A meningitis outbreak in their underprivileged neighborhood left Sylvia Acevedo’s family forever altered. As she struggled in the aftermath of loss, young Sylvia’s life transformed when she joined the Brownies. The Girl Scouts taught her how to take control of her world and nourished her love of numbers and science.
With new confidence, Sylvia navigated shifting cultural expectations at school and at home, forging her own trail to become one of the first Latinx to graduate with a master's in engineering from Stanford University and going on to become a rocket scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Simultaneously available in Spanish!
About the Author
CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA, Sylvia Acevedo has been an engineer, rocket scientist, award-winning entrepreneur, businesswoman, and commissioner on the White House Initiative for Education Excellence for Hispanics. Raised in Las Cruces, New Mexico, she divides her time between New York City and California. sylviaacevedo.org
Sylvia Acevedo is a rocket scientist and award-winning entrepreneur who served on the White House Commission for Educational Excellence for Hispanics and is currently the CEO of the Girl Scouts of the US. Visit her online at sylviaacevedo.org and on Twitter @SylviaAcevedo.
Read an Excerpt
Born in the Shadow of Mount Rushmore
My Papá wasn’t much for telling stories. He liked facts and information. If you asked him about the Mexican Revolution or about the freezing point of water, he’d go on all day, sounding grown-up and important, like the men who read the news on television. Mami was the storyteller in our family—as long as the subject was people. I thought she must know everybody in the world—who their family was, where they came from, and what they did all day.
Still, my father had one story that I always loved to hear. “Papá, tell me about the hospital!” I’d beg him. Sometimes it took a few tries, but he’d finally look up from his book.
“The hospital,” he’d repeat, his voice thoughtful. “I drove by it every day, but I’d never gone inside. It was not far from Ellsworth Air Force Base, where we lived when I was stationed in South Dakota, less than an hour from Mount Rushmore.”
He would always start by telling me about his time in the army. Papá was proud of his army service, so part of the story was about how he’d entered the army after the Korean War as a lieutenant in the Air Defense Artillery.
“Your brother, Mario, was already two years old,” Papá would continue, finally getting to the important part of the story. “Once we knew the new baby was about to be born, I brought Mami to the hospital. We all went inside, even Mario.
“The nurse told me Mami would need some time and I should come back later. So I went home to the base where we lived and left Mario with a neighbor. When I got back to the hospital, they said it would be a while before I could see your mother.”
In those days, fathers stayed in a waiting room while their babies were being born, and new babies were usually brought to the nursery, not kept with their mothers. It was a long time before a nurse came out to tell Papá that Mami was fine, but she was asleep. The nurse said Papá could see his baby.
When he got to the nursery, Papá looked through a big window and saw rows of metal cribs with clear plastic sides, each crib just big enough for one tiny infant. Some of the babies had blond hair, and some had brown hair or no hair at all. Nearly all of them had fair skin. Only one baby had very dark hair.
“That was me!” I’d say. “I wasn’t even one day old.” I knew Papá had had no trouble picking me out in the nursery because I looked like him, even though he was a grown man in an army uniform and I was a little baby wrapped in a white blanket. He knew right away I was his. And I was sure that I knew right away that he was my Papá.
Papá would nod at that point in the story, and sometimes he’d even smile. I’d wait for him to say something else, but usually his nose would go right back into his book.
I was always excited to hear this story, but over the years, I came to understand more about what living in South Dakota had been like for Mami. Papá’s family was from Mexico, but he had grown up in Texas. He had gotten all of his schooling, including college, in the United States, and he spoke English well. After graduation, he was fulfilling his army ROTC commitment as an officer stationed in South Dakota, and he went off to work every day at the missile battalion protecting Ellsworth Air Force Base.
But Mami had grown up in Parral, Mexico, in the state of Chihuahua, and didn’t understand a word of English. The neighbors gave her baby clothes and thick winter coats for the brutal South Dakota winters, but they didn’t speak Spanish. Papá was often away overnight, and she was alone with two small children.
I remember Mami singing a song about Marranito, a little pig, while counting our fingers and toes. Mario and I loved having her undivided attention, and she loved playing with us and making us laugh. But Mami had no adults to talk with except Papá.
