Latin Times Magazine had the pleasure of catching up with well-known Cancer Survivor Patsy Sanchez recently -Patsy is one of our 2019 Latina Movers N Shakers! Latin Times Magazine: What part of Florida do you live in – are you from Florida? If not – what brought you to Florida?
Patsy Sanchez: I love Tampa! I have lived in Tampa since 1980 when I arrived as a 13-year-old from Cuba not knowing a word of English!
Where I was born and the experiences living under a totalitarian regime as a child played a major role into who I am today. I was born in La Habana, Cuba where I lived until the age of 13. I came to the US through the 1980 Mariel Exodus. My dad had been sentenced to 20 years in prison for attempting to overthrow Fidel Castro. In May of 1980, my family and I were placed on a boat destined to the US while a storm threatened the Gulf of Mexico. After several hours at sea, our boat lost its motors and we were adrift. We were rescued by the US Coast Guard Cutter Vigorous on May 15 of 1980.
After three days on the Vigorous, we were transferred onto another vessel and arrived in Key West on May 18. During my stay on the Vigorous, a young ‘coastie’ took care of me. On the last day aboard the ship, he took a Polaroid picture of us and gave me his hat as a memento of our journey. After a 26 year-long search, to find the ‘coastie’ who took care of me, I found him thanks to that Polaroid picture I had saved all those years. My ‘coastie’ and I were reunited during his retirement ceremony from the Coast Guard in Hickman, Kentucky where I was invited to speak. During an emotional ceremony, I was able to ‘thank him’ for his kindness. I have shared my story about perseverance and ‘paying it forward’ during Hispanic Heritage celebrations, Diversity conferences at local universities, high schools, and community organizations. It has been covered by national and local newspapers and radio: Kentucky’s Paducah Sun, CENTRO Tampa, The Tampa Tribune, La Gaceta Latina, La Gaceta Newspaper, 7 Dias, Hispanic Journal in Higher Education, St. Pete Times, Coastguard Compass, USF Oracle, WUSF Radio, Super Q 1300 and other media outlets. I am writing a book about my memoirs. In 2011, I was invited to participate in a documentary “Voices from Mariel” that captured the unheard voices of 10 Cuban-Americans who talked about their experiences before and during their journey to the US. The documentary won a number of national and international awards and premiered in National Geographic Mundo in April 2013. A book by the same title in Spanish and English is available through Amazon. I wrote my chapter in the book.
LTM: Tell me about what you do for a living
Patsy Sanchez: I get to give back to a community that allowed me to grow and prosper. I am the Director of Diversity and Inclusion for the University of South Florida and director of the USF Latino Scholarship program. I have been engaged in education advocacy, community engagement, and corporate relations for over 20 years. I’ve held various leadership positions at USF. Most of my work has centered on education and access. In 2008, I secured a historic 2 million dollar gift from the Helios Education Foundation—the largest gift in the history of the USF Latino Scholarship Program. I have published articles for local and national journals, including Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education and have published research on Latino Student Success. I have been invited to speak at various leadership conferences and community events including the Mayor’s Latinos Unidos Leadership Conference, Florida Diversity Council, Puerto Rican/Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Polk County, and Black, Brown and College Bound Annual Summit, HCC Hispanic Heritage Kick-off, HCC Scholarship Partners Breakfast, City of Tampa Mayor’s Hispanic Heritage Celebration, Bay Pines VA Healthcare System, Bangor University in Wales, UK etc. I’ve been humbled by various awards and recognitions including USF Hispanic Heritage Leadership Award in 2002, 2005, 2015. In 2006, I was selected to the Young Hispanic Leaders Program among 400 applicants—a national program funded by the US and Spain, which purports to strengthen relations between the two countries. In 2007, I was selected by Siete Dias as the Hispana Ejemplar for my contributions in the community. In 2014, I received the Hispanic Advocate Award from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Advisory Council. In 2016, Tampa Hispanic Heritage Inc. recognized me as the Woman of the Year. In 2017, the Florida State Fair added me to the Diversity Community Leaders Wall of Fame.
LTM: Tell me about what organizations you are a part of
Patsy Sanchez: I am the immediate past chair for the City of Tampa Mayor’s Hispanic Advisory Council and have served 5 Mayors since my appointment in 2009. I serve as the liaison between USF’s President Judy Genshaft and the Latin Community Advisory Committee, an external volunteer board; member of the Leadership Alliance Advisory Board; former director of Eckerd Connects; Hispanic Heritage Inc., Hispanic Professional Women’s Association, Club 15.
LTM: Tell us about the biggest highlights of your career
Patsy Sanchez: There is no greater gift than that of giving back. During my 20 years + career as an educator, I’ve championed the cause of education with an emphasis on increasing the success of our Latino students, by creating a path of opportunities, resources and role models. During this time, I’ve had the privilege to change the lives of countless young students in our community as the Director of the USF Latino Scholarship. But my work in advocacy began much earlier with Project Arriba, a high school drop-out prevention program, where I worked to motivate, engage, and inspire Latino students from Bay area high schools. This job marked the beginning of a career devoted to education and helping Latinos in our community. I began my career at USF, as a minority recruiter providing college knowledge to first generation low- income students and their families; disseminating the necessary admissions and scholarship/financial aid information they needed to succeed. More importantly, as the first generation in college and immigrant, myself, I have served as a role model and inspiration for young people with whom I’ve shared my own story about challenges and triumphs.
