ends meet. For children living in poverty, the chances of getting a good education are very low. But the fortitude and tenacity of this determined woman defied those odds for me. Recently, when my mother, daughter and I were seated at a very elegant restaurant after my daughter’s high school graduation, I turned to my mother and said, “You know, many years ago we were kicked out of a café, and now we are all here celebrating in this place because of you.”
When you want something bad enough, you can do it. There is no excuse for not figuring out what your vision is and making it happen. Today my mother is eighty years old and is taking classes to get her high school degree.
Gisselle Acevedo graduated with a Masters in Education and later received a law degree. After an illustrious career in media, public relations, law and education (including Vice President of Public Affairs for the Los Angeles Times and General Manager of Hoy, the Spanish language newspaper) she served as President & CEO of Para Los Ninos, a family services agency in Los Angeles for six years.