Even the landscape was not what Mami was used to: tree-covered hills and rolling plains instead of a desert sprinkled with cacti and spiky plants. The summers were very hot, with black flies everywhere, and the winters were freezing cold. Only the stars were the same as she remembered from home.
Mami never liked to complain, but she must have been lonely. She was overjoyed when Papá’s tour of duty was up after two years and he was discharged from the army. Now we were free to move to a new home.
Mami and Papá packed up their beige 1955 Ford and drove one thousand miles south to Las Cruces, New Mexico, where we moved in with Tía Alma, Papá’s older sister, and her family, the Barbas: Uncle Sam Barba and my cousins Debbie, Cathy, and Sammy. I don’t know why we used the Spanish “tía” for Tía Alma but the Anglo “uncle” for Uncle Sam. That’s just the way it was. My father’s mother, Abuelita Juanita, lived with the Barbas too. When we moved in, Mario was four years old and I was just two.
From the first day, I remember the babble of voices, the adults speaking Spanish, a swirl of words and song and argument and stories and laughter, with my mother somehow always at the center. My cousins spoke a mix of English and Spanish, but Mario and I spoke only Spanish at that time.
I remember eating breakfast in the family room, sitting at the table with Mario and my cousins, each of us with our small glass of juice and bowl of cereal. Mario and I slept in this room too, because all of the bedrooms were full.
The house was crowded, but I didn’t mind, because there was always someone to play with. Every day after breakfast, we’d tumble outside and chase one another through the yard and the back alley, discovering the world. I remember running to catch up with Mario and my older cousins, running for the sheer joy of speed and the wind on my face.
For my father, who grew up with one much older sister, the noise of five small children was a trial. He loved us, but he would often spend his afternoons at the library instead of playing with us or helping my mother around the house.
Once he found work, rather than wearing his army uniform, Papá dressed like the other men in our new neighborhood, donning dress slacks and a button-down shirt and tie for his job at New Mexico State University, where he was a chemist in the physical science laboratories. My aunt, uncle, and grandmother went to work too. My aunt was a schoolteacher, and my uncle worked at White Sands Missile Range. My grandmother had a job at a clothing store. My mother was left to keep house and look after all the children. It was a lot of responsibility for her.
Mami had grown up poor, with thirteen brothers and sisters. Her school days ended after the sixth grade, but she’d wanted more education. She took a typing class and made her way north to the border city of Juárez, Mexico, when she was sixteen, hoping to work as a secretary. She didn’t find a job in Juárez, but she would regularly cross the pedestrian bridge to El Paso, in Texas, where she worked cleaning homes.
Mami made many friends in El Paso. She was only nineteen when she met Papá. By the time they moved to Las Cruces, they had been married for almost five years. Mami was twenty-four and Papá was twenty-six.
My aunt and uncle’s house was small, but it had soft carpets, and a baby grand piano shoehorned into the living room. With her hardscrabble background, my mother thought my aunt, uncle, and grandmother put on aristocratic airs. She felt they looked down on her for having grown up in poverty. Papá was a college graduate, and his sister, Tía Alma, was too. Mami knew his family would have preferred that he’d married someone with more education than she had.
Papá would have been content to stay at his sister’s house, as crowded as it was, but Mami wanted her own home. In the afternoons, when my grandmother returned from her job, my mother would take me for walks and look for signs that said CASA PARA RENTAR, meaning a house was for rent.
It wasn’t long before my mother found a new house for us, and we moved out of my aunt and uncle’s home. Now we lived less than a mile away, on Solano Street, a busy thoroughfare next to an arroyo, a steep, dry gully that flooded after the heavy summer rains.
Our new house was made of cinder blocks and painted green on the outside. It was tiny, with barely enough room for the four of us and Manchas, our dog. There were two small bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen with just enough space for a table, and a living room with a foldout couch that took up the entire room when it was open. The bedroom Mario and I shared had a closet, two small beds, and a round hooked rug where we played with our toys. We liked to go outside and play in the arroyo, where there was room to run around.
Our new next-door neighbor raised chickens, and she sold Mami fresh eggs. Every Sunday my father would buy a chicken from her, and she’d slaughter it so Mami could cook it for dinner after church. Friends from church gave us some furniture, and Mami shopped around for more, using layaway plans at stores since we didn’t have a credit card.