LTM: As a Latina leader in the community, business or other…what has been your biggest challenge and how have you been able to overcome it
Patsy Sanchez: Career advancement; while women still struggle with the glass ceiling and moving into their well-earned and deserved spot “at the table” in most organization/corporation’s leadership, Latina women may be burden with additional challenges and biases. Overcoming these biases is challenging and we often find ourselves working harder to prove our worth to everyone, including other women.
LTM: How important is being a Latina to you
Patsy Sanchez: Being Latina is the essence of who I am. I am an American. I am Cuban. I am a Cuban-American. Being from here and from there results in the merging of two cultures, two languages, two ways of seeing and interpreting life and I am richer by those experiences. I am proud of being an American and owe this country an enormous amount of gratitude. I will also never forget my roots and where I come from, and I am forever proud of all immigrants, who like my family, come here looking to make this country even greater, in our own pursuit of freedom, happiness, and opportunities.
LTM: What is your favorite type of music, and what is your favorite song?
Patsy Sanchez: I am a hopeless romantic. I have an old soul. I like the music of Armando Manzanero, Braulio, Jose Jose, Emmanuel, Camilo Cesto. Some newer artists I like include Luis Miguel, Alejandro Sanz, Laura Pausini.
LTM: IF you can go back to let’s say 18-21, what are some of the pivotal decisions that you have made that you would do differently
Patsy Sanchez: I could use a cliché and say none because each decision has made me who I am today, but it wouldn’t be true. I would’ve pursued a career that can be explained with one word: DOCTOR, LAWYER… (those are probably the fields I would’ve chosen)…instead of earning a bachelor’s degree in Psychology which does not make me a Psychologist) and a master’s in Literature which doesn’t make me…well, you get the point. I should’ve pursued either a doctorate in Psychology or Law, I think I would’ve been really good in either field! I encourage young people to do what they love, and I love fields that make you what you study: what is a person that earns a 4-year degree in engineering? An ENGINEER!
LTM: What do you think some of the best career choices are for young Latinas
Patsy Sanchez: I prefer to encourage young people, male and female, to pursue their passion. We’ve all heard it, ‘if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life’. Look for a field of study, a career that aligns with your skill set, abilities, strengths but more importantly, your heart and soul. It is a long life, if we are lucky, choose something that allows you to thrive and fulfills you!
LTM: Tell us about what kind of projects you currently have going on
Patsy Sanchez: Besides several books? I am working on my memoirs as a little Cuban girl who was part of the largest Cuban massive exodus of our time… a book of poetry written in Spanish full of personal confessions and stories about love and pain and a book about my brush with cancer.
LTM: What can we expect to see from you in the future
Patsy Sanchez: Hopefully to add the word ‘published author’ to my name! I’d like to do more motivational speaking engagements, whether it is sharing my ‘college knowledge’ or hopefully inspiring others to live richer more thankful lives.
LTM: What is your comida favorita
Patsy Sanchez: Ay Dios Mio! I’m trying to make ‘lifestyle’ changes to my diet! Why do you ask me that? Cuban food, of course, and Colombian, Spanish, Peruvian, Lebanese, Mexican, Indian, Japanese, Thai, ….I like them all!
LTM: What famous person do you most identify with and why
Patsy Sanchez: Famous? It would be a hodgepodge of people….President Ronald Reagan for his strong stance on freedom), Jose Marti (for his love of country); Martin Luther King (his fight for civil justice); Winston Churchill (his perseverance and leadership during World War II against the Nazis); Pope John Paull II (commitment to promote his faith and freedom for mankind); Condeleezza Rice (as a trailblazer and leader in our nation); Nikki Haley (for her strong stance on freedom and human rights around the world). Mayor Pam Iorio (for leading the way in creating a more prosperous city of Tampa for all of us); Former Governor Bob Martinez ( his vision to create a link between the government and Latinos in our city of Tampa).
LTM: What did I miss? Tell me something you want us to know!
Patsy Sanchez: In January of 2014, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I immediately turned my diagnoses into an opportunity to help other women dealing with breast cancer, caregivers, and people, in general, to focus on the positives in their lives. I created a blog to share my experiences titled: Healing, Love, and Living: My Cancer Story which chronicles my journey. I modeled scarfs and hats at Moffitt Cancer Center in an effort to help women regain their sense of femininity and self-confidence. I sought out media partners like BayNews 9 to document my healing journey and create a series both in English and Spanish with the purpose of inspiring other women dealing with cancer, and people in general, to live more thankful lives.
Having escaped a communist country as a child, humans rights violations, freedom, and democracy are important causes to me. I am a community activist and very engaged in creating awareness about the atrocities of communism. I have organized many community demonstrations to bring attention to Cuban dissidents and pro/ freedom initiatives on the island, hoping to bring democracy and plurality to the Cuban people.