Maritza Rovira-Forino's voice filled with emotion.
As she read notes of gratitude from students who have received scholarships from the Mayor's Hispanic Advisory Council, you could tell her role as the council's chairwoman was about more than connecting with other Hispanics.
Rovira-Forino, 61, shared the students' sentiments before 450 people at the council's annual Latinos Unidos luncheon Wednesday, and she couldn't hide her pride.
Certainly, the fact the council's fundraising efforts have netted nearly $1 million inspired her.
Yes, Rovira-Forino believes in helping organizations that promote education, as evidenced by her involvement in the Florida Math and Science Initiative, the Florida College Access Network and the University of South Florida Latin Advisory Council.
However, as Rovira-Forino explained to Times staff writer Ernest Hooper, she gets emotional about the scholarships because she knows first-hand how such help can change a family's fortune.
Why did you get so emotional reading the letters of gratitude?
It's emotional for me because I'm a mother of four. I know how difficult it was when I was raising my children as a single mom to be able to give them a better life. To give them a better life is the key. In my journey in raising them — I was very blessed to meet my husband (Don) — but a lot of families have the best and brightest and sometimes they suffer. They think they aren't going to be able to fulfill that need for them to attend college. As volunteers of this community, the council responds to that need of our community. With the help of sponsors, the committee and the volunteers are able to make a difference. That's why I get emotional. I know what it takes. I've been there. It's difficult to say no to a child.
How are your kids today?
They're beautiful. They're beautiful. They all got their college degrees. My oldest son (Jorge) has a degree from Syracuse in IT. My daughter (Michelle) has a master's in educational leadership. She's a terrific vice principal in Jacksonville and she has an undergrad degree from Rollins and a masters from the University of North Florida. My other daughter (Viviana) has a degree from the Art Institute of Chicago and she's a jewelry designer. My youngest son (Juan) has a business degree and a building construction degree from the University of Florida.
How challenging was it to come here from Puerto Rico as a single mom?
It was very, very challenging. It was the first time I left my country — I had traveled all over as a tourist — but it's different when you come to live some place with four little children. You don't know the laws of the land. It's challenging to find the right schools, the programs they offer. Michelle and Juan were bilingual, but Jorge and Viviana were not. On top of that, they don't tell you all the options. You have to find them yourself. We went through that process of trial and error and asking the right questions. We went through all of that successfully and we were blessed we found programs like Upward Bound. There's so many programs and I was able to not only get my children involved but, for every program I found, I brought other families with me so they could benefit. As I learned, I taught. If we all did that, this community would be so much better.
It sounds like you have a real passion for helping the community.
I have, of course, my passion is for Latinos but I embrace the fact that all minorities need to unite. I've been blessed to represent all minorities — African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics — throughout my professional career. I've been on minority business councils since I came to Florida. Anything that is diversity driven, that benefits all minorities, I'm for because we're all partners in making this a better country. My brothers and sisters are all the people in minority communities.
Where is the Hispanic community in terms of living Latinos Unidos?
I think we could do much more, but we have made a difference in programs like this one. The perception of the minority community is changing. When we translate that to the mainstream on events like the Latinos Unidos luncheon, you see the quality and expertise and educational level of all the people attending. You look at the room, we had people from all over. That's the beauty of Latinos Unidos, it's really community united. It's from every economic level. It's an inclusive event. That's beautiful.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.