My mother was very thrifty. She budgeted carefully to be able to buy a green Formica kitchen table and chairs, as well as our other new furniture.
Soon after we moved in, the living room became even more crowded, because my mother’s younger sister, Tía Angélica, arrived from Mexico to stay with us. She had come to help out because Mami was going to have a baby.
Tía Angélica was young and pretty, with hair she swept up into a ponytail that swung around when she turned her head. She adored my mother, and Mami was overjoyed to have her little sister living with us. They talked and laughed and sang all day long.
Tía Angélica didn’t want to be a burden on our family. She helped Mami and quickly found work cleaning Tía Alma’s house, as well as other people’s homes. She loved Mario and me, and she praised us, making us feel special and very smart. She’d take us to the toy store and buy us something with her earnings or treat us to a showing at the Mexican movie theater, where an actor named Cantinflas would make us laugh and laugh.
At night, Tía Angélica slept on the couch. There was a crib squeezed between the sofa and the coffee table, and Tía Angélica and Mami unpacked Mario’s and my old baby clothes while I watched, fascinated.
I was four years old now, and while I didn’t much care for dolls—I had one, named Óscar, a Christmas present from my grandmother—I wanted to see the little brother or sister whose clothes were no bigger than Óscar’s. Even though I had seen pictures of me as a baby, I had trouble imagining another baby living in our house. Would it cry all day? What would it be like to have a new brother or a sister? What would its name be? Most important, would the new baby be a boy, like Mario, or a girl, like me? I thought Papá would probably prefer another boy, but I didn’t want to ask him. Mami, smiling, refused to say which kind of baby she’d like best. We would just have to wait and see.
One morning, my mother wasn’t in the kitchen. Instead, Tía Angélica was singing to the radio while she poured my orange juice. Smiling at Mario and me, she told us we had a new baby sister named Laura. Mami and Laura would be in the hospital for a few days, and Tía Angélica would take care of us.
Every day while Mami was gone, Tía Angélica would take Mario and me downtown to Woolworths so we could buy a toy, or she would play games with us, or sometimes she would just sit in the sun, painting her fingernails pink, while we ran in the arroyo.
I soon came to love Tía Angélica, but even so, it seemed like a long time before Mami and Papá brought Laura home. On the day my baby sister came home from the hospital, Mario and I crowded into the living room to see her. Manchas was also very curious. As we took turns holding Laura, he sniffed her all over. I took a couple of sniffs too. She smelled a little like sour milk, I decided. She had dark hair, just like I did, but hers was curly, and she gazed at us with dark, curious eyes.
We all loved Laura, but Manchas became my sister’s protector. At night, he would circle her crib several times before dropping down in front of it and closing his eyes. That way, he could guard the crib even while he was asleep.
Not long after Laura was born, my father came home early one day and said he’d been fired. He’d been having trouble at his job, and now New Mexico State University didn’t want him to work for them anymore. At the time, I didn’t know what this meant, but when I was older, I came to understand that my father was fired because he hadn’t taken his job seriously enough. He would get to work late, or leave early, or not listen when his bosses told him what to do, so he’d make mistakes. He didn’t pay attention to details. In fact, he had been sloppy, which was dangerous since he worked with chemicals.
In our tiny home with three young children, it was a tense time, though I didn’t know why. I thought Papá might stay home now and play with us. Instead, he spent his days at the library and much of the weekends at his sister’s house.
Soon Tía Alma’s husband, Uncle Sam, helped my father get an interview at White Sands Missile Range. To everyone’s relief, Papá was offered a new job there as an analytical chemist. Now he got up early to take the bus to work. He left before Mario and I were awake.
At age twenty-eight, being fired had made my father realize that he had to take responsibility for his family. He had a wife and three children who depended on him. He vowed that he would take this new job seriously. He got to the laboratory on time and worked hard. He took pride in his new position.
Papá’s job at the missile range paid better than his old job, so my mother started looking for another house for us to rent, one not located on a busy street, with enough space for our family to grow.
Mami had always warned us about cars, which was why we played in the arroyo and not in the street, but unfortunately, Manchas must not have been listening. Shortly after Laura was born, Manchas wandered onto the busy street and was hit by a car. Mario and I cried and cried, but there was nothing anyone could do, and Papá and Uncle Sam buried him in the desert.
