An interview with Mary Ann Gomez Orta
By Andrew Ysiano – Publisher
I first met Mary Ann after she graduated from the University of Pacific and was working for a public relations firm in Sacramento. A strong woman from a hard working family from Stockton’s Delta is a close friend and mentor to many young people. The University of the Pacific recognized her in 2019 with the Leadership in Public Service Award by the Pacific Alumni Association. This year, St. Mary’s College of California, where she earned a Masters Degree, is recognizing her with the Meritorious Service Award.
ANDREW: So Mary Ann, here we are after many years of knowing each other and I want people to get to know you. What do you want to share?
MARY ANN: First, congratulations to you and Latino Times Newspaper! I remember when the newspaper was starting. We both have come a long way from where we and our families started in Stockton. Of course, I’m going to start with my parents. My father, Leonides Rangel Gomez, came to the United States from Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico in the Bracero program. He worked in different states and ended up in Bacon Island in Stockton’s Delta. My mother, Margaret Garcia Gomez, was born in Brownsville, Texas and her family is from Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico. They met working in the fields of Chico. They decided to stay in Stockton’s Delta and have their family there. I’m the eldest of five.
ANDREW: I tell people when I talk about you, that you, your brother and sisters all went to college. How is that? I mean, your parents have third grade educations, right?
MARY ANN: My parents weren’t able to continue their education past third grade but since my dad is the eldest of eight and my mother the second of seven, they saw in their siblings whether in Mexico or in the U.S. how an education could change lives. We siblings and I grew up in Bacon Island. I started at Rindge Elementary School. I want to give a special shout to Linda Tashima who was my “big sister” when I first went to school and to the families of Mr. and Mrs. Golden who were the teachers at Rindge. It was a very small school in the middle of the Delta. We were taught how to be good people in addition to our coursework and the potluck parties where everyone got together for all occasions were the best.
ANDREW: So what high school did you go to and when was the first time you thought about college?
MARY ANN: I was bused to Tracy High School. Oh what was cool last year, when I was at the University of the Pacific Awards, was to sit across high school counselor, Richard Soto. He was an inspiration and his sense of humor got me, and others, through some tough lessons in high school. My high school years were all about the classes. Since my parents were farm workers, we didn’t have the money and they didn’t understand what high school was really like. I didn’t go to any after school activities, dances, etc. I was able to go to two football games and got a girlfriend and I coordinated so we could get to the prom. I had the opportunity to join the tennis team but my parents would not have been able to pick me up and take me to games nor buy me the clothes I needed. Funny how at that time, it was what it was and no sense in complaining or being bitter. I saw what other friends had and on Monday’s they would tell me about what they did and the parties everyone else was at – it turned out that people shared with me because I wasn’t part of any specific click. I was in honors classes and did well.
My first college experience was when I went to a Chicano graduation at Sacramento State. Our neighbor – shout to – Victor Hernandez – invited me to join him and his family to his graduation in Sacramento. I recall my parents bought me a very nice grey dress at Montgomery Wards. It was the first awards dinner with speeches and dancing I ever went to. I was so into it. Then as time went on at Tracy High, I just knew I had to go to college. I earned a scholarship from the Community Involvement Program at the University of the Pacific and graduated with a degree in Communications. Dr. Carol Ann Hackley was the professor who gave me wings there. She made me feel like all the other students. I decided to get involved at Pacific and start helping other students, so I helped with leadership conferences for high school students.
ANDREW: WOW. I know your parents and they are strong hard working people. Not all parents understand the importance of an education so hopefully some reading this will get inspired.
ANDREW: So after Pacific what was your career like?
MARY ANN: I worked for public relations firms in Sacramento after graduation. Later on I worked in marketing for Coors Brewing Company and McDonald’s Corporation. While working in Sacramento, I got involved with the Sacramento Hispanic Chamber, the Urban League, and Festival de la Familia. I have always enjoyed being involved in the community and honestly, that’s where you get to make real friendships, contribute your talents and explore the world. Growing up in Bacon Island I dreamed of traveling and meeting people from around the world, so I enjoy making strangers new friends. While I was in corporate marketing, I decided I wanted an MBA to learn more so I enrolled at St. Mary’s College in Moraga. At the time, I worked for McDonald’s and would drive to Moraga every Saturday for two years and during the week meet my cohort for homework and study time in Benicia, Oakland or Fairfield. I had an opportunity to travel throughout the U.S. with those jobs and I loved it. The best friend from that time who is still dear to me is Katherine Knox.
ANDREW: I know there were some hard times in 2007 to 2008. Share what happened to you and what you did.
MARY ANN: In about a seven month timeframe, I lost my home in Sacramento, I had a tough breakup with a fiancé and lost my job. It was a very difficult time in my life. I honestly didn’t know what to do and I figured I’d go where I was loved and moved back to Stockton with my parents. Let me tell you – living with your parents as adults after you have been on your own isn’t easy but it was important for me to be in a safe loving environment. During that time I decided to test my teaching and loved teaching at University of Phoenix and Heald College. And my teaching coach, amigo, Steven Ybarra, helped me to get my teaching groove on. I also met a wonderful woman, now, one of my dearest friends – Nikki Beasley. I recall getting an unemployment check and calling Nikki to treat her to a coffee and we’d talk for hours sometimes on one cup of coffee. When times are tough I tell people to spend more time with people who love you unconditionally. Those conversations, laughs and yes, tears will get you through.
ANDREW: So how did you end up in Washington, D.C.?
MARY ANN: While in Stockton, I gave myself two years to teach, save and figure out where I’d go next. I had the opportunity through conversations with friends like Michael Summers and Mark Magana as well as a coach, Veronica Raya (who is in heaven now) convinced me to look for opportunities in Washington as I had traveled there for work and enjoyed the advocacy work many national organizations were doing. I also liked that it seemed to be so far away and the center of the world at the same time. I didn’t get to study abroad when I was in college and thought – this is it! I’m going to pack up and just move. I started making calls, emails, and applying for jobs and through the help of friends, I ended up moving to Washington the summer of 2009. Now I lead one of the top Hispanic organizations in the country. I am the President/CEO of the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute. I lead this leadership development organization that promotes diversity of thought, provides internships in Washington for Hispanic college students and holds forums on trade and business topics that impact the Hispanic community.
I want to close by thanking others for their love and encouragement: my husband Carlos Orta, my boss The Honorable Lincoln Diaz-Balart, my college friend Cecilia Coronado, my Washington sister Anne Alonzo, my spiritual guides Jason and Erika Leon and my sisters and brother.