Soon after that, Mami told us she’d found a house in another part of town, on Griggs Street, which wasn’t even paved. It was close enough that we could still walk to our church and see our friends in the old neighborhood. Our new home had three bedrooms and a large backyard, with several trees big enough to climb.
Mami felt at home on Griggs Street. From the moment we’d moved to New Mexico from South Dakota two years ago, she’d been happy to be back in a place where people spoke Spanish. Like us, most of our neighbors had friends and relatives who lived in Mexico. Now, in our third home in Las Cruces, she had a house roomy enough for our growing family. She thought we could stay there for a long time.
In our new home, Mario had his own bedroom, and I shared a room with Laura. The weather was nearly always sunny, and people spilled out of their houses into the yards and the park down the street. My mother always had food ready for visitors, and she quickly made many friends.
Mario and I made friends too. There were children everywhere. If you wanted to find someone to play with, you just had to go outside.
After we moved to Griggs Street, my father bought a car to replace our old Ford, a used Rambler. We loved our new car, which was roomy and had a back seat that folded down. My father liked being able to drive to the missile range’s checkpoint. There he would park and catch a bus to his job, another twenty-six miles away on the other side of the Organ Mountains. Driving over the mountain pass would have put a strain on the engine, and my father didn’t want to wear it out. Besides, he liked reading the El Paso Times on the morning bus ride, though he read other newspapers in the library. He didn’t think much of the local Las Cruces Sun-News.
My mother had a beautiful voice, and she sang when she was happy. After we moved to Griggs Street, I would wake up in the morning to hear her singing along to the radio. There were no Spanish language stations in Las Cruces at this time, so she listened to the Spanish radio stations from nearby Juárez, Mexico. I loved it when her favorite songs, such as “Qué rico el mambo” or “Cielito lindo,” came on. She would twirl Mario or me to the peppy music until we were dizzy, then scoop up baby Laura in her arms and dance around the kitchen, singing with joy about the rich mambo dance or someone she loved.
Mami had an impish sense of humor, and she loved to play pranks. I remember she would go out on the roof to call for Mario or me when we were playing in the yard. We’d hear her voice, and before we realized where she was, she’d jump right down beside us, startling us. She’d laugh, so we’d know we weren’t in any trouble, and before we knew it, we’d be laughing too.
Las Cruces was a very small town when we moved there. Most of the streets were unpaved. Vendors sold fruit and vegetables off horse- or mule-drawn carts, and stray dogs roamed free. When you wanted to make a telephone call, you would pick up the receiver and dial only four numbers to reach anyone. And when you had to mail a letter, you just wrote the family’s name and street address on the envelope. You didn’t need to bother with the city name or Zip Code if they lived in Las Cruces.
To me, the days were like magic. My mother tried to make plans, but she was always hospitable when visitors appeared without warning and changed the shape of our day. On the weekends, friends and family would come over, and we would enjoy long afternoons that stretched into evenings of fun and food. Left to himself, my father would have passed the weekends reading, but he knew it was important to put down his book and spend time with our family and visitors.
Papá was stricter than Mami was. When we misbehaved, Papá would sometimes spank us. I would cry loudly, even when I knew I’d been wrong or naughty. Papá was mean, I thought, even though I knew I loved him. But all the kids in our neighborhood got spanked sometimes.
Mami didn’t spank us, though. Instead, if two of us were fighting, she’d lock us in the bathroom together, telling us not to come out until we were friends again. Mami knew we’d resolve our differences just to get out of that tiny room.
Before long, I thought my mother must know every family in our neighborhood. She knew who needed help, whether it was a meal or baby-sitting or a trip to the store. She knew who was having a baby and needed a crib, and whose baby was sleeping in a bed now, so the family had a crib they could spare. Mami loved to cook for visitors. And I loved our close-knit community, where every day seemed to bring us friends and get-togethers.
I especially loved birthday parties, where we all took turns swinging a heavy stick at the piñata hanging from a tree in the park or in someone’s yard. When one of the children finally succeeded in breaking open the piñata, we’d all swarm around to gather the candy that rained onto the ground. After the piñata, we’d have colorful birthday cake and ice cream, and my mother would serve her special punch: Kool-Aid mixed with 7-Up soda and slices of orange. Before everyone left, Mami would lead the guests in “Las mañanitas,” the Mexican birthday song, singing the verses as everyone else joined in on the chorus. Except for Christmas, I didn’t think anything could be better than a birthday party.
Now that he had a reliable car, my father would drive to El Paso, forty-five miles away, to visit his father, Abuelito Mario. My father’s parents had divorced when he was eight years old, and my grandfather had started another family. My father dutifully visited him every two weeks. He’d take his mother, Abuelita Juanita, with him and drop her at her sister’s house before visiting my grandfather.
El Paso was considered a big city compared to Las Cruces. A trip there was a treat for our whole family. We would cross the Mexican border into Juárez to shop for items that were priced lower in Mexico or not available in the United States. We would look in the big department stores in El Paso, like the Popular, which my mother loved for its fashionable clothing. Then we would sometimes visit Abuelito Mario before picking up my grandmother at her sister’s home. I loved our trips to the big city, but usually Papá went to El Paso with only his mother. When I was little, this didn’t bother me. Papá was gone most of the time, and I didn’t really understand the difference between his being at work and visiting his father. But when I was a little older, I too wanted to see my grandfather.
I remember one particular Saturday when Papá told us we would all be coming with him to El Paso. Mami made sure we were wearing our best clothes, and I thought she looked beautiful in a flowered dress she usually saved for church. We piled into the car for the hour-long drive.
On this visit, my grandmother didn’t come. We went shopping and then stopped by Abuelito Mario’s house to visit. But my grandfather and his family weren’t there, so we sat down on the front steps to wait.
After a little while, my mother suggested that we leave, since it was getting late. My father said no. He said he always visited his father every other Saturday afternoon, so Abuelito Mario was expecting him and would surely arrive any minute.
My mother could see that this visit was important to my father, and we ended up waiting several hours for my grandfather to show up. When Mario and I grew restless and began to complain, my mother let us explore the neighborhood, telling us not to go too far. We went around the block several times, investigating the houses, a church, and a small corner store. Finally, tired, we joined my parents and Laura on the front steps of my grandfather’s house, and as the shadows began to lengthen, Abuelito Mario, his wife, and their daughters finally arrived.
By now, Mario and I were famished.
If they had been visiting us, my mother would have served them an entire meal without even asking if they were hungry. But my abuelito and his wife didn’t seem all that interested in seeing us. We sat around awkwardly while Papá and his father talked. Even though we hadn’t eaten since breakfast, we children had to content ourselves with some cookies and a shared soda, and that was only after Mami asked.
I was surprised that my grandfather’s family seemed to think we were a bother. When we visited with my cousins in Las Cruces or in Mexico, all of us would run around outside and play. But my grandfather’s daughters, who were my father’s stepsisters, were older than we were and didn’t want to play with us.
On the drive home, my father kept talking about the visit with his wonderful father, and my mother didn’t say much at all, which was unlike her. It was as if Papá were describing an entirely different visit than the one we had just experienced.
My mother was quiet on the car ride home, which was unlike her. Normally after a get-together, she would have discussed the people we had just spent time with and the things we had done that day. This time, she was being very kind and gentle with my father, not disagreeing with him, even though it was clear to me that my grandfather had not been excited to see us. I remember her saying “Sí, sí, sí,” agreeing when my father talked about how smart and wonderful my grandfather was.
I thought my father wanted attention from my grandfather, that he was acting the way Mario and I did when we would say “Papá, Papá, Papá,” getting louder until he looked up from his book. That was not how Papá normally acted, and he certainly was not like that with his mother, my abuelita Juanita.
We didn’t return as a family to visit my grandfather for many years. Although my father continued to speak reverently about his father, we didn’t stop at Abuelito Mario’s house when we went to El Paso to go shopping. As a result, I didn’t really get to know my father’s stepsisters. I was very curious about them, but my father rarely answered my questions.
Papá still visited his father regularly, but we never asked to go with him. He always went without us, just as he’d done in the past. After that unwelcoming visit, Mami, Mario, Laura, and I stayed home.